It's hard to ‘love this game’ now
With selfish players, disillusioned fans, NBA in bad state
When NBA observers mention the term “back in the day,” they aren’t necessarily prancing merrily down memory lane. In the 1970s especially, the league’s image was tarnished by the confluence of cocaine and money. The prevailing perception was one of overpaid athletes who didn’t care and didn’t work hard. That, plus the limited television exposure — the decisive Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals between the Lakers and Sixers was shown in L.A. on tape delay at 11:30 p.m. — combined for a less-than-dynamic product.
But the ‘80s brought Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, David Stern and Michael Jordan, giving birth to an oversized cash cow that was fed by enraptured fans not just in the U.S., but across the globe. Life was good.
Gradually, the cow became seriously ill. The NBA may not be suffering financially, given TV networks’ continued eagerness to shell out huge sums in rights fees. But the NBA’s current image is inching so perilously close to the one it had in the ‘70s that it wouldn’t be surprising if disco, pet rocks, 8-track players and The Fonz also made comebacks.
The most obvious and glaring example of a severe disconnect between fans and players occurred on Nov. 19 in Auburn Hills, Mich., during the Pacers-Pistons brawl. It became clear that fracas was the flashpoint in a conflict that had been brewing for some time. Fans have grown more disillusioned and downright angry at players; as they have become richer and more famous, players have become more aloof, more insulated and, to a certain extent, more contemptuous of the people who pay their salaries but also hurl invective with the frequency that Allen Iverson chucks outside shots.
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But that is not the NBA’s only wart. Recently Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter, in separate interviews, admitted they did not always try their hardest while playing for Orlando and Toronto, respectively. Being human, it’s understandable when somebody has a case of the blahs and doesn’t feel like working on a particular day.
In sports, however, making such a confession is taboo. The reason is simple: Fans perceive professional athletes as having dream jobs. Playing sports, getting paid millions to do so. What could be better? For one to admit he didn’t do his best in a particular game is an especially heinous transgression, and one that will haunt those players for years to come, like Scottie Pippen’s refusal to re-enter Game 3 of the ’94 Eastern Conference finals because Phil Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc to take the final shot instead of him.
The Bryant mess
Then there was the whole Kobe Bryant mess. Before the sexual assault charges were revealed, he had been one of the league’s most admirable ambassadors. He was well-spoken, respectful and law-abiding. He was also a darned good basketball player. Now, after the scandal in Colorado and the breakup of the Lakers — for which, fairly or not, he was blamed — one of the NBA’s beacons of integrity quickly transformed in the public’s eye into the embodiment of everything that is wrong with pro sports.
Latrell Sprewell wanted a contract extension in Minnesota, and earlier this season he complained loudly about not getting one. A man who makes $14 million per year explained, “I have a family to feed.” Teammate Sam Cassell also wants a new deal, although his approach has been to sulk rather than to say anything as asinine as Sprewell did. Their mutual unhappiness is perceived as at least part of the reason why a Timberwolves team that was expected to contend for the championship is instead hovering just above .500.
The Detroit Pistons, who won hearts with their inspired upset of the Lakers last year in the NBA Finals, have played like a team with no heart for much of the season. The much-admired work ethic doesn’t seem to be at work anymore.
Qyntel Woods of the Portland Trail Blazers was charged with participation in dog fighting. The Blazers did the right thing in severing ties with this cretin, but his signing by the Miami Heat only adds to the perception that NBA players are allowed to operate above the law without punishment.
This is not to say the only news in the NBA is bad. There are some uplifting stories, too, like the resurgence of the young Chicago Bulls; the magnificent play of LeBron James in Cleveland; the surprise seasons being put together by the Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics; the turnaround of the Washington Wizards, and the steady excellence of the San Antonio Spurs.
But you know how the local news works: They don’t lead with stories about Boy Scouts helping old ladies across the street. By the same token, the increasing number of negative developments tend to outweigh any admirable qualities the league possesses when perceptions are being formed.
The cycle may eventually correct itself, like it did from the ‘70s to the ‘80s. The league may yet again enjoy a period of renaissance in future years.
Right now, however, the NBA is slowly sinking into a quagmire of fan disenchantment. There are fewer titanic matchups creating high drama; if the two best teams, the Spurs and Heat, met today to decide the title, the ratings would probably set new lows. And given the current trend, another bench-clearing melee or petulant contract demand is always right around the corner.
The slogan used to be, “I Love This Game!”
Notice you don’t hear it much anymore.
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to NBCSports.com and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.