Why don’t we care about the lockout? It seems like we should, right? Wrong. There are just so many reasons why we shouldn’t. And I’m here to give you all of them.
In no particular order, here we go.
There are no heroes
Back in 1998, when the NBA endured their most recent lockout, the league was heavily populated by big-name attractions. Veterans like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, and John Stockton were entering the twilights of their careers; budding stars like Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Garnett were on the rise; and future Hall of Famers like Jason Kidd, Shaquille O’Neal, and Vin Baker were in their respective primes. Just kidding about Baker. The only prime he enjoyed was at the nearest Ruth’s Chris.
Then, of course, there was Michael Jordan. Though Jordan was just settling into his second retirement, fans were still reminiscing about his exploits in the ’98 NBA Finals (including the now-infamous Bryon Russell step-back, push-off, whatever you want to call it). While MJ was technically out of basketball, his performance the season prior — and, naturally, throughout his career — left an indelible mark on the game that had fans longing for a product they simply could not live without.
Fast forward to 2011 and the landscape has changed entirely.
Instead of superstars, the present-day version of the NBA is saturated by a number of good-not-great talents. Even the most elite names are only halfheartedly received by hoop aficianados. The LeBron Jameses, Carmelo Anthonys, and Blake Griffins of the world battle public opinion to an undying degree and similarly evoke unwarranted — and, perhaps, unfair — comparisons to the generation of ballers that came before them.
Worse yet, where Jordan was once the undeniable figurehead of an entire regime of ball, there is no Gladys Knight in the modern era to lead a league full of Pips. The “LeBron versus Kobe” debate rages incessantly because neither party possesses enough of Jordan’s qualities to warrant being christened the next Greatest of All-Time. Kobe has the championship rings, but happens to be a prick. LeBron has the raw talent, but lacks a trophy and exudes forced charisma.
Like Bonnie Tyler, the league needs a hero. Problem is, there are none to be found.
Fans lack sympathy
Forget the millionaires-versus-billionaires argument we always hear about when players square off against owners. That very point was brought up in conjunction with the recent NFL lockout, but proved inconsequential. Why? Because fans showed enough sympathy towards the players to force the owners into making concessions to start the season on time. So you can say you didn’t take sides, but the vast majority of people out there did, and they chose to side with the millionaires. You might be asking yourself why fans haven’t done the same for NBA players. Good question. There are three main reasons why not.
One, NBA owners have been dishing out ridiculous salaries to mediocre employees for far too long. In the NFL, a single piss-poor performance can have even the priciest of veterans looking for a new job. In the NBA? Not so much. Guaranteed, long-term contracts to goofy-ass bastards like Mehmet Okur (sorry to throw you under the bus like that, Mehmet) have soured the average joe in “these rough economic times,” to abuse an emerging cliche. No middle-class American wants to shell out primo dinero to watch a wealthy European stiff try to overcome his own inherent lack of athleticism. Nothing about that is fun or appealing.
Two, unlike their NFL brethren, NBA players have no “poster cause” upon which to grandstand. What is a poster cause, you ask? Well, for NFL players, it happened to be the plight of their ancestors, retirees who had incurred all sorts of physical maladies — or even perished — due to injuries sustained during their playing careers. Throughout their lockout, NFL players could trumpet this cause (and in turn promote safety and long-term care) as the foundation for their discontent. And frankly, it would take a heartless villain to remain apathetic to that. What can current NBA players cite to induce a tear or two? Scottie Pippen’s bankruptcy? Allen Iverson’s bankruptcy? Antoine Walker’s bankruptcy? Yeah, we just feel so, so bad for those guys.
Three, there’s the ever-present obvious: these guys have everything we don’t. They have the job we want, the skill we want, the cash flow we want, and perhaps most importantly, the girls we want. Nothing has changed in this regard since professional sports became big business. It’s always looming out there and will always loom out there. Your average fan rarely feels bad for the well-off jock because of human nature, otherwise known as envy. It might seem like an unfair shake for the athlete, but at least he has high-class whores and replenishable bottles of Cristal to ease the pain.
A Dark Fantasy
No, we’re not talking Kanye West. We’re talking the power of fantasy sports, something basketball simply does not have. While football — and to a lesser degree, baseball — can draw in the casual fan with rotisserie points and statistical categories, basketball cannot.
When football suspended its operations over the summer, fans were panicking not because they wouldn’t get to see the hometown eleven take the field, but because social happy hours spent on fantasy drafts with the guys were being threatened. Why does football possess such a passionate television viewership? It’s not the product on the field that matters; it’s the name on the stat sheet. Millions of Americans cite Adrian Peterson as their favorite NFL player not due to their loyalty towards the Minnesota Vikings, but rather teams of their own creation. That’s the power of fantasy.
Have you ever participated in a fantasy basketball league? It’s the most boring thing on the planet. Which is probably why no one cares to play it. If you’re the NBA, you might think you’ve peeked the scene; you haven’t.
You can get it if you really want
And you don’t even need to try, try, try that hard.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that a litany of NBA players are barnstorming across the country, playing in showcase games in what are essentially glorified rec leagues. These traveling trunk shows have become so popular that ESPN has started broadcasting highlights from select contests on SportsCenter. While it’s great to see professionals playing for the love of the game, the product is being devalued by the pro bono handouts being given away.
Here’s the thing. If you’re like me, you could care less about the NBA. Why? The college game offers a purer rendition of basketball, while also flaunting unbridled passion from its players. The appeal of the NBA is represented in flash, pizzazz, acrobatics, and can-you-believe-that moments. A fan of the pro game can get all of that by watching Kevin Durant light up Rucker Park for 66 points, or by paying witness to a team led by LeBron James battle a squad led by Carmelo Anthony in a sizable arena.
Fact is, we’ve never seen anything like this before. The advent of the internet (go to YouTube, search “Kevin Durant,” and look at the first autofill option) has allowed these currently-unemployed hoopers to air their highlights all over the place, something that wasn’t nearly as possible back in 1998. Likewise, you’d never catch football or baseball players running exhibition pickup games during a strike or lockout. Not because they lack the passion, but simply because it’s far too difficult to organize such an event with either of those sports.
As long as NBA players keep hooping for free, owners can sit back, twiddle their thumbs, and wait for the players to fold. Fans are still getting what they want — albeit in a modified platform — at zero cost. If Costco has taught us anything, it’s that absolutely no one will protest a free sample.
A nomadic empire
Here in Seattle, we know it all too well. The pain of losing our beloved Supersonics hasn’t healed and likely never will. That said, we’re not alone. Other cities across this continent can reciprocate our feelings. Charlotte’s been through it recently. Vancouver has, too. Nets supporters will see their team relocate from Newark to Brooklyn whenever play resumes, and the Sacramento faithful managed to squeeze one more year out of their Kings before a possible relocation to Anaheim. All in all, the constant migration has left fans from coast to coast feeling scorned by a league that now employs a Relocation Committee (headed up by our dearest Clay Bennett) to deal with all the movement.
While baseball and football have encountered little in the way of seismic shift over the last few decades, basketball has struggled mightily to grasp the concept of geographic loyalty. Like a gold-digging jersey chaser, it’s all about money and always on to the next best thing with the NBA. That’s no recipe for success, and has subsequently kept enough big-ticket regional markets rooting for this lockout to never end.
An evil emperor
Sitting atop the NBA’s steaming pile of crap business model is none other than David Joel Stern, commissioner of the Association since 1984. Over the course of his twenty-seven year administration, the league has experienced its ups and downs, with perhaps no down as lowly as this one. It hasn’t been all bad for Stern, though. During his tenure, the NBA has enjoyed its most profitable and successful years. Unfortunately, those successes have inflated Stern’s ego to the point where he’s currently incapable of making rational decisions for the good of his product.
In his glory years, the 69-year-old attorney was a deferent leader content taking a back seat to the drivers (Jordan, et al) of his billion-dollar vehicle. As more and more of those spotlight-dwellers began to ride off into the sunset, however, Stern assumed greater control over the image of his league.
These days, the face of the NBA isn’t throwing down tomahawks or knocking down jumpers. The face of the NBA, as it turns out, is a senior citizen with a degree from Columbia Law School. And that’s not a good thing.
As his role has changed, so has David Stern — and not for the better. What Stern has devolved into is a pompous, senile, media-hungry, out-of-touch dictator who cares little about his employees and demands total subordination from everyone beneath him. He tells his ball players what to wear and how to behave, then empowers his minions, in the form of officials and fine-distributors, to punish anyone who refuses to conform. No one says players have to get along with their commissioner, but there certainly wasn’t this much friction when things were going well for the league back in the Roaring Nineties.
At the same time, Stern has done little to engage the people paying his salary: the fans. Shuffling teams from city to city is one thing, but the constant maneuvering of franchises stems from a larger issue: arenas. Stern has demanded that arena owners (in many cases, those venue proprietors are municipal governments) kowtow to his plan for the bigger, larger, and more luxurious. Again, to refer back to a bad cliche, this is much easier said than done in “these rough economic times.” Civic organizations cannot afford to shell out tax dollars to pay for multi-million dollar projects like the ones Stern is asking for. And furthermore, why should they? NBA teams aren’t making money like they used to. It’s a bad product. And that falls directly at the feet of Stern, who’s overseeing this entire operation.
Additionally, what kind of message does it send to Joe the Fan when the Sheriff of Nottingham comes collecting taxes from the already-stretched people of Sherwood Forest? Stern wants your money, but he intends to spend it on the wealthy. His vision of an arena includes dozens upon dozens of suites and skyboxes, where wealthy businessmen can congregate and drop change into his waiting pocket. Families? They’re irrelevant. Kids? They don’t matter. Stern is targeting the rich and poaching from the middle-class. If you happen to buy into his plan and shell out a week’s salary to take in a game with your children, all the more power to the NBA’s Napoleon.
Since the lockout began over the summer, Stern hasn’t done anything to better his image with the American public. Instead of working to resolve the issues between two distant parties, the angry little man has done just the opposite, spouting off to the media and seemingly threatening the players to concede to the owners’ stipulations. To borrow from Nike, Stern might as well be touting a “Just Do It…Or Else” slogan on his t-shirt each day.
We don’t really know who David Stern is as a person, but in recent years he’s gone from an enigma we didn’t care all that much about to a guy who comes across as a total jerk. Among all the other problems facing the National Basketball Association right now, Stern is irrefutably the most glaring. Until his monarchy collapses, labor disputes — and in turn, fan apathy — will continue to reign supreme.