What an off-season, eh? The NBA morphed into a soap-opera of petty grievances, massive greed, slow-building racial tensions, and oh yeah, now everyone knows Michael Jordan is a douchebag. Let’s be honest; no one came out of the lock-out looking too good. Owners who were already hated (Sterling, Snyder, etc.) are now even more hated, and men thought clueless before (Hunter, Fisher, Kessler) are now thought properly retarded. And really, this is as it should be. The NBA wanted villains the last few years, obviously. Though it was a number of different circumstances that rendered them thus, observe the once beloved Lebron James and Dwayne Wade. Did you all notice just how hard America was pulling for the Dallas Mavericks last June? The Mavericks?!
So now the NBA has their villains. Lots of them. Greedy owners, foolish players, hell, even the narrative of the lazy fan has returned. To listen to Bill Simmons and many others tell it, sports fans didn’t really care too much about the cancelled games. To some, the Christmas day tip-off is actually preferred. Now the NBA won’t get in the way during Football’s prime time. And perhaps they are right. Perhaps a shorter season (something coaches and players have been all but begging for the last decade or so) isn’t the worst idea. Sure, the play will suffer some as the season starts — look at the god-awful defenses across the NFL in the wake of their own lock-out — but now there is immediacy, the drama is heightened, and maybe, just maybe, people want their pro ball a little more.
There’s a problem with this reasoning, however. What owners, players and sports media seem to gloss over, despite there being ample and recent evidence to the contrary, is the fragile psyche of the fan. The American sports fan is a mecurial beast; at times we’re positively amnesiac when it suits us. We forgive sexist quarterbacks, we pull for come-backs from call-girl-loving golfers and ignore mountains of evidence about our champions and their doping ways of winning. But just the same we can also invoke that chilling phrase; We will never forget this.No one forgets Pete Rose bet on baseball. No one will forget Joey Paterno covered up pedophilia at Penn St. How long did it take for Bostonians to forgive poor Bill Buckner? There’s little in the way of rhyme or reason to it, but some things pass through our collective brain like a bad fart we’d just as soon forget happened, and some things (whether great or small) just stick to our ribs like swallowed gum. (Ok, that doesn’t really happen, but I believed it did until I was at least 15, so I refuse to abandon the metaphor.)
People are disgusted with the NBA. Not just pro-ball fans, or junkies as we’re being referred to now (what does that say about the product?), but casual Joe America. When you see the situation in aggregate it paints a bleak picture. First, America’s most beloved game, the NFL, locks-out amidst the back drop of our struggling economy and the beginning of the 99% vs. the 1% movement. Whatever side you fall on in the debate, no one wants to see billionaires bickering with their millionaire employees over how to split up what can only be described as, well, a shit-load of cash.
But it’s the NFL, the golden goose of sport. And, it must be noted, the owners and players took care of business before any actual games were cancelled so the only work stoppage was during pre-season. Games started, the debate and the building anger were abated.
Until the sordid mess of the NBA spilled across the airwaves, internet and morning papers. Now we had yet another example of rich people squabbling over terms we didn’t care about like BRI and mid-level exceptions, we had smarmy lawyers making passive-aggressive threats, we had players making moves to play overseas, we had Michael Jordan being, of course, a douchebag. And the rotten feelings, stirred up by the NFL lock-out, were now back in play and more disdainful than ever. Whereas football is a sport that thrives in every section of the country, the NBA is all about its big-market cities, New York, LA, Boston, Chicago, etc. Whereas the NFL has a mix of stars racially, the NBA is a predominately African-American star league (sorry Dirk and Steve, no offense). Remember the last lock-out, back in the mid-90′s? When we came back, David Stern and co. began implementing their “make it palatable to white America” rules, like dress codes, increased fines for fighting (obviously the Artest fiasco had a lot to do with that), airbrushing of tattoos from photos, the “NBA Cares” crap… all in an effort to soothe the supposed angry white fan who might stop spending $$ on a sport growing increasingly urban. But for those who paid attention to the rhetoric and reasoning to the lock-out, we see that Stern’s patronizing boss act caused a massive divide between he and his employers, the owners, and the players, the talent that actually brought people to games and in front of their TVs. Spoiled or not, no one likes being treated the way the players were being treated in the negotiations by the obstinate owners, whose own mistakes and suicidal contracts, it must be noted, led to the financial catastrophe they found themselves in. And we, the fans, saw, heard and read all of that. We know there were no good guys in this fight. So how does America react once games start Christmas day? Will there be years of hesitancy and general malaise towards the league, as there was in the 90′s? Will fed-up fans continue to swell the attendance of NHL games, or even the MLS, which surpassed the NBA this year to become the third most attended sport in the country? Or will the lock-out be shrugged off as a whole once the dunks start happening?
I can’t attest for how the general sports world will react, whether or not the NBA continues to thrive as it did last season. I only know that I fall squarely into that so-called “junkie” role, and that no matter how foolishly anyone acted this summer and fall, I only care about seeing my Celtics hit that wonderful parquet floor, strobed with green lights and sexy dancers promising me excellent basketball to come. At least I think that’s what the dancers are doing. But I’m not the fan the NBA needs to worry about. The sort of fan I am will always be there, because we love the game and we love the league. Everything rides on the question of the fan who flips between games, sports and shows. Will they care about the NBA this year?