NBA Fails to Open and the Public Yawns

Who cares?

November 1 was supposed to be the first regular season game of the National Boring Association, sorry--National Basketball Association. The impasse between the filthy rich players and the even filthier, even richer owners has delayed this. Aside from vendors, advertisers, and a handful of service-industry workers, does anyone really care? The lack of a public hue-and-cry for the NBA contrasts greatly with the angst associated with last summer’s possible pro football cancellations. The NFL lockout was front-page stuff news; the NBA is relegated to the internal columns of the sports pages. Why? And how can we salvage the NBA?

First of all, now that the NBA finals extend until late June, it’s not like we’ve been without NBA basketball for very long. The NBA is overexposed and that’s not good news because…

The second problem with the NBA is that its product is unattractive. NBA marketers do their best to manufacture heroes, but the millionaires it seeks to promote are too flawed or too immature to play their roles. The league’s best is Kobe Bryant, who has never recovered from rape allegations leveled in 2003. That leaves LeBron James, who is overhyped, underperforms under pressure, and who made a total ass of himself in his televised decision to bolt Cleveland for Miami. In a recent poll James ranked as the sixth least-liked athlete in the United States. Guess who was number five? Yep--Kobe Bryant. You know the NBA has an image problem when you’re as likely to see past and present players on America’s Most Wanted as on ESPN. Among the lowlights (lowlifes?): twice-convicted Allen Iverson, Ponzi-schemer Tate George, jail birds Isaiah Rider, Charles Smith, Sly Williams, and Sean Banks, and gun-toter Gilbert Arenas. Oh yeah, the guy Arenas pulled a gun on is Jarvaris Crittenden, under investigation for murder. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. And the NBA Players’ Association thinks the public gives a damn what percentage of basketball revenue goes to this lot?

Athletes are seldom saints--Michael Vick is a starting NFL quarterback for heaven’s sake--but the road to redemption is to thrill audiences in the arena. This leads to the NBA’s third problem: it’s just not a very good product at present. Blame owners and management for that. They’ve gotten it in their collective heads that “athleticism” and “an NBA body” is more important than the ability to score, the possession of skills, or actually understanding the game. There are millions of kids in playgrounds and gyms across the world and the NBA can’t find more than a dozen who can knock down a 15-foot jump shot? Don’t tell me about how good the defense is these days--I’ve seen the footage of Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Gervin, Michael Jordan, and Dr. J draining shots with guys hanging on them like a Cadillac hood ornament. Don’t get me started on the lack of ball-handling ability; let’s just say that in the old days if a team trailed by ten going into the 4th quarter, the game was over.

Here’s my proposal to solve the NBA impasse. First, as anyone who has viewed the game in the past decade knows, the first 46 minutes are irrelevant. They also know that the final two minutes will take an hour to play with the constant time outs, fouls, feigned injuries, etc. So let’s forget salaries altogether. Negotiate a TV contract based on a series of one-hour broadcasts of the final two minutes of NBA contests. Let’s pretend 46 minutes have been played, start with a good modern NBA score of 73-73, and play the final two. An alternative would be to say that the first team to 80 wins--though networks would have to be prepared to extend the one-hour timeslot. Players and management split the TV revenues 40-40, with 20% going to support the underfunded high schools that supply NBA talent.

Second, create a round robin of two-minute games to determine who gets to the playoffs and finals. The entire season could be played out and filmed in about two weeks and replayed on TV according to a seasonal schedule with the first “games” aired in November and the “finals” in late April. Players would sign sworn affidavits not to reveal the outcomes in advance; anyone doing so would be barred for five years from the main revenue-enhancing outlets of NBA players: endorsing sneakers, fast food, or Gatorade.

Because the NBA season would actually be played and filmed in its entirety by late August, those athletes who wish to play entire games would be free to go elsewhere to do so. This would be additional income for them and they’d still get U.S. TV revenue money. Kobe could go to Italy and LeBron to China, where apparently people still care about pro basketball. The rest of us just want to see the circus finale, not the plumed prancing horses.

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