Since its apex in the 90s, the NBA has since its popularity rise to a global scale that helped propelled Basketball as one of the most popular sport in the world. Spearheaded by the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and its iconic Dream Team composed of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and many other stars, NBA Basketball took the world by storm.
From there on, it was just going up, fused with the invasion of Hip Hop culture in mainstream media, Basketball and Hip hop became a marriage to be reckoned with.
The NBA was cool, its merchandise was awesome, and Michael Jordan had just been crowned King of the empire. Jordan’s style with baggy shorts, air Jordan sneakers and shaved heads would become like a required uniform to any serious Basketball players, while kids would spend more time practicing their circus shots than their free throws. The 90s were the NBA glory days, and the NBA was proud of its product.
With increased revenues, and popularity, the league kept expanding, branching out and perfecting its successful formula. By the late 90s, a new breed of players was emerging, and the NBA was witnessing a new type of mentality. By the time the time the 21 century was unveiled, playing in the NBA was like stepping in a studio to record a Rap album. Hip Hop was the NBA’s soundtrack, and it became increasingly hard to differentiate between the music artist and the ball players. It was after all, the same culture, the same age groups, and the same type of fun. NBA players loved Hip Hop music, and Hip Hop artists enjoyed playing Basketball. Shaquille O’Neal had already released, Allen Iverson came with a style only seen so far in playgrounds, while dunks were starting to defy reality and look a lot more like video games. By that time the NBA had reached new heights, and was a prolific business with revenues that transcended the field of Basketball.
While the NBA money machine was in full force, there were also some troubling signs; there was an increasingly number of fights on court, games were becoming more aggressive, and outbursts of violence became more frequent. Now Basketball is a physical game, so one is expected to see temper flare, plus there was nothing that a fine or a suspension would solve.
As the year 2000 progressed, the NBA came into the limelight for many other reasons; on one side there was the extension of its market base propelled by the rise of China, which accelerated the momentum of the NBA desire to go global, and plan more NBA games overseas. On the other side there were the social movements that saw the rise of High school kids jumping straight to the NBA and the ever rising mixture of NBA players into popular culture. The issue became that NBA players, Hip Hop and Entertainment was bound to bring the remaining element always attached to them: Scandal.
From frequent arrests, questionable entourage, reports of improper conduct that included several traffic offenses, NBA players were getting a bad rap; granted it was not just the NBA players, but let’s stick to the subject at hand.
It didn’t take long before NBA players reputation began to be negatively portrayed by the media were many will present them as spoiled ingrate millionaires who do not value their opportunities. Players cited for DUI, drug related charges or weapon possession became somehow like a norm; there were even several cases of domestic violent disputes and sexual assault. Increasingly for many, there were no big difference between the lives of NBA athletes and the universe of gangsta rap.
There was nonetheless hope in the horizon with the arrival of High school phenom Lebron James, the one man show produced by Kobe Bryant who offered the best incarnation of Michael Jordan, and the confirmation of China as one of NBA most lucrative markets. All this however would not eliminate the decline in ratings capped by the Spurs-Cavaliers finals, and the ongoing battle between the NBA and its workforce in terms of Identity.
On November 19, 2004, a brawl erupted during the game between the Indian Pacers and The Detroit Pistons in Detroit. During the commotion, Pacers Ron Artest was hit with a cup of drink by a fan, and responded by going into the stand to discipline the culprit. The incident drew massive criticism from every side, from fans to media, to politicians, etc…The palace brawl as it is known today is still the NBA biggest black eye.
The NBA response was swift and clear; putting aside the heavy punishments to all involved in the brawl, the league was determined to redefine its product and eliminate any association with Hip Hop culture and the categorization of its players as Thugs and immature.
First came the dress code, the NBA was set on sending a message to all that playing in the NBA is first and foremost an employment opportunity, and therefore Athletes when not on the court should adopt and present themselves in a professional manner. The age limit was next, where the NBA eliminated the possibility for High school graduates to jump directly in the NBA; a move the league hoped would better prepare kids to the rigor and professionalism of the higher level.
In 2006, another brawl took place in New York during a game between the Knicks and the Nuggets; then there was the Tim Donaghy gambling scandal that ignited controversies regarding the fairness of the game.
It doesn’t matter that the NBA has put in place several rules such a video replay to increase fairness, and a team bench clarification rule to prevent the escalation of fights. The truth is that the NBA has done a very poor job in defining its product, and often either enjoys toying with the line of ambiguity, or is simply reactionary.
The recent near controversy regarding Tracy McGrady selection among the starters of the Western Squad at the 2010 all-star game in 2010 without a question caused a few sleepless nights to David Stern. Tracy McGrady has played less than 10 games in during the 2009/2010 season, has been persona non grata to his team the Houston Rockets, and yet was almost voted into the all-star game. Allen Iverson who has played a few more games than McGrady however was voted in as a starter for the East team.
There are many calls from both players and the media to reform the All-star game voting procedure because of cases such as McGrady and Iverson selection. The problem does not lie with the All-Star game voting system; the problem lies with the definition of the “All-Star game”.
The NBA needs to seriously reevaluate many of its parameters, and probably tone down its zealous desire to include or involve both the media and the fans.
Along with the bench clearing rule, the NBA has also instituted a “No tolerance rule”, which allows a referee to give a technical foul to a player who complains too hard about a call. Those who criticize the rule remind us that Basketball is a physical emotional game, and preventing players to release those emotions is unfair.
The NBA prides itself on having fans so close to the game as what defines the NBA experience, the players are accessible.
Now something got to give, if players are into that emotional, physical and high stake game is it reasonable to allow so close to them people who will curse, insult and heckle them?
On the other hand, wouldn’t be more successful to contain those emotions if they’re not accentuated by fans that have the complete freedom to raise signs and chants of provocation that far surpass the level of cheering for your own team?
The whole thing is a bad combination, if players and fans are to be this close, to ensure a great experience for all; the NBA ought to moderate both the court and the stand.
Additionally, if the NBA wants its players to act and dress properly, as well as regulate their off court offenses; the league better increase the level of protection on the court and in the arena. If the league wishes its player to seriously consider their Basketball careers as a job, then the league must push the envelope of rules on the field as well. A fight on the court should be considered an assault or violence in the workplace, and treated according to the law governing such acts. The league should be liable for event like the Brawl in the palace, as Artest could rightfully claim that it was the result of an unsafe work environment. Furthermore, shouldn’t some players feel endangered by the league allowing former convict in their workplace, after all should any be safe if that situation was in an office?
Finally, that All-Star game system is a fraud. On one side, the media complains that the fans got it wrong by voting some players into the all-Star game; yet, the media use those same selections to define a player as an “All-Star”. So tell me, what is an all-Star, someone with incredible skills, or incredible popularity? What to make of players who sign or request big contracts? you often hear general managers refer to those big amounts as “All-Star contracts”. So if I get it right, a player receives big contracts because they are popular? If it wasn’t the case, so there will be no shame giving a player a max contract although they have never been in the all-star game.
The question is “who is the all-star game for?” you often hear the media praise some players as a “2 time all-star” or “5 time all-star”; what this tells me is no more than “2 times among the most popular players, or like by the coaches”. The issue becomes when those “All-star” selections are used to define the elite in the game. The truth is that at this time, being in the all-star game has absolutely no bearing as far as how good a player you are among your peer, but more on how good your agent, sponsor and commercials are.
To offer a certain amount of money to a player based on all-star selections simply says that the team who signs the check is investing more on the potential merchandise sold, rather than on court performances.
If the All-Star Game is for the fans, then there shouldn’t be any controversies whether T-mac, Iverson or even the 12th man on the New Jersey Nets squad is voted; it should be all about the fans, therefore statistics, team record shouldn’t be taken in consideration. If however, the all-star game is meant to offer a spectacle of the best in the league of a given year, then maybe only experts, fellow players and the media who eventually vote for the MVP should participate in the selection process.
When all is said, it is the NBA’s role to clearly explain what and who is the All-Star game for. If it is for the fans, then let the fans select, and keep the numbers sealed so the media would not influence the voting process as they probably did in the McGrady case. If however, it is to showcase the best in the league, then let the players, coaches and media vote for the starters. If all this is done, the reserves selection probably should be reviewed, otherwise how to explain that a McGrady who was almost voted by the fans, is shunned by the coaches? It almost looks like the All-star game is composed of two teams, The Fans team, and the coaches’ team.
So far, the NBA has enjoyed playing along the line of entertainment and professional sport in its marriage with Hip Hop culture without setting effective boundaries
It will be pointless to even go into the season MVP requirement, but what is important is for the NBA to clearly define its product, because failure to do so will only create cracks in the structure that in the long run will increase the ambiguity and the perception of unfairness. With each controversy and the NBA effort to do some damage control, the game suffers. Until the league soundly decides if it wants to be an entertainment organization or a sport organization, it will someday look like the WWE, and others like the FIBA; however playing both is bound to create problems in the long run.