Despite the topic seeming a bit too obvious for me to want to tackle, I just can’t ignore the NBA. A little background check on me would enable you to discover that professional basketball used to be my favorite sport. During the 1980’s, the NBA was the most exciting, well-played team sport in the world. While the Lakers and Celtics were dynasties, there were other great teams, as well. The 76ers during the early 80’s were the most exciting team I’ve ever seen, while the Pistons of the late 80’s were the toughest. To give you an idea of how good the top teams were in the league during this decade, the Milwaukee Bucks won the Central Division every season between 1980 and 1987, but not once played in the Finals.
The 1970’s started great for the NBA, as the Knicks and Lakers waged some of the best battles in league history. After these 2 teams last final showdown in 1973, the NBA began to fall off, as the rival ABA siphoned off many of basketball’s most exciting players. During this period forgettable teams like the Warriors, Bullets, and Sonics won it all. Only the 1977 Trail Blazers were a team that could have competed with the best of the past decade.
It has been chronicled many times about how Larry Bird and Magic Johnson brought the game to a new level, when they joined the NBA in 1979. I possess no contrarian arguments to this view. These 2 men, who were not particularly fast or strong, had the rare ability to dictate the pace of the game. At no time has anyone this tall, been such brilliant playmakers. Not before, not since. No basketball players have made their teammates better than Bird and Magic.
During the 1990’s, the NBA became even more popular, as the star-power of Michael Jordan catapulted the sport to ratings only behind the NFL. This was also the time that the quality of the game began to slip, as the isolation play became a feature of most offenses. Clearing out most of the floor to allow the brilliant abilities of Jordan was often thrilling, but it damaged the free-form nature of the game.
To try to combat this type of offense, coaches began to over-manage play, especially through clutch and grab defenses. After Jordan retired, the game steadily lost national attention, as the key to winning became who has the best big man. Shaquille O’Neal is an immovable force, as his 4 championships this decade point to. Tim Duncan is more versatile in what he offers, but his robotic style is not fun to watch. Hard to question Duncan’s production, though, as he is about to win his 4th NBA championship. Since Jordan left the game, these 2 men have won 8 of the past 9 NBA titles, with the only exception being the boringly efficient Pistons, who won it all in 2004.
While the addition of foreign born players have brought more outside shooting and passing back to the NBA, these players seem to lack the drive and killer instinct of a Magic or Bird. The influx of these players has helped the marketability of the NBA overseas, but it has made it harder for U.S. fans to connect with the players. It is a natural instinct to bond with athletes you relate to.
A good example of this is auto racing. It was not that long ago that open wheel racing was more popular than stock car racing. While there are many reasons why NASCAR has become such a phenomenon at the same time Indy Car has been left in the dust, a major part of it is the total American domination of NASCAR by the Jimmy Jeffs and Dickie Dales. Indy Car has too many fur-n-ers getting the checkered flag.
The issue of race is often used as a major reason for the NBA’s decline. I think this is an overrated factor. The greatest force in raising the popularity of the league was Michael Jordan. During this NBA ratings bonanza of the 1990’s, only one of the Top 25 players in the league was white, John Stockton. During each of the past 3 years, the MVP has been white, (Nash and Nowitski). Not since the 1950’s have there been so many top-notch white players in the NBA. While the thug behavior of players like Allen Iverson and Ron Artest might have turned off some of its fans, it is the product on the floor that is the NBA’s biggest problem.
The league has been proactive in trying to fix some of its strategic problems, but I’m not sure what can be done to make it better. It kind of reminds me of what happened in tennis. Much like the NBA, tennis hit its pinnacle during the 1980’s, as personalities like McEnroe, Connors, Evert and Navratilova made it arguably the 4th most popular sport in the U.S. During the 1990’s, tennis continued to prosper, but the quality of the game began to decline, as the mix of improvements in racket technology and the overall athletic ability, created quicker points which took away some of the strategy of the game. The improved nutrition and training methods have built better bodies in all sports, but it has negatively impacted tennis and basketball, as brute force has eclipsed much of the grace that used to be such a key component to success.
While I’m on the NBA and tennis comparison, are there 2 great athletes who mirror each other more than Pete Sampras and Tim Duncan? Both of them seem like great guys, who have always conducted themselves with class. They both have a fluid nature to their game that at times looks effortless. On the surface, they seem to be what sports fans claim they want in their superstars. Sampras and Duncan are just a couple more examples of what people say they want often being not what they really desire.
It is no secret that NBA ratings are declining year after year. So what is there to discuss with this topic? Declining ratings or not, the league still has millions of fans and is able to fill most of its arenas. I have gone from someone who loved professional basketball more than any sport to someone who can’t watch more than 5 minutes of a game. I’m not one of those everything was better in my day type of guys, so it isn’t nostalgia why I think what I do about the league. For example, I think Major League Baseball is better game now than it was back in the 1980’s.
The one thing that the NBA can point to in selling itself is that it shows off the features of high-definition TV more than anything else. (Greg Popovich is done no favors by it, though.) Despite this technological advantage, I would still prefer to tune-in bad 1980’s graphics replayed on ESPN Classic over today’s NBA. Give me a 1988 Atlanta Hawks/Boston Celtics battle…NBA on CBS, with Brent Musberger behind the mic…Larry Bird coming up in an epic battle versus Dominique Wilkins...You are watching what greatness, is all about….And this was just a Eastern semi-final playoff series.
If you are still a fan of the game, Please Explain why I’m off about the NBA. Outside of an occasional playoff game, I just don’t understand the appeal of the 2007 model.