Sports Nut

Pro Basketball Is Like an Old White Guy Trying To Be Street


I’d like to begin by welcoming you to the world of professional authorship, which will be at least as glamorous as playing in the CBA, only not as well paying. Congratulations on the publication of your first book, Can I Keep My Jersey?: 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond. You must be swollen with pride, or maybe you’re just swollen. Regardless, publishing your book is like having your first kid: After the initial buzz wears off, you’re left with a vague sense of satisfaction but also a vague sense of disappointment. Is that really all?

We’re here for the next few days to talk about your book and about the NBA playoffs. Since my life, these days, either involves being a parent or writing about being a parent, I think I’m going to follow your cues during this legendary correspondence, which will almost certainly reach the epistolary heights of the Nabokov-Wilson letters. In a prep e-mail, you mentioned that you’d be interested in discussing the relative irrelevance of the NBA in contemporary culture. Why, you ask, is it the third most popular of the Big Three sports? Well, let me put on my amateur sociologist’s cap and attempt to answer that.  

The NFL, America’s undisputed sports king, reads the national mood better than any other league. Pro football provides the country with the mix of mindless violence and cornpone male soap opera that America seems to require to keep from collapsing culturally. While you’ve been gallivanting about the Iberian Peninsula playing for the Menorca Basquet of the Spanish pro league, I’ve been watching TV, and I have seen a lot of Coors Light commercials. The neo-Nazi brewery’s latest approach is to say that its crappy beer recipe never changes. This is accompanied by shots of white guys in pickup trucks and honky-tonks, indicating that these men, the last bulwarks against the encroaching dual threats of gays and Muslims, are true Americans and also true Coors Light drinkers. That’s the NFL for you: I will defend my territory to the last man, and I’ll do it with a tear in my eye.

Meanwhile, baseball survives despite the fact that its best and most famous player is a drug-tainted asshat whom no one, other than a few deluded San Franciscans, wishes well. MLB draws from a seemingly endless well of nostalgia, statistics, and nostalgia for statistics, as well as a somewhat undeserved reputation for being “family-friendly.” (There’s also the possibility of endless food consumption.) Plus, it doesn’t hurt when all of Latin America and two Asian countries with lots of disposable income live and die by your sport.

The NBA, by contrast, is an “international” game, yet it somehow gets the formula wrong. Look, I don’t have to pitch you on the glories of basketball. Against most odds, you play the game for a living. Lord knows I love the contemporary game myself, but would that be the case if I hadn’t grown up in Phoenix? I’m lucky to be rooting for a team that’s interesting and innovative (which happens to be the team you played for and blogged for in 2005). If I were a casual fan, though, I’d be drawn toward a slightly less-annoying bright flashing light.

This year’s televised playoff coverage encapsulates everything that the NBA gets wrong. I’ll give a pass to TNT, whose broadcast personality lineup contains few, if any, duds. But the high-exposure games on ABC are a nightmare. First, there’s the “Right Now” theme song from the Pussycat Dolls, a TV-timeout dance routine that never goes away, with the added annoyance of pretentious lyrics. What is a “whirlwind playoff tour”? Did David Stern write that himself? Then there’s the horribly distracting “tracking cam,” which makes the game almost impossible to watch. Also, I hate the McDonald’s halftime highlights. I realize that corporate sponsorship is a part of the game, but I want to see actual highlights at halftime, not a nausea-inducing music video set to a “thanks for the memories” song that would be rejected by any self-respected quinceañera DJ.

Basically, the NBA gives off the impression of an old white guy (like, I don’t know, David Stern) trying to be street. The league caught lightning in a bottle for almost two decades, but now its approach seems desperate and a little old-fashioned. The public can be fooled easily if a propaganda campaign, like the NFL’s or the early Bush administration’s, is properly targeted. But when the campaign is badly calibrated, even by a couple of degrees, the public turns. And there you have the NBA’s relative unpopularity.

As for the playoff games themselves, other than the Warriors’ satisfyingly lunatic manhandling of the Mavericks, it’s been a pretty dull second season, including the systematic implosion of the Warriors against yet another efficient Utah team. And, yes, the Bulls-Pistons series has become superfically dramatic, but it’s not dramatic like the old Bulls-Pistons series. More like, “TNT: We Know Drama” dramatic. I do love the Suns-Spurs series; I can’t remember seeing two teams going at each other so hard. There have been black eyes and noses gushing blood, WWE-style accusations of “dirty” play, as well as actual examples of dirty play, coaching temper tantrums, and epic mood swings.

In your book, you seem to have a reasonable amount of respect for the Suns, though only four players remain on the roster from when you were there. What do you think about the team now? You describe Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion as amiable lunkheads; at the very least, they come off better than Kobe Bryant. Does this team have a prayer?