Sports Nut

Kobe for Commissioner!

What the Lakers star can teach David Stern.

Kobe Bryant during Game 3 of the 2008 NBA Finals

Is it narcissism if you’re right? A year ago, Kobe Bryant threw a public snit, demanding a trade because his Los Angeles Lakers teammates weren’t good enough to share the court with him. It was taken at the time as the latest act of selfishness from the league’s most out-of-control prima donna—the man whose bloated ego had once made him unwilling to keep playing (and winning championships) with Shaquille O’Neal.

But the Lakers didn’t trade Bryant. Under the pressure of his unhappiness, they made a midseason trade to add high-scoring 7-footer Pau Gasol. Now, in lieu of another first-round playoff exit, the Lakers are playing in the NBA Finals, in a marquee historical re-enactment with the Boston Celtics.

It’s not often that a fit of selfishness makes so many other people happy. An early report had the TV ratings for the championship up more than 50 percent compared with last year, when the San Antonio Spurs thumped the Cleveland Cavaliers to national apathy. I watched Game 3 of the finals in a Beijing sports bar, where Chinese fans in Lakers gear broke into a chant of “M-V-P!” as Bryant closed out Boston down the stretch. Based on this year’s events, they were aiming a little low. People ought to be touting Kobe for commissioner.

Bryant’s trade demand was based on two premises: 1) Kobe Bryant should have been playing on a real championship contender, and 2) the Los Angeles Lakers should not suck. This is exactly what the people who market the NBA—and the people to whom the NBA is marketed—also believe. That makes it, for all practical purposes, true.

Bryant acts entitled because he is entitled. The NBA owes its popularity to having star players play for star franchises. But the current commissioner, David Stern, is unable to admit that such a debt exists.

For 11 months of the year—until it’s time to promote a finals between two showcase teams—the league denies that it has any interest in favoring showcase teams. Instead of being on the surface, that favoritism has become the seamy subtext of Stern’s long, otherwise successful reign: from the conspiracy theories that the 1985 draft lottery was rigged to send Patrick Ewing to the New York Knicks, to this week’s allegations that officials fixed Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals to rescue the Lakers from the Sacramento Kings.

The Gasol trade—in which the Lakers gave up a package of moldy deadwood to get the Memphis Grizzlies’ leading scorer—looked like yet another gift to a prestige franchise in need. So, to a lesser extent, did the trade that sent Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Celtics.

What the Timberwolves and Grizzlies have in common is that they didn’t exist before the David Stern era. They were part of an aggressive expansion that added teams in new territory: Canada, Florida, the far edges of the Midwest. The trouble is, nobody wants to watch teams from those places. And half the league isn’t worth watching.

Expansion was a con. Second- and third- and fourth-rate cities were lured into spending their money and time and attention on NBA teams of their own. But the teams they got are still second-class citizens (or worse). Suppose Kobe had been traded to Memphis or that Boston had sent Paul Pierce to join Garnett in Minnesota. How happy would people have been about a Grizzlies-Timberwolves playoff series?

Commissioner Kobe wouldn’t pretend that the spotlight shines as brightly in trans-Appalachia as it does on the coasts. From the day he was drafted by the then-Charlotte Hornets and immediately traded, as he wished, to Los Angeles, Bryant has existed only on and for the league’s geographic A-list. When he was a free agent, his exit plan was to flirt with the Los Angeles Clippers—who play in the same building as the Lakers.

Nobody wants to watch basketball from flyover country. Not even people from flyover country want to watch flyover basketball. Witness the San Antonio Spurs, an old-time ABA squad and the greatest basketball team of the current era. Or rather, don’t witness them. The Spurs have won four titles in the past nine years—and have drawn the three lowest NBA Finals TV ratings in that span.

I like the Spurs, personally. I like blood sausage, too, but I don’t expect McDonald’s to start selling it to me. America, as a whole, turns its back on the Spurs. It’s not their style of play that’s to blame. Sure, they’re a grinding defensive team, with two streak shooters and one all-time-great big man who refuses to put up all-time-great scoring performances. But that also describes the Celtics. And the Spurs do whine to the referees a lot, but that never hurt John McEnroe. Besides, none of the complaints against the Spurs explains why the public won’t even embrace them as villains. If rooting for the New York Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel, rooting against San Antonio is like rooting against Archer Daniels Midland. What is San Antonio? How can people care about it?

The NBA’s prize franchises were made through a combination of talent, history, and geography—memorable stars playing important games in a notable place. The Celtics and Lakers take this to a ridiculous extreme: Wilt Chamberlain against Bill Russell! Magic against Bird! Hollywood against grimy Boston! The Spurs, unluckily, qualify only on two of three counts. Many more teams qualify on only one or zero.

A ruthless and unsentimental commissioner—a commissioner who thinks like Kobe Bryant—would recognize this for the liability it is. The only thing better than casting Kwame Brown into the outer dark of Memphis would be casting the Grizzlies themselves into the further outer dark. The Grizzlies already ceded their star player to a more famous team, like the 1950s Kansas City Athletics feeding stars to the Yankees. Why should the Lakers or Celtics, or the Detroit Pistons, have to waste time playing them in the regular season?

Let the Celtics take back Al Jefferson from the Timberwolves, while we’re at it. Let the terrible New York Knicks—a rotten team that was able to attract coaching sensation Mike D’Antoni, because it plays in New York—loot the roster of the Charlotte Bobcats. Would Mike D’Antoni have agreed to coach in Charlotte? (I had written three-quarters of this piece before I even remembered there was such a team as the Charlotte Bobcats.)

Not every surviving team would have to be great, but they would all need to have recognizable identities. No more Atlanta Hawks. Instead of trying to rebrand the lifeless New Jersey Nets as the Brooklyn Nets, just send them into limbo. One team from Texas is plenty—let Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili join the Houston Rockets.

The Kobe League would still have room for lovable losers (the Clippers, the Washington Wizards) and plucky underdogs (the scrappy Warriors representing Oakland). Chicago and Detroit would be enough to represent the Rust Belt (sorry, Cleveland; not even sorry, Milwaukee). The Miami Heat, an expansion team from a city with a decent Q rating, could absorb the featureless Orlando Magic. There would even be room for one or two teams from the bland, landlocked interior, for contrast’s sake: Every Western Conference playoff should pass through the theatrically white-bread home of the Utah Jazz.

Alas, David Stern’s NBA is going in the opposite direction. Even as the league basks in a Boston-Los Angeles showdown, the owners are trying to help a consortium of hicks pry rookie of the year Kevin Durant and the Supersonics out of Seattle (Gary Payton! Jack Sikma! The Space Needle!) and move the team to the hick town of Oklahoma City in the hick state of Oklahoma. It’s hard to feel too bad for Durant, though. If he keeps on developing, it’s only a matter of time till he ends up in Los Angeles