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Leaving the NBA for Dead

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Indiana Pacers fan Sean Shepard laments, “I miss the guys from the ’90s, Tank Thompson, the Davis boys, Haywood Workman, Sam Mitchell and many others. Heck even Rik Smits. Those were good guys who worked hard and were worth rooting for.”

Shepard could be any NBA fan, in any city. The complaint about the quality of play and quality of players is universal. David Stern knows about it. He knows that the NBA as a whole is underachieving as a marketable sports entity. The once strong must see NBA is now bleeding.

Sports are a reflection of society. Are people today naturally lazier than those in successive generations? I don’t think so. However the incentives aren’t clear cut anymore. Extrinsic rewards are at an all time high. We will gladly hype, tout, and promote any kid who dominates on the AAU or summer camp level. Fans, media and pro basketball management don’t expect players to help their teams win basketball games, we just expect them to be highly touted coming out of college. How do you become highly touted out of AAU? Size, good hands, and the most ridiculous phrase, “great upside.”

How did it get this way? Universities have exploited players for a long time. Now the prospect guys are exploiting talent by latching themselves onto so-called hot players. They invite them to their super camp, their AAU team. It’s shoe contracts and letters of intent, and not the peach basket ten feet up.

How can those associated with basketball change the direction of the game? We must eliminate or reduce the extrinsic rewards. For example, create less hype before a player has a chance to show over time his/her true ability and contribution to the game of basketball. Also as basketball fans, we only talk and spread news about players we have actually seen play.

The athletes themselves have a right to earn money and promote themselves in order to obtain better offers from universities and teams. But only if that choice is in reality self-made or based largely on his or her own desire.

We must also blame the parents who condition student athletes as young as five or six years old for the scholarship. After the scholarship, the pro draft. The pressure creates incentives based on rewards that aren’t easily attainable, and reduces intrinsic motivation and increases reliance on outside praise or hype from others.

We no longer know if an athlete as young as two years old is playing a particular sport for enjoyment or because of vicarious visions of Dad and Mum. In fact, we no longer know that even with athletes who have reached plateaus such as the NCAA level. “His first love was baseball, but with his hands we thought he would have a better shot at getting a scholarship in Football,” says Dad from suburb of X, Middle State, U.S.A.

In order to keep the cycle from spinning out of control, professional sports organizations must re-brand themselves. I suggest the key lies in the fans ability to identify with the athletes on the field. If pro sporting events and its participants no longer represent the collective positive values of society (hard work, reasonableness, and desire), the fans continue the revolt. They want to see the athlete struggle, work, overcome and then achieve.

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  • nicolas

    i think THAT is the real problem. parents who see their kid growing to 6’6″ or so and say “ooooh, goodness, there’s my meal ticket to an early retirement” and start the wheels spinning.

  • RJ

    Bring back Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. In any capacity. That’s all the NBA needs.

  • Stan Collins

    Stern’s the closest you get to a visionary in any Commissioner’s office. If anyone can fix it, he can.

    To get a full picture of what’s going on now, you have to go back to the 1970s, or “The NBA’s Wasted Decade.” A big part of the problem was that players were thought of similarly as they are today.

    Part of what made for such a big leap forward was that society evolved in the 1980s–these were the days when the Cosby show gave us a positive image of a prosperous black family.

    Part of it was also that the players did change some. The stars who brought it forward were Larry Bird, who was not only white but something of a hick, and Magic Johnson, who had a gigawatt smile while he created and dominated. Both in their own way contradicted NBA player stereotypes. That prepared the way for Jordan, the NBA’s Ali/Pele/Ruth, the player you can never really improve on. He was another figure whose image screamed “positivity.”

    And that’s what the NBA needs to bring back–the positivity. They need players who are perceived to be having fun playing the game, but who also challenge themselves (and don’t just derive their self esteem from making others look bad). They need to replace the image of the scowling, antisocial, drug-using, possibly gang-friendly bruiser as the main idea of an NBA player.

    Stern has already remembered the 70s and made a couple great changes. The first was the age minimum–remembering that the 1979 Bird/Magic NCAA Final was the beginning of the turnaround. The age limit has already given us a much better version of Greg Oden, one that we’ve seen accomplish something on the court. It’s combating the perception that:

    “We will gladly hype, tout, and promote any kid who dominates on the AAU or summer camp level.”

    The dress code also gives us a more upscale image of the players, and that will make a difference.

  • RJ

    “They need players who are perceived to be having fun playing the game, but who also challenge themselves (and don’t just derive their self esteem from making others look bad).”

    Cool. And I agree. So, why hasn’t the NBA made Tayshaun Prince a household name? He’s got the skills, the class, the intelligence, the playoff experience, and the ring.

    The NBA never made Joe Dumars much of a “super-star” either, and he also possessed all of the above.

    But the NBA seems more interested in making arrogant assholes like Shaq and Kobe, and outright violent criminals like Ron Artest, the big names in the league. We need a bigger spotlight on class acts like Steve Nash and Tim Duncan, who are both decent human beings and have huge talent. And the sports mainstream media (ESPN, Sports Illustrated, etc.) needs to lead the way.

  • Kafkadeft

    The NBA is dead. Good riddance to what has been bad rubbish since the dawn of the new millenium.