It might surprise you to learn the NBA's 62nd season tips off tonight. Yes, they really do play basketball in this league, though it's understandable...
It might surprise you to learn the NBA’s 62nd season tips off tonight.
Yes, they really do play basketball in this league, though it’s understandable if you thought otherwise, considering all the turmoil off the court.
Since San Antonio swept Cleveland in the Finals last June to cement a dynasty that nobody outside of Texas seems to care about, the league has been besieged by scandal.
Instead of celebrating the Spurs’ fourth championship in nine years — only the Boston Celtics (16), Los Angeles/Minneapolis Lakers (14) and Chicago Bulls (six) have won more titles — fans have been transfixed by an unsavory mix of disgraced or fallen characters, including:
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• Former referee Tim Donaghy, a 13-year-veteran, who admitted to gambling on games and pleaded guilty to two felony charges.
• Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who called owner Jerry Buss an “idiot” on camera and demanded a trade.
• New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, the centerpiece of a sexual harassment lawsuit in which his boss, owner James Dolan, was found liable for punitive damages of $11.6 million.
• Sacramento forward Ron Artest and Golden State forward Stephen Jackson, who will each serve seven-game suspensions — stemming from legal troubles — to begin the season.
• Hornets owner George Shinn, who is forcing New Orleans politicians to honor a pre-Katrina promise to build a $20 million-plus practice facility in the hurricane-ravaged city.
• And Sonics owner Clay Bennett, who filed a demand for arbitration to break the final two years of his KeyArena lease and move the team to Oklahoma City next season.
“I think it’s fair to say we had what I would call an interesting year with lots of interesting issues,” commissioner David Stern said last week during his annual preseason address. “Getting up in the morning and seeing what’s on the front pages and not just the sports pages, but the newspaper itself, is certainly making it an interesting time to be involved in professional sports.”
Nobody does drama better than the NBA, where the sky is seemingly falling every day and there’s always a disaster to be averted.
This is the same league that overcame rampant drug use in the 1970s, Len Bias’ cocaine overdose in the ’80s, the retirement of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and the HIV hysteria in the ’90s, Michael Jordan’s baseball follies and ill-advised comeback attempt at age 40 and the Malice at the Palace in 2004.
If the NBA survived those storms, then it surely will survive the ones that threaten its place among the nation’s Big Three in spectator sports.
But can you remember a time in the past 30 years when the league appeared so fragile and so unimportant?
“In sports and entertainment, everything is cyclical and it’s like we’re approaching a point in the NBA where fans have said, ‘We’ve got something else better to do,’ ” Sonics guard Earl Watson said. “Of course for me, I’m different. I’m a basketball fan. But I’d be lying if I said I watched every game of the playoffs, or the Finals, for that matter. I can see where fans would say that some teams just aren’t fun to watch.”
Take tonight’s tipoff game between San Antonio and Portland, for instance.
On the one hand you have a team, the Spurs, with an embarrassment of riches against a team whose misfortune with injuries to centers Bill Walton, Sam Bowie and Greg Oden has many believing the franchise is cursed.
Stern will be in attendance at the AT&T Center to deliver the Spurs their championship rings, but deep down the commissioner is probably secretly hoping he never has to again, because San Antonio is a sleep-inducing bore. The Spurs’ championship series against Cleveland produced a record-low 6.2 television rating, which surpassed the previous low set by San Antonio and New Jersey in the 2003 Finals.
By every conceivable measure, the Spurs are what you want a champion to be. Their best player, Tim Duncan, is arguably the greatest power forward ever. Their coach, Gregg Popovich, is a team-first taskmaster who preaches selflessness and discipline. Finals MVP Tony Parker, married to actress Eva Longoria, has been included on People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list.
And yet, as dynasties go, the Spurs not only fail to produce mass admiration, but they don’t even inspire envy or jealously from rivals. There’s simply nothing there.
No one roots for San Antonio and no one roots against it, which is the worst thing imaginable in sports.
Perhaps our ambivalence toward the Spurs and our fascination for scandal says as much about us as it does about them.
Maybe we’ve been conditioned to cheer for chaos in the NBA.
If so, then this season promises to be one for the ages. Especially in Seattle, where Bennett and lawsuits have garnered as many headlines as rookie Kevin Durant.
After tonight’s doubleheader, a full slate of NBA games is scheduled for Wednesday. On Halloween. How appropriate, given the public-relations nightmares of the past four months.
“We’re here and we plan to not only be here, but we’re here as successful as I think we’ve ever been and actually with some huge issues that we’re in the process of working through,” Stern said. “It’s never easy.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org