The NBA matters again

I fetched the paper from the sidewalk in front of my house early Sunday. Of course, I'm a sports section guy, but this one weekend -- the first without work intrusions since the beginning of the playoffs way back in whatever month that was -- was different. Conversations with my family would not be interrupted. Work would not have me flying to the laptop in the middle of sleep, bedtime stories or dinner. Just for a weekend, I would sleep, exercise and socialize.

I literally turned my phone over to my wife when I got home from work on Friday and by Sunday I didn't even know where it was. The feeling was not unlike getting into a jacuzzi. Niiiiiice.

In keeping with the theme, when I unfolded The New York Times, I defied the instincts of a lifetime (I'll fight you for it!) and ignored the sports section. Instead I sat down with, of all things, Sunday Opinion. When you're on a weekend-long mental vacation from the NBA, you might as well go all the way.

And yet there was LeBron James, on page 2, in a Mike Smith cartoon. A wife is telling her husband she's leaving him for a man named Jake. His reaction: "So, Jake, what do you think about LeBron James' decision?"

A few inches lower down, Lisa Belkin has written a mock-memo to James from the Heat's H.R. department.

Meanwhile, my cell phone was off, but the house phone was ringing. It was a lot of regular stuff, but also over the weekend more than few calls from friends and family who want to chitchat about James. But here's the weird deal: These calls were not from basketball fans. People I've known my whole life and have never once wanted to talk NBA wanted to talk about this. Calls from England. Calls from Oregon. Calls from New York and California. Calls from old people and young ones. Calls from people who probably haven't watched a complete NBA game in more than a decade, if ever. Everyone wanting to chew the fat about that one guy.

Eventually I finished perusing that Opinion section. The last few pages are as weighty as the Times gets in making itself heard on world issues. There are not many editorial spaces as influential.

When Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd goes searching for topics, she usually settles on The Big Issues of Washington. General Petraeus has come up lately. As have the health dangers of cell phones, the merits of gay marriage and just about everything President Obama does.

But do you know what she had written about?

Sure enough, there she was, talking tough about James in a column entitled "Miami's Hoops Cartel."

I'm not sure I've ever seen Dowd write about the NBA before, and I'm not sure we'll see it again. Yes on the very Sunday of the World Cup Final -- by many measures the most popular sporting event on the planet -- the sports issue she was bringing up was not soccer, but hoops. That wasn't all, either: On the same page there was yet another column, by Erin O'Brien, about the misery of Clevelanders.

And of course, it's not just the Times. It's every media outlet out there. It was an impossible weekend to think about things besides the NBA. But think about that.

I have long been of the opinion that sports, played before sports fans, have limited revenues.

The real cheese comes rolling in (in this analogy, the cheese is wheel-shaped ... work with me) when non-sports fans are watching too. For instance, in the Super Bowl. On that day the NFL fans are probably a minority of viewers, and that's the day the TV commercials sell for obscene amounts.

I don't know how this LeBron James story will ultimately be told. Perhaps he will play the villain. Perhaps he will play the star.

What I'm certain of, however, is that it will not play out before empty arenas nor small television audiences.

The NBA has finally found the first real post-Michael Jordan storyline that really packs a long-term emotional wallop to regular old non-basketball fans. In terms of sheer economics, nothing else that has happened here matters more.