If you're of a certain age, you remember criticisms of the NBA in the mid-to-late 1970s: too many black players, too many black players high on cocaine, too many black players who didn't look like they were trying, too many games that weren't worth watching until the final five minutes. Some 1979 Finals games were broadcast on tape delay. Nobody cared. Then came the golden ages, the Bird-Magic renaissance of the 1980s and the Dream Team -- "Space Jam" -- Michael Jordan 1990s that resurrected a league that has been leading the cool ever since.
Despite its overemphasis on corner 3s and stretch 4s, the NBA has never been in a better place. While the rest of the sports world is in tumult, the league's next golden age is now.
Great players and great games notwithstanding, Major League Baseball is horribly lost on Madison Avenue. It sells its game with data, WAR and launch angles instead of heartbeats and memories. Without television, everyone knew who Babe Ruth was. With the internet, 300 channels and streaming services, Mike Trout could walk relatively anonymously through Times Square. Meanwhile, the NBA's stars are ubiquitous. From LeBron to Steph to KD, the NBA need not ask whether it has a face of its sport but how many.
Baseball invented the hot stove with the winter meetings but ceded that territory as well with rule changes that make it less imperative to wheel and deal in December. Bad look. Who stole the offseason this year? The NBA.
Luck favors the NBA over the NHL, which this fall prohibited its players from competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics by refusing to pause the season, ending a tradition that spans the past five installments of the Games. Alex Ovechkin and other players voiced deep displeasure about no longer being able to skate for their countries. The NBA doesn't have that problem; the season is over before the Summer Olympics.
In its greatest feat, the NBA has even trounced the big dog, the NFL. Football is under attack from a White House that criticizes its owners and accuses its players of being un-American, even though no one in the NFL has been as pointed in criticisms of the president as LeBron James, Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr. The Golden State Warriors spurned the White House and life went on. At the same time, the NFL allowed today's culture war to sink it into civil war: owners vs. players. By blacklisting Colin Kaepernick, the league plays to its conservative white fan base while angering its black, brown and progressive fans. Protest is racialized. Black players kneel, white players stand. It's coming apart.
There's a reason the NBA navigates turbulence better than its fellow leagues. Management isn't openly trying to destroy or anger its players and prove to them who is boss. NBA owners haven't overtly used pandering patriotism, nor have the players knelt. But they do speak loudly, and in a nearly 75 percent black league, according to Richard Lapchick's Racial and Gender Report Card, the NBA has encouraged their voices. The product is too valuable for the owners not to present a united front with the players.
The NFL's position has been to attack the players who make the game. It has spent its time undermining players' credibility as citizens in a disastrous attempt to score points with fans. Jerry Jones further insulted the players by saying the protests are hurting the NFL. Let's rephrase it for you, Jerry: Police brutality is hurting the NFL. If you want players to stop kneeling, acknowledge that and act.
The next wave in labor relations is true partnership, something no American sports league has ever had. The commissioner works for the owners, which means his primary job is to muscle the players, but the NBA at least recognizes that the players make the league. LeBron James doesn't call the game he plays "basketball" or "the NBA" or "the league." He infiltrates the language with a sense of proprietorship, referring to the sport as our game and our league. This industry, he is saying, belongs to the players too.
And neither the owners nor Adam Silver, at least publicly, fights the players on this point. It isn't out of love, obviously, because the NBA locked out its players four times over the past 22 years, but as an industry it recognizes a shared responsibility -- and remembers when no one cared -- better than the other three. In a multibillion-dollar industry, there's more than enough for everyone.