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NBA problems? Only in the eye of the beholder

Page 2 columnist

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J-Love of's Page 2 Editorial Wrecking Crew buzzed me and asked if I had any thoughts on this burning question: What's Wrong With The NBA?

Karl Malone
Karl Malone doesn't like the new generation of NBA players. Page 2's Ralph Wiley says the 37-year-old Mailman should look in the mirror.
My first reaction was my best -- nothing, that I could see.

But Charlie Oakley and Karl Malone, power forwards of the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz, respectively, insisted the league was gone to hell in a handbasket due to a proliferation of over-accessorized young punks in slouchy jeans and weirdling hair.

So it was up to me to look into these accusations, and determine if they were legit.

I decided to play along, especially if it meant going to another NBA game or two accompanied by some pulchritudinous female. This is easier to do than you might imagine. Pulchritudinous females seem to frequent NBA games, for some reason.

Can't imagine why.

Fortunately, Road Dog was out of pocket, so in L.A., at the Staples Center, the lawyer Superfine hooked me up. In Orlando, it was the human resources manager Mightymoon who did the deed. I watched the Lakers lose to Portland at the Stapler. Seemed like a thrilling game, played at the highest level of ball in the world. Ditto, the Sixers knocking off the Sacto Kings on the tube on New Year's weekend. Off that, didn't seem like much was wrong to me.

I asked Mightymoon anyway, when she took me to the Magic vs. the Nets.

"What wrong with the NBA?" I asked.

"Nothing that I can see," Mightymoon said, never taking her eyes off the court. Since she seemed preoccupied, I borrowed her cell phone and called Superfine and asked the same thing. "Wrong with the NBA? Nada-bing," she said.

Hmm, I thought, maybe what's wrong with the NBA is simply that the market is no longer only middle-aged men, not so very unlike myself. Not a single female I canvassed thought anything was wrong with the NBA. Their only complaint was that those baggy shorts leave too much to the imagination.

Maybe the problem is not in the new-wave NBA stars, but in ourselves. Our ever-older selves. Maybe middle-aged men who decide what goes in newspapers and on websites and in ad campaigns are the real problem. Maybe we are the ones in the way of the shock of the new. Wouldn't be a first.

I asked my 18-year-old son and his roommate at college what's wrong with the NBA. They looked at me like I was crazy. It's the best ball, they said. I had to agree. Whatever is wrong with the NBA, it beats the hell out of watching Sominex vs. Codeine -- I mean Syracuse vs. Connecticut -- or any other Double-A -- I mean "college Division 1-A" -- game. Four-foot turnaround bank shots! Hell, my grandmother can hit those shots, and she's dead. Those CYO shots are counterfeit in NBA, the highest level of ball on earth. Guys come off the disabled list to block those shots that cause my good friend Dickie V such fits.

So what is wrong with the NBA? Obviously not the level of play. The personalities? It occurred to me that the Charles Oakley who said the league was full of young disrespectful punks in oversized gear and too much jewelry, is the same Charles Oakley sucker-punching little point guards like the Clippers' Jeff McInnis at morning shootarounds.

The Mailman is precious little better. They both are slouching themselves, slouching toward the ends of long and once illustrious careers; they never said much of anything was wrong with the league when it was making millionaires out of them.

So what's the big problem now? That another generation is moving them out?

Maybe the problem is not in the new-wave NBA stars, but in ourselves. Our ever-older selves. Maybe middle-aged men who decide what goes in newspapers and on websites and in ad campaigns are the real problem. Maybe we are the ones in the way of the shock of the new. Wouldn't be a first.

Maybe the problem is looking in the mirror, and not appreciating what we see happening there. Looking at the league growing progressively younger and younger, and more and more outlandishly rich and tall and muscular, realizing there is no way in hell we can compete with that for the attention and respect of our sons, let alone for the attention and respect of nubile young women, pulchritudinous older professional women -- or, for that matter, any women. As middle-aged men, we can't compete with the idea of a young NBA superstar -- but we can damn sure point out his deficiencies, and even invent a few for him, if necessary.

Darius Miles
Critics say Darius Miles and the league's youngsters don't focus enough on fundamentals.
As I couldn't seem to pry Mightymoon's attention from the action on the floor, I began to think it was as simple as that. And please don't quote statistics about how the league's TV ratings are down during football season, how arenas in Vancouver, Toronto, Boston and Washington aren't full, how "fans" (which fans?) are being turned off by rap, how ad lineage skews south. Statistics are like the Bible: You can use them to prove anything.

Myself, personally, I notice the Wrecking Crew didn't ask me what was wrong with the National Hockey League, a query to which my answer would have been, "Well, very nearly everything." But somehow it's not a question that often comes up. Which begs another question -- is this question of What's Wrong With the NBA a bigoted one? I don't know. I'm not the one who asked it. Is it? Look in the mirror. You'll probably find the answer in there somewhere.

All I know is, when Oakley and Malone become the arbiters of good taste, of what constitutes civilized behavior, that's the day we're in trouble. I'd say what's wrong with the NBA is the middle-aged men who are trying to find something wrong with it more than younger men populating its ranks. At the end of the day, as Mightymoon likes to say, "The game's the thing." It's not about what the players put on after the game, what they wear out of the arena, who they're with, what they "represent." It's what they do for the two hours that I watch them hoop that matters to me, and what should matter to those who give up two hours of their lives to watch.

Magic coach Doc Rivers told me, "It's different than it was 15 years ago, R-Dub. I'm not sure it's bad, though. It's more about players than coaches now, but I have no problem with it. They're the ones making the shots. There's more managing to be done now, within the game and without, because we're getting them younger, in some cases out of high school. It's different, but that doesn't mean it's worse, or that something's wrong. Not to me."

I left the last word to the HR lady Mightymoon -- that is, once I was able to tear her attention away from the hard, leaping bodies on the T.D. Waterhouse court.

"The better question is what's wrong with society, rather than what's wrong with the NBA, isn't it?" she said. "It has to do with character. The kind you can't teach. Not telling young people how to act, but bringing them up in an environment where they can see it. A young NBA player contracted to play a child's game for millions -- what's the motivation to build their character? They don't get it. They won't get it. Forget it. They'll understand when they're 50. If they get there. But in the meantime, does that kill a fan's enjoyment of the game? It shouldn't. Can't save everybody. At the same time, are we to sit in judgment of each generation? Did our parents approve of us? It's the game that needs judging. Is it a great game still?"

Seems to me it is.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."

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