Loving the NBA, warts and all   

Updated: October 29, 2007, 1:07 PM ET

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This article appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Basketball season hasn't even started, and the NBA is already in trouble. You know this. Everyone knows this. Everyone knows this because this is always true. The NBA is always in trouble.

When I started to watch pro basketball, in 1979, the NBA was bordering on cataclysmic collapse. Nobody cared. Most players were believed to be addicted to cocaine, except the ones who were getting their jaws broken during on-court brawls. The league was in trouble. It has become popular to celebrate the "saving" of basketball in the 1980s, but nobody decided that it was saved until later; nostalgic historians like to remember the Lakers and Celtics playing in the Finals every summer, but it happened only three times in the decade. Just as much attention was paid to debacles like the 1986 draft (the death of Len Bias, Roy Tarpley's and Chris Washburn's unstoppable addictions and William Bedford's stoppable career). Bird and Magic might have sold a lot of Converse, but the league was still in trouble. When the Pistons established Eastern dominance in the late 1980s, the style of play became stupidly physical and frequently unwatchable. The NBA remained in trouble. Then Michael Jordan became bigger than the league itself, making everything around him more fragile; each time he retired, the NBA faced more trouble. The new millennium offered innovative dilemmas. Players grew less adept at hitting jump shots but more adept at hitting ticket buyers in the face. There were allegations that a referee got in bed with the mob. An employee of the Knicks didn't get in bed with Isiah Thomas. Things change, but things don't change. American pro basketball continues to self-identify as forever facing doom, almost out of habit.

The reason for this is forever the same: The NBA is hopelessly, endlessly, incorrigibly narcissistic. It's a quality that defines every decision the league office makes and every direction it takes.

When people hear the word "narcissistic," they associate it with egotism, but that's not really accurate. The failing of the mythical Narcissus was not his obsession with himself; it was his obsession with his image. And this is what prompts the NBA to wrestle with itself. No other league is as preoccupied with how others feel about its product. At least twice a year, David Stern feels obligated to deliver a state of the union address that dissects the minutia of TV ratings and tries to manipulate whatever image problem the association happens to be consumed with at the moment. Because the league is 75% black, every controversy feels political (Stern's dress code is a socioeconomic indictment, Steve Nash's MVP awards suggest latent racial bias, etc., etc., etc.). And each one is a PR nightmare, regardless of its real-time impact. Pro football players execute dogs, rain cash on strippers and overpopulate the drunk tanks of metro Cincinnati, but the NFL's popularity remains totally unfazed. Meanwhile, the NBA continues to fret about whether it should use a different ball. Unlike other sports, pro hoops tries to actively reinterpret the meaning of everything it is; it wants to control the way fans think about it. But this can never work, because the NBA has three problems that are inherent to its modern existence. Stern can't spin them because they are not image-related. They are simply realities that need to be accepted.

Problem 1: Some games are going to be boring
NBA clubs play an 82-game schedule, the games are 48 minutes long and there's a 24-second shot clock. This means every team will be involved in a minimum of 9,840 possessions over the course of a season (the actual number is more like 25,000). It doesn't matter how much you like competition or how high your tolerance for repetition is; it's impossible to expect any activity so vast and so fragmented to be ceaselessly compelling. Even the most rabid hoops fan will find his mind wandering during the second quarter of any random game in February. And there's no way to fix that. On balance, baseball is both longer and duller than basketball, but baseball has the paradoxical advantage of rewarding the absence of action. Just about everyone believes a 2-0 game is better than a 13-9 game, because each pitch is significant. At Fenway Park, monotony leads to melodrama. That will never be the case at the Staples Center.

What the NBA cannot manufacture is meaning, and that has nothing to do with level of play. In their 1987 book, Forty-Eight Minutes, Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto make the case that pro basketball is profoundly superior to the college version because "in the course of the average NBA game, there are more spectacular shots, more artful passes, more man-size powerhouse rebounds and more dazzling hustle plays than in any 10 college games." This is mostly correct -- but misses the point entirely. Level of play is never as important as context. For most of the regular season, very little is at stake during any NBA contest, and fans intuitively know this. I love the NBA, but I would rather watch players miss shots during a Texas-Kansas game than make shots when the Bucks play the Jazz. Meaningful failure trumps meaningless achievement every time. This is something the NBA just needs to admit.

Problem 2: We are an unshared society
One of the complaints leveled against NBA players is that fans can't relate to them, but I think the opposite is more true; I think it's impossible for NBA players to relate to us. Do you recognize the name Rasual Butler? Unless you play fantasy basketball or live in New Orleans, you probably don't. Last season, Butler averaged 10 points a game for the Hornets. He is not famous. Yet if you ran into Butler at a bar, you'd recognize him immediately: He'd be the 6'7" black guy with $3.3 million in his wallet. Except when he's around other NBA players, Butler is likely the tallest, richest, blackest person in almost any room in America, a nexus of physical, financial and racial minorities. You have almost nothing in common with Rasual Butler, and Rasual is probably more aware of that than you are.

More than all other athletes, basketball players are separate from society. When LeBron James wore a Yankees cap to an Indians playoff game in Cleveland, normal people reacted as if he'd tried to poison Travis Hafner with a radioactive isotope. Fans in northeast Ohio used the word "treason" in casual conversation. Now, I must be honest, I thought LeBron was extremely cool for doing this. I don't support the Yankees -- and I used to live in Akron -- but wearing that cap seemed like the first authentically individual act of LeBron's public life. But it also served to illustrate how psychologically disconnected NBA players are from the rest of the civilized world. James looked to be completely oblivious to how this move would go over.

NBA players live in a cultural vacuum of their own design. They become friends as teenage AAU players, shoot Nike commercials in the same airplane hangars and exist in an insular, rarefied monosphere. One suspects Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant wouldn't even notice if fans ceased to exist -- and that will always feel weird (and sometimes infuriating) to the segment of their audience that believes that athletes are alive only to serve as entertainment.

Problem 3: Potentiality destroys happiness
Confirmed genius and art critic Dave Hickey once wrote an essay titled "The Heresy of Zone Defense," which analyzed Julius Erving's now-famous reverse layup against the Lakers in the 1980 NBA Finals. After comparing Erving to artist Jackson Pollock, Hickey went on to write: "Basketball has been supreme in recognizing this moment of portending government and in deflecting it, by changing the rules when they threaten to make the game less beautiful and less visible." He ultimately concludes that basketball is better than religion. Whether or not these sentiments are true is irrelevant; what matters more is that a guy like Hickey could see basketball in such philosophical, metaphorical terms. This, it seems, is the NBA's deepest and strangest problem: What the sport actually is cannot compete with the theoretical game people imagine inside their own skulls.

When we think about pro basketball in the abstract, it seems so amazingly free: 10 fluid men in perpetual, unrehearsed motion, unencumbered by equipment and emancipated from their coaching staff, creating action extemporaneously. And every so often, that utopian vision becomes real (particularly when the Suns play the Warriors). But this is rare. This is the exception. Most of the time, NBA games let us down. The pace always seem slower than we remember, and the intensity is sporadic, sometimes nonexistent. Weak-side players stand around doing nothing, while offensive black holes pound the ball and back people down the lane. Unlike Hickey's recollection of Dr. J's hanging reversal, most routine moments in a typical NBA game don't seem artful at all. Somehow, though, the perceived freedom makes people misremember what the game really looks like.

What results is a disenchantment cocktail: The NBA seems worse than we think it should be because we unconsciously believe it should be better than it is. At the same time, the NBA machine keeps insisting that what we're seeing on TV is better than it really is and that all the league's problems are strengths. It's a dichotomy that permeates pro basketball in totality, and it makes people think and say, "Man, I think the NBA is in trouble." And they're right. But the NBA is always in trouble. Always.

And that means something else entirely.

It means that problems are normal.

Chuck Klosterman, whose latest book is "Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas," is a columnist for Esquire and a regular contributor to Page 2.


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