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Why I hate the NBA
By Michael Malone
Special to Page 2
Admit it. You don't really like watching pro basketball.
And that's a shame.
A large contingent of NFL players are unfit slobs programmed for five-second bursts of action, and much of a pro baseball player's duties can be done with a beer in hand. NBA players, on the other hand, possess a combination of speed, power, grace and coordination that no other sport's athletes can boast of. They're the most formidable athletes in the world.
Why, then, are their games so excruciating to watch?
The NBA is addressing its waning viewership in a number of ways. Off the court, young renegade owners like Pat Croce and Mark Cuban have built slick productions around the game. On the court, the league plans to implement rules changes in an effort to increase flow. But to truly unlock basketball's potential, the NBA could learn some lessons from unlikely sources: soccer, and Sugar Ray themselves.
"I just wanna fly," croons Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath from time to time. While his range rivals that of Chris Dudley, he nonetheless voices a sentiment shared by NBA players everywhere, as the game's endless stoppages keep the players anchored to the ground.
Basketball was the brainchild of a phys-ed teacher with a doctorate and a pair of peach baskets; Canadian-born James Naismith devised it to give his male students an alternative to sissy sports like gymnastics during the freezing Springfield, Mass., winters.
The good doctor would be elated to see the playground version of his invention today -- players sprinting nonstop up and down the court, moving the ball around, going to the hole when the situation presents itself, and thinking on (and off, if need be) their feet. Presidential fitness awards all around.
But Naismith probably wouldn't recognize the game's bloated pro counterpart; how his freewheeling aerobic exercise transformed into a game in which 48 minutes of playing time is spread over a three-hour broadcast would confound the poor man.
Lakers guard Derek Fisher's headband is certainly Kurt Rambis-retro-chic, but in truth, any sweat-gathering accessory in the NBA is about as necessary as eye black in a domed stadium. P.J. Carlesimo gets a better workout in offering his pregame analysis than the players themselves.
Commissioner David Stern stated that the new rules, which go into effect next season, will increase the pace of the game. Will it bring back the fast break, an element of basketball that has gone the way of Chuck Taylor kicks and Naismith's peach baskets? I'll refresh your memory: The players come storming down the floor and there's the possibility of a monster jam, a colossal rejection or a bone-rattling midair tackle -- all worthwhile outcomes in their own right.
But despite the abundance of athleticism and fitness on the floor, teams instead opt to focus their attack on their least athletic player, devising strategies to feed the ball to the lumbering lummox with his back to the basket. As a result, the excitement of basketball, if there is any, is not so much in the so-called action, but in watching the scoreboard -- it's not unlike watching electoral votes on Election Day, or the racing dots on the Jumbotron.
Soccer matches feature two 45-minute halves, the clock stopping only at the end of each. Imagine an NBA game with two 35-minute halves of running time. That's 22 more minutes of basketball than we have now; throw in halftime, and the game still clocks in well under the typical NBA game.
Much has been made of the ultimate sports misnomer: basketball's final "minute," which sees coaches flex their considerable micromanaging muscles. While announcers insist on calling this aspect of the game a "chess match," the rest of us just call it boring. Watching Shaq make like a shot-putter on the foul line is fun, but not exactly the stuff of Must-See TV.
Take away each team's seven (seven!) timeouts, and the final minute would last -- get this, sports fans -- 60 seconds!
While we're at it, let's move the coaches from the floor to some cozy box seats a few rows up with the rest of the suits. Not only would this mean no more three-seconds-in-the-paint calls on Jeff Van Gundy, but it would let the players think for themselves. You'd never see a teacher diagramming algebraic equations for his students during a final exam.
Coaches have plenty of time to instill strategies and game plans in their players. Come game time, how about trusting that you've successfully drilled them? Like in soccer, NBA teams should have your captain be more than a guy with a figurative C on his jersey. Let him be your on-court leader: the guy who oversees the game plan, keeps the team focused and liaises with the referee.
Of course, any and all of these alterations would meet some pretty Stern opposition. In the league's defense, it would be foolish to sacrifice all those commercial breaks and resultant revenue. And coaches would be distraught to not get to display their skill at memorizing opposing players' free-throw percentages.
But despite the increased aerobic demands on them, the players would actually enjoy returning to the run and gun game they grew up with. The product would sell itself, instead of relying on the likes of Bono, Beyonce and Mark McGrath to do it for them.
Michael Malone is a senior editor at Playboy.com, and his work has appeared in New York Magazine, Stuff, Gear, The San Francisco Examiner, Time Out and Rugby Magazine. He averaged 3.2 points and 4.5 fouls per game while playing power forward as an exchange student in England.
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