On the NBA and this winter’s Grand Experiment

After hearing the most recent comments from Commissioner David Stern, it appears that the American sports scene will conduct the Grand Experiment that most North Carolinians have already sarcastically worked out in their head at one point or another: is, in fact, the winter sports scene better when its not being clogged by the NBA?

The league is heading headlong toward an extended lockout, with Stern announcing today that his “gut” feeling is that there will be no games played through Christmas. My “gut” feeling is that I am not the only person in the ACC corridor snidely rooting on the labor stoppage to last indefinitely.

This is not because I have no dog in the fight – personally I find the notion of unionized millionaires “laboring” themselves to play a sport professionally completely ludicrous, and as with the NFL lockout, I am generally inclined to blame the players and side with the owners.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the persistent masochism of Stern, the owners, and the players together. Over the past decade the NBA entrenched itself in its lost ground as the least popular mainstream sport in America, professional or college, other than hockey. It is, for those who care to realize it, the only league that is barely credible as a sports product: the players do not play hard, the regular season is meaningless and dull, and there are no lasting divisional rivalries of significance. It lacks every component of what makes other sports leagues great, and it painfully emphasizes individual personalities over team identity, fan loyalty, and quality play.

To explore this problem further, picture the basic contours of NBA rivalry: individual players who hate each other; players hated by opposing fans; players returning to their previous hometowns who are now hated there. These elements are present in other sports, but only in the NBA do they predominate because of the NBA’s obsession with the dramatic interactions of its prima donna players.

In the NFL, Major League Baseball, and college sports, rivalry hatred is institutionalized after decades of frequent clashes between often great and at least geographically tied teams. It is historical and lasting, and more importantly, tied to the success of teams in terms of wins and losses; this contrasts starkly with the fluid and haphazard nature of NBA rivalries rooted in the drama of the league’s big personalities. It is a different sort of sports fan, one whose interest in sports feeds on these individual personae, that will lament the absence of professional basketball. Yet due to the dominance of our state’s premiere college basketball programs and the cultural rivalries it created, most of our fans are of the former breed, and have long been deadened to the toil of intently following the NBA.

Now, in the ultimate embarrassment, the NBA was out-done even in its struggles. This summer’s NFL lockout was a front-page national news story, the suspense and subsequent resolution of which may have even fed the beast of its nationwide transcendent popularity; the NBA lockout, by contrast, can’t gain traction, even with mildly interesting subplots such as players going overseas and players holding street ball exhibitions.

Not too many sports fans seem to care (a recent ESPN poll showed that only 25 percent are bothered), and it leaves more room for regular season college basketball. To return to the experiment, the winter sports scene is already adequately filled with professional and college football; by the time those sports reach their conclusions, college basketball is entering February on its way to a March postseason. As ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan points out, it is settled that college basketball owns March as one of the biggest sporting institutions in America; it is its regular season, especially early on, that needs showcasing, and without the unnecessary impediment of the NBA, this winter could be college basketball’s big moment.

Thankfully, it coincides with the most competitive, loaded college basketball season in several years, and Carolina is the unquestionable preseason #1. If there was any question, our program is about to further cement its status as one of the driving forces of the American sports world.

  1. March 14th, 2012

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