The Real Commish’s Pipe Dream

Sitting here, waiting for Game 4 to jump off, it occurs to me that my man David Stern, the real Commish, can’t catch a break. It seems like he and the NBA are always under some serious fire and it’s tragically appropriate that the Donaghy allegations surfaced when they did — right in the midst of two uneven, bizarre and favored games of officiating. Stern needs no sympathy, but I feel sorry for the dude. He nimbly steers the dopest professional sports league in America, but it’s a league that seems perpetually embroiled in controversies. Some are real and hefty, others are drummed-up and trivial. But the dude and the league can’t escape them either way. This Donaghy Garbage must be particularly frustrating for Stern, because it’s soiling the capstone of the NBA’s official Renaissance Season. A star-studded Finals full of compelling figures and storylines has taken a backseat to bogus gum-bumping from a felon. For what it’s worth, I was like “duhhhhh” when I heard the nugget about refs swallowing whistles when it comes to hitting stars with their second tech; but the almost comical accusation of Stern and the league clandestinely mandating that officials ensure particular outcomes through their refereeing was met with a smirk and dismissive wave. And right after those initial reactions, I went back to thinking about actual basketball and whether Lamar Odom was gonna stop playing like Brad Sellers. If there was a Finals matchup that could/should be able to compete with an alleged scandal like this Donaghy Balderdash, it’d be L.A.-Boston and I think we’ll see Kobe and KG fight through the scandal-clouds. It says a lot about the public interest in these two teams and their rivalry, because, typically, the Finals would recede deep into the background.  It all makes me ponder something the Commissioner said to me a few months ago in a phone conversation.

“I look forward to the day when the event defines the teams,” he said, “that’s the elusive goal.”

That might be Stern’s ultimate wish: for the Finals to define its teams much like the Super Bowl does. On a fundamental level, he’s wishing that the Finals take on the same bullet-proof armor that protects the Super Bowl, one where neither scandal (like this Donaghy Garbage) or teams (like, say, a Spurs-Pistons series) would impede the Finals from engulfing and invading the collective American conscious/attention.

Coincidentally, Stern wished that “elusive goal” in response to my good-natured needling. I was trying to get him to admit, on record, that he was wishing for a Lakers-Celtics Finals, because that would mean incredible ratings for an “event” that has struggled since Jordan’s retirement. He lamented that, currently, it’s the teams that define the Finals and not vice-versa. Lakers-Celtics means must-see TV. We must watch the rebirth of the league’s most storied rivalry between it’s most storied franchises. We must watch Kobe’s Mission. We must watch KG, Ray and Paul play through a series that will forever define their careers. Or, if it were Lakers-Cavs, we would be compelled to watch Kobe and LeBron battle for individual supremacy. If the Suns were here, we’d want to watch Shaq go for a curtain-call ring and Nash legitimize his MVPs. Those teams, players and stories define the “event.” But think about about the definition that a Pistons-Jazz series would drop on the Finals. Us hoops-heads wouldn’t have a problem watching Deron and Chauncey go at it, but the casual fan would surely spend their evenings watching some idiots dance on a reality-TV series, eating ribs at Applebee’s or meandering around Wal-Mart.
“We want to get to a point where the teams don’t matter.” Stern told me that, too.

I wanted to say, “You and I, Commissioner, will see a black man in the oval office before that happens.” But then I thought about Obama and recognized that was no longer a pigs-flying analogy. The point, though, is that Stern’s dream will never happen…never. It’s not just an “elusive goal,” it’s an “implausible goal.” Actually, skip that, it’s an “impossible goal” — worse than a pipe dream.

It is truly remarkable — from a cultural standpoint — the way the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four are events that capture imaginations and attention regardless of who’s playing. They are bigger than the teams and, quite honestly, the sports. My Buffalo Bills could play your Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII and all our eyes would still be glued to a plasma screen at a Bowl-party; Bud Light would still spend insane creative, intellectual and financial capital, hoping it’s commercial get’s YouTubed and then virally-emailed Monday morning. Playboy and Maxim would still throw lavish parties — even if the Bowl was at Green Bay that year. The Final Four never loses. If we get top seeds, then we’re blocking off Saturday and Monday evenings to watch titan-clashes. If we get low seeds, then we gather to watch Cinderella.

The problem is that the NBA — and MLB, for that matter — are burdened by the confines of actual competition. If the world tunes in for four to seven games over two weeks, it’s only going to happen if they care about the squads and are entertained by them. The notion that the the battle for the trophy is the selling-point is a rosey idea. Makes me wanna patronizingly pat Stern on the back and say, “OK, buddy. You’re right, I’ll spend six of my next 14 evenings watching the Bucks and Rockets, just because…”

The Final Four is basically two Game 7s. There’s always drama there. The Super Bowl mystique is due, in large part, to its frequency. They are stand-alone events because we have come to view them as a sort of premium good. If both events were best-of-five series, then Goodell would wish for a Dallas-New England series just as hard as we know Stern was pulling for this Lakers-Cs throwback.

So, I’m cherishing this matchup. Next year it might be Magic-Spurs and I’d define that as lame.