Us humans, we gotta get things wrong before we get things right. Actually, before we get things right, we gotta get things wrong, feel some kind of pain or suffer some type of sanction…then we can get things right. That’s the way we are wired as an imperfect species – call it Human Nature. When I was Young Vince, I thought it’d be dope to take those little corn-on-the-cob holders and stick them in an electrical socket; thinking that I’d light up or, I don’t know, be able to do The Dolphin better. Problem was, some nice and serious watts surged through my idiot-body, leaving my fingertips burnt, black and steaming. I got that wrong. Pops, however, didn’t think that my steamy-black fingertips were enough negative-reinforcing pain or the vibration still rattling through my forearm like a pitchfork. So he loosened his 12-inch-thick leather belt and whipped me as I ran in a semi-circle trying to evade the lashes. I didn’t stick a corn-on-the-cob holder into an electrical socket again – ever.
Sports leagues, such as the NBA, behave like imperfect humans, because they’re operated and inhabited by imperfect humans. So the NBA – and the individuals within – essentially had to get a lot of stuff wrong before they got it right. The pain in between tested the league’s threshold. But these things had to happen. The dividends, however, are finally paying off and it’s a huge story for the NBA.
This time last year, the league was about to begin All-Star Weekend in Vegas. The weekend ended in controversy. Apparently, All-Star weekend naturally attracts a thug culture and the hoodlums had turned Las Vegas Blvd. from a tourist strip to an area with a safety quotient equal to a Hutu-Tutsi battleground in Burundi. At least, that’s what folks were saying.
Regardless of whether the reports were factual or exaggerated, it was another black eye for a league that was getting beat – like a Trailer Park Girlfriend – by bad publicity springing from a sometimesy product, periodic, degenerate employee-behavior, controversial rules, and an often ignorant public. Fans were sitting through games that tended to resemble rugby. There were Melees in Auburn Hills, brawls at MSG. There were controversies spawned from cultural divisions, things like Dress Codes and Age-Rules. Flagship stars faced rape trials. Team USA rosters full of All-Stars were relinquishing American bragging rights to foreign countries at international competitions. And it didn’t stop after Vegas. An imperfect rule soiled the Western Conference semis, which only served as an appetizer for a garbage Finals. Then came the off-season marked by two stories: Kobe wanted out of L.A. and referee Tim Donaghy was in bed with the mob. Schmoove.
But here’s the story of all stories for David Stern, team owners and fans, as we all collectively head to the Big Easy: After all that went wrong and the painful aftermaths, things are right these days. The smoke has cleared and things are looking good. This week’s big storyline from schmuck media types could be about a collective bracing for disaster in New Orleans as every southern thug and hoodrat descends on a recently devastated city like revel-ready locusts. They can bump their gums ragged, blow-harding about what could happen and what, allegedly, did happen. But the real story leading up to New Orleans is that the league is in its best shape since the Golden Age of Bird-Magic-MJ. Call it The Platinum Age.
In full disclosure, it’s not solely about lessons learned. Make no mistake; this era’s hallmark is its talent. Only a curmudgeon or blind man would debate against whether this current crop of NBA talent is the best the league has ever seen. That’s not even up for discussion. The harvest is full, my dudes. It’s conspicuous; the fruit is spilling out the baskets. You have All-Time Greats still in or just a smidge past their primes (Duncan, Kidd, KG, Nash); Kobe Bryant the Nadir; Precocious Youngsters (Wade, Bron, Melo, Chris Paul), cats waiting in the wing with dumb, stupid skills and/or promise (Durant, Roy, Bynum); Quirky Talents the league has never seen before (Josh Smith, Marion); The International Fleet (Yao, Dirk, Ginobili). There are 15 legitimately good squads – even if 10 are out West. Every squad, however, is essentially talented. The center is back. The point guard is back. L.A. is back. Boston is back.
But none of that is related to the “No Pain, No Gain” cliché. That’s mostly the product of good genes, Wheaties, a couple of good (or bad) deals and some other stuff that, often, just happens. What’s important to note is that The League and The Game are back – healthier than ever – expressly because they were hurting so bad for a while.
Remember when practically all of the games were ugly and low scoring? A lot of dudes just straight up didn’t know how to ball on a professional level. It hurt to watch them. Seriously, I would watch some teams play and catch eye-cramps. It probably hurt the game’s inanimate objects, too. Some stiff like Ervin Johnson or Dale Davis would shoot a jump hook and tear the rim’s ACL. Van Gundy’s teams were hurting the pace of the game; and by that I mean that the tempo was literally pulling groins. No lie. People stopped watching. So what happened? A few hand-check rules open things up, a bit. Point guard play returns, some “maverick” coaches start loosening the reins. Now there are 10 whole teams averaging over 100 ppg.
The days and months after The Melee were wrought with questions of recovery. Some clowns even predicted some sort of demise. It seems that dudes weren’t aware that you can’t just decide to start punching people in the face and gaffling spectators. That’s basically a life maxim, unless you play in the NHL. It also never occurred to the league that it might want to think about cutting off the watery-beer taps at a certain point and employing more than some moonlighting rent-a-cops who were nothing more than big, surly lunch ladies wearing tight slacks and a maroon sports coat. The NBA needed Ron Artest and John Green to help galvanize them to these conclusions. Even if there were reasons to take presumptive action before that debacle, it wasn’t going to happen. Leagues, like humans, are only capable of reacting. The fallout hurt, for a while, but – warm beer to the chops or not – you won’t ever see an athlete even think to rush the stands. The arenas are all together safer.
The cultural divide was trickier. There was a disconnect between the players and much of the fan base, the players and the league sponsors, the players and the media…the players and much of America, really. Silly stuff like tattoos, throwback jerseys, jewelry and baggy pants were symbols of a culture that turned off Levi’s 501Joe. He could identify with these cats and their “Hip Hop Gear”. So Stern profiled and instituted a dress code. I hated this idea. Stern was “this close” to getting relegated to that box with the police and people that drive trucks with Confederate flag bumper stickers. But you know what? Stern was right. Was he bowing to pressure from ignorant judges? Kinda. But he reacted and did what he had to do. The league writhed in some public-relations pain and kept it moving. It was like getting stitches. The gash came from letting players run wild and dress with, sometimes, zero decorum. The NBA was bleeding, the wound needed tending and the dress code was the stitches. The league bit its lip and bore the pain. Now you have what is still the most fashionable group of players, except they’re more GQ than OZONE.
And so it went. The league, for instance, had allowed the High School to Pro trend to go unchecked and it became a near-epidemic. The Age Rule authored some civil rights backlash, much of it warranted. After decades of being the pioneer sports league for so many things that dealt with diversity and tolerance, the NBA was starting to look like a semi-fascist operation. But guess what? Now it’s two years later and the evidence is pretty clear that the league is better off, both in terms of quality of play and quantity of fans. There are far more Durant and Oden fans that have followed them to the league after watching them in college. Even the Donaghy Fiasco – a full-fledged scandal – has actually yielded benefits. This wasn’t an issue of play or image. It dealt with integrity. Pundits wondered whether the league could ever be trusted again. It forced the league to seriously assess the whole process surrounding referees, from hiring to performance-grading to off-court behavioral standards. The NBA winced and groaned for a while, but ultimately, Donaghy ain’t much of a potential topic in New Orleans this week. That’s saying something.
This is a special time for the NBA. All the figurative black eyes and ankle sprains of recent years were necessary evils. Systemically, the league righted a bunch of wrongs and weathered even more storms, just in time to house this historic crop of talent, playing the best league-wide basketball in years. That’s the story this All-Star Week – rehash and nitpick if you want.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist for SLAMonline and regular contributor to SLAM Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.