Gabriel Bouys/Getty Images
If you don't care about the 2010 NBA Finals, join the club. Sure, the Celtics and Lakers sounds like a classic match-up. Then you remember that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson aren't playing. Neither are James Worthy, Kurt Rambis, Robert Parish, or Kevin McHale. This year's Finals feels like a bad movie remake—like Planet of the Apes or The Longest Yard. All the big-budget production values can't hide a story with no heart. For most of the American sports-viewing public, the Finals are just one more reminder of how exciting the NBA could be, should be, but isn't.
Basketball is America's only sporting gift to the world. As much as the rest of the planet has always loved our music, movies, blue jeans and cheeseburgers, they have always ignored our games. Other countries couldn't care less about tackle football, as the NFL's multiple failed forays into Europe attest, while baseball is played by just a few nations in Asia and the Caribbean. Only basketball has been completely embraced by the world—and not merely because the game costs less and takes fewer people to play. Basketball is beloved because, unlike baseball and football, it exemplifies so much of what other countries love about America, and so little of what they don't.
The NFL, for instance, is our war game. Hyper-violent, technologically advanced, and demanding total obedience, football is a symbol of American military supremacy—not our most beloved quality overseas. Baseball is more like a monarchy, with the pitcher as king. He is adored when he rules well, deposed when he fails. Also, as any fan will tell you, baseball is America's nostalgic vision of itself. The game evokes an image of a rural past, a pastoral fantasy that may comforting for postmodern, urbanized Americans, but doesn't reflect in the slightest how the rest of the world sees us. To the rest of the world, we are more Michael Jordan than we will ever be Joe DiMaggio.
To the world, Americans are big, brash, loud, and flashy. We are fast, fluid, and wildly diverse. Most of all, we are inherently, incorrigibly, and infectiously democratic, and the rise of the game has curiously paralleled the rise of democracies, particularly in Eastern Europe. Unlike baseball and football—or their respective precursors of cricket and rugby—basketball is egalitarian. Everyone on the court can touch the ball. Everyone can score at any point in the game. Everyone plays both offense and defense.
Point-guards may be called "floor generals," but they don't command troops like a quarterback. The ball-handler is more like a president or prime minister. He must govern by consensus, on the fly. Unlike soccer, however, which is socialism, basketball retains a strong streak of rugged individualism. The primacy of the one-on-one battle creates a kind of dynamic tension; a constant struggle to balance the needs of the team with the needs of the star, to treat every player equally and yet acknowledge the very obvious fact that some players, like Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce, are significantly more equal than others that reflects the constant tension in democracies between the needs of the community and individual rights.
The global embrace of basketball has transformed the NBA into a taller, sweatier version of the United Nations. With apologies to MLS, there is no other major North American sports league that can boast stars from six continents.
The great mystery, then, is why the NBA is so fantastically, monumentally, epically dull? How can such an exquisite sport, played by the world's greatest athletes on the world's biggest stage, so consistently put a completely unwatchable product on the court?
Consider the signature play of the 2010 playoffs: Boston's Rajon Rondo out-hustling Jayson Williams of Orlando. From the sports media's reaction, you would have thought Rondo walked on water, then changed it into wine. All he did was play solid defense. He dove for a loose ball—something you see a dozen times in any decent regular season college basketball game, let alone during the floor-burn frenzy of March Madness. Folks, when an average game between amateurs is more entertaining than a playoff game between pros, your league has serious problems.
One of the roots of the problem is the NBA's meaningless regular season. From November to April, 30 teams play 82 times each for a grand total of 1,230 games, all to eliminate less than half the field. Honest players, like the Celtics' Rasheed Wallace, will flat-out brag that they don't play hard until the playoffs—and he's on a title contender team. On bad teams, most players simply never try their best, ever, a scenario that's almost unimaginable in the NFL and MLB. Not surprisingly, many sports fans seem increasingly unwilling to pay $60 or more for a ticket to a glorified exhibition. Commissioner David Stern projected the league will lose about $400 million this year. Unless you are fishing for a federal bailout, that's not good news.
But there are other reasons why the game is suffering—guaranteed contracts being one of them. NBA players are the civil servants of the sports world—much easier to buy out than to fire. The Wizards' Gilbert Arenas, for instance, made something like $20 million this season, despite being suspended half the year for a felony weapons possession charge. The Indiana Pacers will pay Jamaal Tinsley $21.2 million over the next two years to not play for the team.
Guaranteed contracts also mean that the players don't really have to listen to coaches, resulting in selfish play and a sort of glorified street ball. Just compare the average number of passes per possession in the college game to pros. Or compare the average number of backcuts and picks. Then again, don't bother, because there is no comparison. Let's not forget the extra fouls and timeouts the pros get either, ensuring that the last two minutes of any close game becomes a free-throw shooting contest interspersed with 45 minutes of commercials.
Too much expansion and team movement haven't helped, either. Quick, without thinking, name the NBA franchise in Charlotte. If you said "Hornets," set your clocks ahead six years. They left for New Orleans in 2002, and Charlotte got the expansion Bobcats in 2004 as recompense—sort of like having a Yugo stolen and getting an AMC Pacer as the replacement. Of all the scary signs for the NBA, the failures in Charlotte might be the scariest. If you can't sell basketball in North Carolina, you couldn't sell ice-water to thirsty man.
Maybe worst of all for the quality of play has been the flood of young players that began when Kevin Garnett jumped from high school to the pros in 1995, and has barely been stemmed by the 2006 rule change raising the league's minimum age to 19. A record 74 underclassmen declared themselves eligible for the 2010 NBA Draft this year. No one wants a doctor who hasn't finished a residency. No one wants someone with one year of law school as their attorney. But NBA teams do the equivalent every year, hiring teenagers with virtually no education or experience in their chosen field.
Even extremely talented players, like John Wall of Kentucky, likely the first overall pick, simply don't have time to learn the finer points of the game in a single year. They certainly don't have a financial incentive to do so in the pros.
All this combines to get us to a place where, in political terms, the game has swung too far to the right—celebrating the player over the team, the individual over the community, the one-on-one above the give-and-go. (Here, we get to racism, and the idea that "lack of fundamentals" and "selfish play" are code for "too black." First, especially with the influx of foreign-born players, pro teams often have more light-skinned players than big college programs do. Pau Gasol and Brian Scalabrine are pale as ghosts, but that doesn't make them any less dull to watch. Secondly, the NBA and WNBA have roughly the same percentage of black players, but no one would ever accuse the women's game of being selfish. That's probably because it isn't. WNBA players tend to do crazy things like pass the ball to each other and play team defense.)
There's more, of course. Like some of the worst officials in pro sports, prone to simple incompetence or total corruption. Or bizarre rules against illegal defense in a league that doesn't have enough defense to start with. Or Marv Albert's mysteriously thinning toupee. The list goes on. Just be forewarned. When you tune in to see the Celtics and Lakers' battle for the ages, remember that you are watching a remake. We would hate to have anyone tune in expecting to see the Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston, and find out its the one with Marky Mark instead.
To read the argument for why you should watch the finals, click here.