NBA Lockout: What Are We Going to Do Without Pro Basketball?

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Prospects for next season are looking dim. Our panel ponders what to watch instead of LeBron, Kobe, and co.

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), talk about life without the NBA.


Hey, guys,

To paraphrase the pride of Hannibal, Missouri, what if they had a lockout and nobody came?

Oh, how the nation agonized over the slightest chance of a shortened NFL season. Oh, how we moaned and bewailed our cruel, cruel fate. Now, with the prospects of even having a 2011-2012 NBA season getting dimmer all the time, the only sound you'll hear is a collective national yawn.

And those next-season prospects surely are fading fast. This month, the league filed suit against the NBA Players Union, accusing them of not bargaining in good faith. Shortly afterward, union chief Billy Hunter called out NBA Commissioner David Stern—by expressing backhanded sympathy. Hunter claimed that Stern's negotiating options are limited by hardline new owners that are "holding his feet to the fire." Ouch.

Lordy, how the mighty have fallen. Remember back in the day, when shorts were short, and a pudgy young lawyer rode Bird, Magic and Michael to greatness? Stern's face was all set for carving, right next to Pete Rozelle and Kenesaw Mountain Landis on the Mount Rushmore of sports commissioners. These days, though, it's starting to look like Gary Bettman is the smart one.

We can all recite the NBA's problems by heart. Too many games in the regular season to eliminate too few teams, and guaranteed contracts that practically guarantee lackluster effort until the playoffs. My question is why no one has tried to bring this paper tiger down? New football leagues pop up every few years, either as off-season alternatives to the NFL, like Arena ball, or as rivals like the AFL, USFL, or XFL.

In basketball, nada. We've had an alphabet soup of underfunded minor leagues and/or alternatives like the CBA , IBL, and USBL go bust in this decade, and no serious challenge to the NBA's preeminence since the merger with the ABA. Isn't it about time there was one? And can they please bring back those sweet, sweet ABA red, white, and blue balls?

–Hampton

I can't imagine a nation without its National Basketball Association. Except for a brief spell in the winter of '98 to '99, I've never known a sports scene without it. Not to get all Millennial on you, Hampton, but I actually don't remember back in the day when shorts were actually short and when Bird, Magic and Michael all shared one lawyer, because I've only seen it on grainy YouTube clips and read about it in books like "Breaks of the Game." A significant portion of the NBA's most committed fan base is in this same category. It's the only league that has ever mattered. So why would we care if there even was an alternative?

Still, the lockout should provide some other HD arena for us to fixate on during the next year. It will be fascinating to see where fans of the sport—and not necessarily the league—decide to turn. For a few weeks, at least, the Chinese Basketball Association seemed like it might make for a promising distraction. Then, last week, the league announced that it would only allow unrestricted free agents (meaning, essentially, players who wouldn't take off mid-season for the delayed start to the NBA season) to sign with its teams. Some have even speculated that Stern played a role in the CBA's decision. It wouldn't have been a good look for NBA sponsors if Kobe and Carmelo had taken all of the league's marketing power to China.

The only viable alternatives to the NBA in this country is men's—and to a lesser degree, women's—college basketball (meanwhile, somewhere in Tulsa, the WNBA season drags on). Leagues like the CBA, IBL, and USBL go bust because the NBA has such a committed fan base that knows that at the foundation of this dispute are a lot of rich men who want to stay rich. It's mind-boggling enough that the league and the players are (likely) going to forgo the 2011-12 season. We'll get distracted for a few months, and follow the players to whatever ragtag gym the Drew and Goodman Leagues take them, but I'd wager that most of us are frustratingly allied with the one we won't see play.

I guess there's always some '70s highlights to catch up on on YouTube.

Patrick, where will you get your basketball fix? Do you see any alternative I might be ignoring? I am, admittedly, rather one-sided.

–Emma

At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, let me clear something up: Hampton wasn't claiming that Jordan, Bird, and Magic once shared the same lawyer. (Though that would be kind of amazing.) He was talking about Stern, a Columbia law school grad who served as the NBA's general counsel before becoming the longest-running commissioner in league history.

Lately, I've been wondering if his tenure has gone on too long. Much like the staler-than-communion-wafers Real Housewives of Orange County franchise. (There: a somewhat more contemporary reference. Is that better?)

Look, I have to give Stern credit: He built on the foundation laid by his underrated predecessor, Larry O'Brien, and played a major role in making the NBA the successful, mega-bucks, multinational enterprise it is today. That said, something seems increasingly amiss, with Stern coming across less as an elder pro basketball statesman than an aging mafia don—petty, vindictive and obsessed with power for power's sake.

Take the league's oddly draconian, possibly-Republican-pollster-driven adoption of a sideline dress code. Or its ill-fated attempt to shove a new, universally-loathed synthetic ball down players' collective throats. Or its Oz-like, ignore-the-man-behind-the-curtain response to its self-commissioned, post-Donaghy scandal Pedowitz report, in which the NBA discovered that nearly all of its referees had violated anti-gambling rules ... and responded by changing said rules. None of that happens without the direct or tacit approval of Stern—the same Stern whom half the league seems scared to death of crossing; who silences public dissent with the subtlety of the Chinese Army at Tiananmen Square; who lets definite snake/ probable monorail salesman Clay Bennett swipe a franchise from Seattle with nary a disapproving peep; who hammers players for offensive speech but istotally cool with Donald Sterling, who possibly makes more money than any of the NBA's players, despite having no discernable jump shot to speak of; who in advance of the current labor-management dispute reportedly told a room of NBA All-Stars that he "knows where the [league's] bodies are buried" because he buried some of them himself; whose owner-backed insistence on reducing the players' slice of the league's over economic pie - instead of adopting additional revenue sharing—is the driving force behind the lockout in first place.

As long as Stern is in charge, I'm afraid the need for alternate hoops fix will prove inevitable. So, Emma, to answer your question: I'll be playing "NBA 2K12"—featuring Magic, Bird, and Jordan, plus a bunch of other pre-Millennial icons.

Jake, do you think the upcoming NBA season is doomed? If so, are you looking for an alternative?

–Patrick

Patrick, I already have an alternative—and so do you. I had to reread all your posts to believe it, but college basketball was only mentioned once, a cursory acknowledgment by Emma. But in many ways, men's college hoops (and women's, though not as much) is more fun to follow than the NBA. Instead of 30 teams competing for 16 playoff spots, it's more than 300 fighting for 68 March Madness slots (please God let there be no expansion to 96 teams). Instead of a preponderance of isolation sets with too much dribbling and too little ball movement, there are a plethora of motion offenses that make even the most unathletic school dangerous (see: Cornell 2009-10). And of course there's the Big Dance itself, for my money the most exciting postseason in all of sports, and its workplace productivity-killing first two rounds.

College hoops even has its own built-in fan base: alumni. You don't have to be a Duke or UNC grad to love your alma mater's basketball program and follow it religiously. Even at my beloved Northwestern, the Brooklyn Dodgers of NCAA hoops (we're the only major conference team that's never made the tournament... but wait 'till next year!) there's a rabid fan base that will undoubtedly grow larger if there's no NBA season.

So let Stern, Hunter and the rest of them fritter away what could be the league's most exciting season in a generation. I'll be counting the days until the Preseason NIT.

–Jake

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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