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?
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.