Monday, October 3, 2011

Ain't Too Proud To Beg

I love this time of year. The crispness in the air, the leaves slowly turning into fireworks displays, hot cider, getting to wear sweaters again, Octoberfest beers on tap. Autumn is a wonderful season. And among the many fine reasons to enjoy it, near the top of the list has to be what happens to sports as the summer fades out. There's the drama of MLB playoffs unfolding, football is in full, rollicking swing, and the promise of what I call "Golden Week." This refers to that brief, glorious stretch of time in which all four major sports are in play simultaneously. Hinging on the World Series, that frozen moment encompasses the inceptions of the NHL and NBA, and the stretch of the NFL and NCAA football seasons right when the picture of their arcs and personalities begins to crystallize. It's beautiful and chaotic; ping-ponging around a zillion channels, all of which are airing sweet, sweet games to enjoy. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet of athletics. Just thinking about it makes me "shiver with antici ... PA-tion."

Unfortunately, "Golden Week" is going to be lacking more than a little bit of luster this year. It's going to be more akin to "Rust Week", in point of fact, because my favorite component is only going to exist in absentia. Barring a miracle, NBA basketball isn't going to happen for a long while, if it happens at all before we champagne-and-countdown our way into 2012.

An awful lot of people I know, even people who love sports, are not too concerned about this fact. For a vast institution that spans America and a portion of Canada, that enjoys major-network TV coverage and a handful of instantly-identifiable superstars, the NBA is relatively marginalized in terms of social currency. The reasons for this are understandable, if regrettable. Professional basketball entails neither the iconography and rosy nostalgia attendant to baseball, nor the all-pervasive cultural saturation of the NFL. As much as some of us love this game, a (comparatively) small but intensely loyal fan base is not a substitute for mass appeal.

In this regard, the culture of the sport works against it. In the public mind, and they're not really wrong, basketball is hip-hop and tattoos and bling. It's an urban game in a country where rural idealism still rules much of our collective assessments on what is "good" and what has "value." I'm not implying that racism is at the heart of this by any means, though it no doubt plays a part within some segments of the population. If race were the issue, hockey would be far more popular, and football far less so. It's the fact that basketball games are introduced on broadcasts with drum loops and MC's, while the NFL's pitch-people are Hank Williams Jr. and Faith Hill. Because the trappings and atmosphere of the game are rooted in a subculture that many people find it difficult to identify with, they choose to write it off, and therefore miss the inherent beauty
of what happens on the court. Which is a damn shame.

But what's an even greater shame, what really galls, is that we are going to be deprived of experiencing that beauty for at least part of the coming NBA season, if indeed we have a season at all. It's a shame because last season, and particularly the playoffs, gifted the NBA with its best opportunity since Jordan retired to reach those people. The stories were compelling, the play breathtaking, and the ratings reflective of those things. Even the most casual of observers were not just along for the ride, they were invested. The primary motor that drove the interest was, of course, the Miami Heat, but once people started paying attention, they were exposed to the most incredible stretch of basketball I've ever seen in such a condensed time frame. And if those people happened to catch transcendent moments like Brandon Roy or Chris Paul's forget-the-injuries-I-still-got-something-in-the-tank gems, or the triple-OT Thunder/Grizzlies slugfest, or Dirk being Dirk in (insert game here), some of them probably discovered that they could very much enjoy this game. Some of them might have been tuning in a little more often this season, in hopes of seeing more incredible nights. Some of them might even have had road-to-Damascus moments and become real, diehard converts. And the NBA is throwing all of that away.

They'll always have us, of course. When you love something deeply and unconditionally, you're willing to forgive most any transgression, and the minute they get this lockout sorted out and it's time for the first game to tip, we'll be there. Perhaps because it's something of a niche obsession, the NBA has the best fans, and certainly the best online/blogging community* of any sport. That's a subjective opinion, obviously, but it's also been born out in my personal experience to a large extent. There are few enough of us, comparatively speaking, that we gravitate towards each other in a uniquely passionate manner. It's like being in a club.

But we're not Skull And Bones. There's no password or secret handshake, and we don't espouse the hipster mentality of "this was much cooler before it got big." If you want into the tree house, then enter and be welcome, friends! We want the NBA to be as universally adored as other sports. We want you to love this game as much as we do, to share in the joy and heartbreak and the sheer, jaw-dropping awesomeness of watching teams and players doing the extraordinary.

Right now, the players and the owners are destroying the chance to bring a lot more people into that tree house. They seem to be missing the fact that if revenue is the problem, the best solution is to play the games and let all the people whose interest was piqued by last year get hooked. I understand the myriad of issues that need to be resolved; BRI splits and contract lengths and the salary cap and all the rest of it. I get it. But failing to put the requisite time and effort into resolving those problems, as they have so far, is killing the closest thing basketball has had in a while to a golden goose. If you can pardon an insanely tired cliche: it takes two to tango, and right now both sides are acting like boys and girls at a middle school social; on opposite sides of the gym, stubbornly, stupidly refusing find a partner and hit the dance floor.

So figure it out, people. Please. We want to watch John Wall and Russell Westbrook evolve. We want to watch Jimmer and Kyrie Irving play at the next level. We want to see if the Griz can build on what they did last season. We want Kobe and Steve Nash and KG and Duncan to be able to milk every last drop out of their basketball twilights. We want more Blake Griffin dunks. We want to see if the Heat can make good on "not one, not two, not three ..." We want more Kevin Love, more Durrant, more J-Smoove, more 'Melo, more HOOPS, damnit! And we want more fans to share it all with. Fans which your petulance is inexorably driving away.

For your loyal fans, and for everyone who might become your loyal fans in the future, please, please, get this done.

*I know it's odd to proclaim the superiority of a sport's online presence, declare myself a fan of that sport, yet run a general sports blog instead of one dedicated solely to the NBA. Frankly, the people already involved do a better job than I ever could, and I enjoy writing about football and baseball too much to focus on hoops alone.

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