Tuesday, November 30, 2004


If you were given dictatorial power over the NBA, what would you do differently? Assume that you can't manufacture extraordinarily talented players, but you can change the rules and structure any way you like.

Oh boy. We’re firmly in the realm of fantasy, are we?

The tension between players and fans has so much to do with money. The public resents the huge salaries players draw, but at the same time ticket prices are so high, ticket buyers feel they have a license to abuse players verbally (or worse). So turn down the volume on the bling-bling. Reduce ticket prices by at least half. Fewer corporate skyboxes. More bleacher seats that “regular people” can afford. Reduce the number of games by a third. Reduce TV commercials on the game broadcasts. Reduce or eliminate billboards in the gym. And reduce player salaries commensurate to all this (by 75%?). (I know, it’s un-American to leave money on the table voluntarily, but it’s my fantasy, dammit.)

Guarantee the security of players on the court and fans in the bleachers. More cops, if that’s what it takes. Eliminate alcohol sales, or limit them (say, first half of the game only).

I agree, the NBA should have a developmental league. At the same time, if a teenager has the ability, or shows the promise, to command an NBA contract, it seems unfair to deny them that. Nobody thought it was somehow immoral of Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard, did they? If 18-year-olds want to go pro, let them, but let them play in the “minor leagues” for a year or two. Don’t make them grow up in the glare of the big time. And don’t make them endure a year or more of pauperdom, going through the motions of getting a college education they’re not interested in.

(College basketball will become a second-tier level of play in my scenario. But college ball will become less mercenary. College fans will expect players to stick around for four years, and will believe that the players are real students as well as athletes.)

Link each NBA team more closely to the real basketball culture of its community. Put the arenas where the fans are, and reduce ticket prices to make them affordable to the “average fan.” For instance, and I’m not certain this matters in the recent fight, but the Detroit Pistons play in Auburn Hills, an affluent suburb. Detroit has a great tradition of basketball played by black kids in inner-city neighborhoods. The Pistons should be geographically and financially within reach of the most passionate fans.

If each franchise has a developmental or youth team, that can be a bridge to the community as well. Tickets to those games can be extra cheap, with perhaps some giveaways. Developmental teams could hold camps or workshops for youth players. This could be a recruitment tool for up-and-coming players as well as a community relations strategy.

Less ear-splitting music, please. Fewer dancing girls and cavorting mascots. Let’s be clear that we’re all here for a basketball game.

As far as actual play goes: Expand the court. The players have gotten bigger and faster, and it’s simply too crowded out there. Make the court wider by five feet or so, and maybe longer as well. Expand the three-second lane: perhaps go to the international lane (wider at the baseline).

I like the physicality of the NBA, but I don’t want it to be Worldwide Wrestling. Call fouls a little closer. There ARE such things as traveling and palming, Mr. Referee. And hand out stiff penalties for the most flagrant fouls.

Team play and fundamentals are lacking. Fewer games per season (i.e. more time to practice) and the presence of developmental leagues might improve this situation. Also, there should be more exhibition games between NBA teams and international teams. (Foreign teams are less athletic than American teams, but are sounder fundamentally, they pass better, etc.) All parties would benefit.

** We hashed over the Pistons-Pacers fight at PeoplesForum as well, and I was finally persuaded that it's not the end of civilization as we know it. Nobody was badly hurt, fortunately, and when was the last time people were talking about the NBA in November? But I take it more seriously (and simultaneously maybe less seriously, I dunno) than the Slate writer does. Big time sports matter, for better or worse, as a kind of Kabuki theater where we work stuff out as a culture. I'm in favor of tweaking the conventions a bit to keep the focus on fair play and merit rather than gladiatorial decadence. Yet precisely because sports is NOT curing cancer or housing the homeless, it depends on the public's faith. Pro baseball and football had problems with players involved with gambling and organized crime. Those sports confronted gambling firmly if not brutally (see: Shoeless Joe Jackson) and went on to prosper. On-court violence and the tension between players and fans may be the NBA equivalent of the Black Sox scandal.

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