Saturday, January 12, 2008

Forward (VI)

After this, just one more. A smorgesborgh, if you will, of other sports to watch out for throughout 2008. For now, this sixth installation speaks about the most criticized and self-critical league ever known.

NBA: Will we keep looking for the Next Jordan? A while back in Sideshow, an article from Page 2’s (ESPN) Chuck Klosterman was referenced. It’s probably the most truthful article written in decades, if not ever, about the National Basketball Association. He described the league as “hopelessly, endlessly, incorrigibly narcissistic,” but explained further:
“When people hear the word "narcissistic," they associate it with egotism, but that's not really accurate. The failing of the mythical Narcissus was not his obsession with himself; it was his obsession with his image. And this is what prompts the NBA to wrestle with itself. No other league is as preoccupied with how others feel about its product.”

This is the league, however, that recreated the template of sports superstardom that is hard for anyone to duplicate. The emphasis on the individual is unlike any other from a team sports organization. From the unusual physiques to the near-nudeness due to the uniforms, NBA players are arguably the most recognizable athletes in the industry. The potential for these athletes, however, to transcend the sport took some time and luck to determine.

Baseball players were some of the first due to their early start in the sports landscape. Football stars followed suite once the NFL began to grasp the power of television. Yet, because the NBA has always been in some sort of need for revival, the singular face of the league was undefined. The Bill Russell-led Celtics, Oscar Robertson-led Royals and Wilt Chamberlain’s 76ers and Lakers were not enough, despite their uncanny talents and public demeanors. Race plays a significant role, whether we like it or not, but there was something else that not even Magic Johnson or Larry Bird in the 1980s possessed.

Somehow, Michael Jordan had it.

Before Jordan, it took the press’ unquestioned pulse on the sports world and some social firestorms to make athletes seem bigger than life. Muhammad Ali (and Jack Johnson before him), Joe Louis, any Yankee Hall-of-Famer, Johnny Unitas, Jim Thorpe, you name it. Though Fortune 500 companies had long ago made their foray into sports, the union between Jordan and Nike changed how popular athletes would be introduced to the world on a grand scale. That very union attracted many other offers for him and started a tidal wave of endorsement deals and sponsorships that has yet to show signs of subsiding.

Jordan has the looks, the talent, the accolades, the insatiable drive to dominate and an apparent apolitical stance that offended neither consumer nor business. He was the first black star athlete with undeniable crossover appeal. Even in a progressive era as the 1990s, this was unique and it was hard to imagine that the Association, or any league, could find similar success with another player.

They’re still searching for it.

When Jordan first retired following his third title with the Chicago Bulls, roundball columnists were asking who would become ‘The Next’. The roll call: Harold Miner, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade and the highest anointed of them all, LeBron James. Not surprisingly, most of those players had or have reached just a fraction of Jordan’s popularity with the public and the corporate community (and ‘Baby Jordan’ Miner faded rather quickly). The expectations were unfair and unrealistic, but that hasn’t stopped the A from trying again with Wade and James. All the while, a different brand of superstar emerged that countered the ‘clean-cut’ campaign for Jordan.

For better or worse, stars with ‘hood appeal’, ‘street-cred’ and ‘ghetto superstardon’ written all over them became the focus on the league. Allen Iverson was the first anti-Jordan superstar (and this moment solidified that status), and he singlehandedly carried a fledgling Reebok into the 2000s. Any guard with a crossover and bravado seemingly followed suit (Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Baron Davis, ‘White Chocolate’ Jason Williams). The influx of hip-hop culture with these newer players may have opened new doors in the coded ‘urban’ centers, but it also invited a socioeconomic rift that turned away many casual fans. Race, economics, generations, you name it.

Because these two contrasting campaigns were openly competing for the public’s conscious, every little negative tidbit regarding a player or the games themselves became a referendum on the NBA.

It still does.

You can dissect any news related to the NBA and find that no matter how insightful the discussion can be about the game, its players or teams; the conversation always comes back to the league’s image. A low-scoring game invites people to scream about the salaries of players. When someone takes thirty or so shots in a game, players are selfish and dumb (because Jordan himself never took more than ten shots in any game). When more international players are drafted, it’s becomes some conscious plot to undermine the African-American athlete. When Steve Nash wins two MVP awards, some columnists and fans take Commissioner David Stern to task for championing a white player in a league full of black ones. Can the A get a fair shake? Not when it is so open about its desires of finding another Mike.

The league changed on-court play with new ripples for offense in order to move away from the dominant defenses of the 80s and 90s. The marketing of their already-known and industry-leading community relations initiative (branded as NBA Cares) has been turned up since the Brawl a few years back. Wade and James are the most marketed players in the league; Wade’s championship with the Heat have catapulted him major pitchman status while James was placed in Jordan’s shadow when he was still in high school barely five years ago.

All the while, there are a sign of the anti-Jordan athlete, even within the Jordan brand, Jumpman. Carmelo Anthony, its signature player, may run with Iverson now, but he was categorized with him during his rookie season. Marbury went from And1 to his own inexpensive and successful ‘Starbury’ line, even though his image has taken a turn for the worse in recent years. There were failed attempts to find more of those types, such as the adidas contract bestowed upon Marbury’s troubled cousin, Sebastian Telfair.

It’s apparent that the NBA wants to be admired in the way that few leagues are. The NFL, Major League Baseball and college sports (mainly basketball and football) don’t have these internal struggles out in the open as much as the NBA does. Other than baseball, the aforementioned leagues have a similar composition of players as the A; many black players grew up poor, working-class or middle-class. Baseball, itself, has an increased presence of Latino and Asian players and dwindling number of blacks and whites.

So, why do all the image problems really fall into the NBA’s lap? Because no matter if it’s Derek Jeter or Peyton Manning or even the true collegiate pitchmen, the coaches, those leagues never had what the NBA banked on for the better part of twenty years. They didn’t create nor fall upon what the Association had in the palm of its hand.


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