Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Time to Change the Narrative for the NBA

To borrow a phrase from the outstanding writer, Michael Tillery, change the narrative.

I say this because from the moment the season ended for LeBron James last spring – another early exit for his now-former Cleveland Cavaliers – the narrative has been words that are usually reserved for the most despicable beings of sports and society at-large.

Anger from many fans and media remains; anger that would even make the most bitter of New York Yankees or Philadelphia Phillies fans blush. They’ll tell you that he showed his true cowardice colors, destroyed his brand and tarnished his legacy by chasing championships and bikinis instead of holding court as the alpha dog of America’s most notorious sports-suffering city. Some will continue to deny the racial tone in some of this rage, yet what it comes down to is that people resent when a player wants to write his legacy without their permission.

On the other side, there are people who saw the breaking of proverbial shackles. I discovered the words ‘slavery’ bandied about by plenty, regardless of skin tone, age or gender. I also found less damning words about his arrival in Miami; ranging from the tired hip-hop clichés such as they hatin’ to the equally-worn boardroom vernacular of brand leverage. They look at James as a symbol of employee liberation from wealthy owners such as Gilbert who had no problem creating faux-throwbacks with his name on it to sell merchandise.

This Bill Rhoden book was mentioned often after The Decision - image courtesy of Random House

At this point, people are entrenched in these two camps. Like the political garbage being hurled in our direction these days, we’re now being required to have an opinion on LeBron that has nothing to do with his game play and everything to do with The Decision. Why is that?

When it comes to the National Basketball Association, no matter how passionate and knowledgeable fans want the globe to talk about the scintillating game play year in and year out, the rest of the world ends up writing the league’s narrative.

True hoops heads know that there are 450 players on 30 rosters at a time, even if only one-half of that gets regular playing time. Casual fans only know of about 10; those ten being whichever players the television tells them to remember. Non-fans are only aware of those whose names are mentioned on national news programs in the same breaths as this fool, this clown and this idiot.

As much as the NBA continually shapes its image to bring in an audience that may never ever care for it – mostly ϋber-passionate college basketball fans who make their preference known – we fans play just as much of a role in how the league is branded.

Maybe that’s the problem. We’re all so concerned about perception of our favorite sports that we talk about them as brands to consumers, not just a canvas of tremendous athleticism to delight fans. It’s all show business at its core, but for many, a couple of missed baskets in a row become some sort of indictment of a player’s mentality. How often do you hear these days, “if so-and-so wasn’t so concerned with being in all these commercials and parties, he’d have a better jumper” or the like?

Look, if you like ‘drama’ and ‘controversy’ and ‘big names’, usually, I’d say park yourself in front of a TV and watch some of these primetime shows. Yet, since the new slate of television fare hasn’t been exactly enticing the masses, you might feel all the more compelled to watch these games.

Why is Al Jefferson smiling? He's going to be in the playoffs! - Image courtesy of Deseret News 

For all the anger about The Superfriends forming in Miami (and let us not forget those trade winds around Chris Paul or Carmelo Anthony), the offseason gave us all a tremendous opportunity to see how old faces will shape up in new places while looking to see how the old guard continues to prove its staying power.

The New York Knicks will be relevant again thanks to Amar’e Stoudamire and Raymond Felton.

Al Jefferson is going to run with a perennial playoff team in Utah.

Chicago and Milwaukee are going to give us a 1990s-redux in the Central Division (yes, sans MJ, but still).

Oklahoma City has become the media darlings of the league, but unlike those in other sports, there’s no obvious reason to dislike the Thunder… unless you’re from the Seattle area.

From Queensbridge Houses to the STAPLES Center, you can’t help but to wonder what is Ron Artest going to do for an encore.

Boston’s going to try to chin-check the entire league.

Dwight Howard might show more than one offensive move.

Steve Nash is still Steve Nash.

There’s a lot to look forward to beyond the traveling drama that is LeBron. There’s a lot of basketball to watch that will hopefully give those outside of NBA nation something else to talk about. Something else besides the train wreck that will be his first game in Cleveland or the initial showdown with the champion Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant. Something else besides the latest Nike advertisement.

Sure, he should just shut up and play. Yet, we need to just shut up, watch and maybe… just maybe… change the narrative.

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