The NBA has produced a lousy product for decades, held together by superior marketing and an intrinsically pleasing game. I’m from Indiana. I can still shoot free throws at better than a 70% clip despite being old, out of shape and only playing once or twice a year, and if there is a television screen nearby with images of a basketball floating through the air majestically, I will always and forever be drawn to it. I love basketball, which is exactly why I hate the NBA.
The reason for this is simple. The NBA has long been a failure at the one thing that matters most to a professional sports league – integrity. My friends have had to listen to my annoying rants about how NBA playoff games are fixed (they are) and why the games, in the regular season in particular, are terrible (they often are) but just yesterday the league (aka David Stern) came out publicly with the exact same assessment. Well, maybe not the one about playoff games being fixed, they’re probably hoping people don’t notice that.
Anyway, here’s the long and short of it: The San Antonio Spurs chose to rest four of their better players for a game against the Miami Heat. The game was to be televised nationally. David Stern did not like this and fined San Antonio $250,000.
This means lots of things, but only one is really important when you consider why the Spurs rested their players. It was done because providing rest to players during the (interminable) regular season will keep them fresher and more productive over the course of the season and for the playoffs. It was done, in short, to win more games in total and to win the more important games in particular. But it was done, undeniably, in an effort to win.
David Stern penalized a team, severely, for trying to win because it was less entertaining to the Miami Heat ticket-holders and the national television audience.
Here’s the thing. Professional sports are not, at their core, about entertainment. This mistake is made all the time, usually by people who have a personal and/or financial investment in professional sports. Sport is about competition, and just because competition is often entertaining does not make it one in the same, no matter how many people pay to see it. Sports are about winning, and they have to be or nobody would take them seriously, since anything else is just theater. Consider the WWE, which is based around a sport but is obviously entertainment above all else. People will pay money to go see it, but nobody takes it seriously, and nobody considers it competition.
In a hilarious bit of theater in its own right, this is why David Stern came down so ferociously on Tim Donaghy a few years ago, because a referee who admitted to fixing games threatened to undermine the integrity of the league. No matter that the league itself had been fixing games for decades, but whereas the reality of integrity is important to me, the perception is what was at stake for Stern, since he knows as well as anyone that Americans fundamentally abhor corruption.
Astonishingly, then, by penalizing the Spurs for attempting to succeed in the standings, David Stern is telling the world, blatantly and without subtlety, that the NBA’s focus is on entertaining the audience and not ‘may the best team win’.
This is nothing new to me. It’s my belief that the league has fixed games for over thirty years in an effort to put select individuals (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird to name a few) and their teams (Lakers, Celtics, Bulls) into the limelight that is the NBA Finals at the expense of fair play.
This contention is based on the premise that David Stern has always valued promoting a product more than he values a level playing field for the game itself, and while people can argue about whether game 6 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals was fixed (and it is painfully obvious that it was) it is now impossible to argue that the league does not consider itself, first and foremost, the equivalent of professional wrestling.