Wednesday, September 30, 2009
An ode to the NBA
For those people who think the NBA season is a neverending death march that's three months too long, and complain every year when the calendar turns to June and the Finals haven't even started yet, the following bit of news is probably as unsurprising as it is upsetting: NBA training camps started this week.
Just three months after the Lakers defeated Orlando in the NBA Finals, the league's teams have returned to camp, even if the referees haven't.
In the final days of September, the NBA ranks behind the NFL, baseball, and college football in the nation's sports hierarchy, and even the NHL - hockey! - will probably get more attention at this stage. I too avidly follow all of those. (Not the NHL. Yes, I'm a native Minnesotan. But southern Minnesotan; we didn't do hockey).
However, for an NBA junkie, this week is a time to celebrate. Out of all my friends and family, I think I'm the only one who still ranks the NBA as the most enjoyable league to watch and follow. It's like being a fan of a cult TV show that's managed to stay on the air year after year. The NFL rules for most. There are those who, come April, show more interest in the third-round draft machinations of the Vikings than the beginning of the NBA playoffs. For others, Major League Baseball reigns and October is the holiest of all months. Even those who rank basketball as their favorite sport usually place the NBA behind college hoops or high school basketball.
But the NBA remains my favorite. The main reason is simply because it is basketball ("no-defense, one-on-one, diva-filled, boring basketball" yell the critics). As a little kid, football was my favorite sport, maybe until the age of 9 or 10. As the Tiger Woods of football-playing toddlers, I could catch passes thrown across the living room even before my second birthday. A future as an NFL receiver - probably a possession-type guy who moves the chains and is inevitably called my QB's "go-to guy" on third downs - seemed assured.
Soon basketball replaced football as my favorite, and the love affair has never died. I still play when possible, and I'll watch any game on TV and attend any level of live action, whether it's a Knicks game, an eighth-grade tournament at the YMCA, high school tripleheaders or college doubleheaders. Sitting in a gym or an arena as tipoff nears feels like home.
Naismith created the perfect game.
Strangely, though, the highest level of play is often the most-criticized. The NBA season's too long. That's one of the big complaints, a lament often muttered by baseball fans, who roll their eyes at the length of an NBA season but revel in a baseball campaign that stretches from February through October and includes 162 regular season games and three rounds of postseason play. And certainly there's little romance or mysticism in the NBA. You'll never hear anyone say, "Only 34 days until centers and guards report!"
"Who wants to watch a terrible game between Sacramento and Milwaukee in the middle of January?" an NFL fan might wonder. In the NFL, we're told, every game counts, every Sunday is another life-or-death battle in a five-month war. Stakes are high. There are certainly bad games throughout the season in the NBA and many that are ultimately meaningless. But because there are so few games in the NFL season, atrocities like the Raiders-Chiefs game from two weeks ago are an even bigger stain on the league. Each team only has 16 games, and that's the type of action fans see in many of them?
Many people stopped following or enjoying the NBA shortly after Magic and Bird shuffled off the stage, and if they stayed past that they left when Jordan said goodbye the first time, or when he said farewell the second time (no one really cared when he left for a third time).
I understand that reasoning. The NBA in the 1980s remains my favorite era of any sports league. But while I still break out my videotapes from those years and remember the plays from games played 25 years ago, I've never stopped following the league. I savor it as much now as I did then. Teams don't fastbreak like they used to, and there's nothing quite like the Magic-Bird rivalry. And, yes, in today's NBA too many power-hungry coaches control every aspect of the offense, insisting on calling each play, limiting the flow of action as the guards walk the ball up the court while staring at the sideline for direction.
No matter. The talent and level of play is as good as ever, maybe even better. Catch an old game from the 1970s on ESPN Classic or online sometime. See the lack of intensity on defense. Watch how many players struggle to dribble with their off-hand. Today many 6-11 players can handle the ball in ways that six-foot point guards from the past couldn't have dreamed of doing.
Some people still cling to the idea that no one plays defense in the NBA, an out-of-touch belief that probably started with grizzled high school coaches in the 1960s who didn't want their crewcut-wearing players picking up bad habits from the big boys. Few teams fastbreak anymore - which I again blame on coaches who are afraid to let their players actually play the game - but the speed, power and quickness of today's players continue to evolve at a startling pace.
Some of the greatest players in the game's history have ruled the NBA the last 10 years, from Tim Duncan, to Shaq, to Kobe, three of the best ever at their positions. Then there's LeBron, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki and on and on and on.
The influx of high school players and one-and-done college stars has led to cries about a lack of fundamentals - aside from things like, oh, ball-handling - but the infusion of talent from Europe and South America provides the league with a pool of talent that was completely unavailable in the 1980s.
Another complaint? The NBA is home to too many unsavory types, a sentiment often said by NFL fans who have had their sense of irony dulled by too much beer and Bradshaw.
College basketball and football produce unmatched rivalries. The atmosphere at most college games is superior. And March Madness continues to somehow live up to the hype every year.
But give me the paid pros. The product on the court is superior to the college game, the sheer individual superiority and skill on display in an average NBA game is way above any collegiate battle, even between the top teams in the nation. Passing, defense, shooting, strategy. It can be jolting watching the difference between pro and college basketball, no matter how loudly Dick Vitale screams about the greatness of the amateurs.
While the do-or-die format of the NCAA tournament heightens the tension, the NBA playoffs are a drama played out in multiple parts, with series shifting each night, coaches bickering, and players bragging. By the time the series ends you can be almost certain the team left standing is truly the best. There are no flukes in the NBA, with the possible exception of Mark Madsen's career.
Numerous problems hurt the NBA, from shaky refereeing to financial difficulties facing many franchises. Games could be more uptempo. But every pro league and college sport has just as many issues, if not more. Unlike the NBA, though, those leagues aren't fighting with 25-year-old ghosts.
Duncan's bank shot, Kobe's midrange jumper, LeBron's drives, Chris Paul's crossovers, Garnett's defense, Shaq's dunks, Ray Allen's 3-pointers, Steve Nash's handles, Phil Jackson's smirk, Gasol's left-handed jump hooks, Nowitzki's fadeaway. They're the best players and coaches in the world performing at the highest level in the top league. In a little more than a month all of those sights will again be on display.
I just wish the season wasn't so short.