View Full Version : NBA Markets Style at Expense of Substance

02-15-2004, 04:37 PM
N.B.A. Markets Style at Expense of Substance

Published: February 15, 2004

he question I am asked most frequently by youngsters who submit questions to my Web site is, "What can I do to increase my vertical leap?" It doesn't matter what age they are; everyone wants to dunk.

I think this question captures in a nutshell the state of basketball today, and the influence of the N.B.A. on the game as it is played everywhere else.

Professional basketball has been trivialized and dumbed down to the level of a highlight reel. Marketing and entertainment rule the day rather than putting the best product on the floor.

Basketball is not a vertical game. The game is won between the foul line and the basket, an area where so few players today choose to, or are able to, operate. Dunking is such a tiny part of the game. My answer to these youngsters is always the same: concentrate on mastering all the fundamentals and becoming a complete player. I'm sure that's not the answer they want to hear.

N.B.A. basketball is mostly muscle and flash. Stylin' all the way to the hoop. Dunks and 3-pointers, with nothing in between. Shooting percentages continue to plummet. When people tell me that scores are lower today because defenses are better, I have to laugh. Once I resisted the idea of the N.B.A. permitting zone defenses. Anymore, what does it matter? Defenses can't guard anyone properly and offenses can't score. One guy freelances while the other four stand and watch. There's no movement, no creation of an open shot on the weakside, no positioning for an offensive rebound.

I pity coaches at any level who believe in and want to teach fundamentals, when youngsters see players on TV with no fundamentals being paid huge sums of money. Why be concerned with traveling, double dribbling, palming or carrying the ball, or failing to box out under the hoop when there are no consequences in the N.B.A. for such behavior?

Players today are bigger, faster, stronger and more agile. But many of them can't dribble, can't shoot from outside, can't create shots off the dribble, can't guard anyone and are lost without the ball. Or even with it.

I can already hear the cries of protest: I'm "old school" and out of touch. You've got that right. Many of my colleagues and I who were fortunate to play during the golden age of the N.B.A. the mid-60's to the early 70's are saddened by what the game has become today. And it's not about the money. I believe an athlete should be able to earn whatever the market will bear. But I also believe he or she actually ought to earn the money by delivering true value in return, i.e., a level of play that advances rather than diminishes the game.

And why has the game of professional basketball changed so radically? Other pro sports haven't. To become a position player in major league baseball, you still need most or all of these skills: hitting, hitting with power, speed, defense and a strong arm. In football, offensive and defensive strategies come and go, but the basic attributes required to play each position haven't changed all that much.

Once upon a time in basketball, regardless of your position, you were expected to be able to dribble with either hand, master all the basic passes, play aggressive defense whether man or zone, at least be able to guard and contain an opponent to some degree, at least box out your opponent if not rebound, command at least three or four reliable shots from various distances, and execute basic offensive maneuvers like running routes without the ball, setting screens, running the pick-and-roll and creating a shot off the dribble.

Most of today's so-called star N.B.A. players have fairly one-dimensional games. Why? Potential stars skilled in one or two areas of the game are identified at a very early age and coddled and wooed from middle school on up. Few coaches will require them to develop a complete game or warm the bench until they do. So they reach the N.B.A., often after only a year or two of college if at all, without more than a minimal concept of the overall game of basketball. The exceptions like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are a distinct minority.

Thus, just as America imports cheap labor from other countries to do the jobs Americans don't want to do, the N.B.A. turns increasingly to foreign players who do have fundamental skills and an all-around approach to the game that fewer and fewer American players even though they may be superior athletes can be troubled to learn.

The N.B.A. has made a conscious decision to function as a marketing and entertainment organization, and seems much more concerned with selling sneakers, jerseys, hats and highlight videos than with the product it puts on the floor. The league wants to extend its footprint worldwide, which is good, but only to the extent of creating individual heroes who can drive sales of licensed products in their countries, a shortsighted approach that does nothing to grow the overall level of play. Team play is no longer considered sexy. Individual showmanship is. But one player, no matter how gifted, does not build and sustain a championship franchise.

I always thought that the game itself was the product and that team success took precedence over the achievements of individual stars. Such thinking today is passé. The N.B.A. has bet the farm on marketing those players it believes appeal to the hip-hop culture, which has the same relationship to true culture as N.B.A. basketball does to real basketball. Even if basketball people were allowed once again to influence the strategic direction of the N.B.A., it would take them years to reverse the damage.

As we take a break for another All-Star weekend, which is basically a made-for-TV miniseries, the focus is more on artificial contests created especially for television the only thing missing is a three-legged race than on the teams on the court, and on getting certain individual players onto the floor rather than creating teams that match up well against each other.

Now All-Star voting is in the hands of the fans, and extended worldwide via the Internet. Thus we have the spectacle of Yao Ming, already an international marketing icon if not quite yet a fully developed basketball player, starting at center for the West instead of Shaquille O'Neal. Personally, I think voting should be returned to the players. Even if we don't have marketing degrees.

Oscar Robertson, a 12-time All-Star, is the author of "The Art of Basketball" (Oscar Robertson Media Ventures, 1998) and "The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game" (Rodale Press, 2003).

02-15-2004, 04:40 PM
Amen, Big O....This is EXACTLY why I thought the Rookie-Soph game was just terrible.

02-15-2004, 04:54 PM
Thanks for the article. That was a fantastic read.

I think the Big O has nailed it on the head.

02-15-2004, 11:54 PM
I agree with everything that the Big O said. Too many showmen, not enough basketball players. I think this weekend reaffirms that.

By the way, is it just me or is Oscar one of the most underrated players of all time? Amazing too, since the triple double thing. Instead, he's just become a trivia question instead of being remembered for being one of the top players of all time.

02-16-2004, 04:20 PM
Rhoden echoes the Big O:

When Marketing Starts to Compromise Game It's Promoting

Published: February 16, 2004


ANOTHER N.B.A. weekend is over. The kaleidoscope of events ranged from Shaquille O'Neal's party at Hugh Hefner's mansion to National Basketball Association players distributing food to the needy. Once again, the N.B.A. proved its unparalleled ability to market itself and tap into a contemporary culture of youth and glamour.

But what happens when the marketing of the game and its commercialism begin to spill over into the game itself? We may have had a glimpse of an answer this weekend.

The league's hottest young stars, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, sat out an All-Star Game they should have been in and played in a Rookie Challenge game that became a travesty on Friday night.

All-star games are tricky affairs, showcasing individual skills and, ideally, fostering good, injury-free competition at midseason.

Last night's well-played, hotly contested All-Star Game was a much-needed contrast to the rookie game, unprecedented in its lack of effort or competitive fire. To the extent that everything is a learning moment, the first- and second-year players could have learned a thing or two from watching the veterans play an All-Star Game that offered a balance of entertainment and competition.

For all the talk about the N.B.A.'s youth movement, the games Friday and last night showed the chasm between the players still finding their way and the veteran players who compete in every context.

"I didn't really enjoy the game," Dave Bing, a seven-time All-Star in the 1960's and 70's, said in an interview here yesterday. "The game has become too much of a show for me. As a purist and a former player, it's not as competitive as I think it should be. I know they're trying to capture that market, but they can ruin the game, they can ruin the product at the same time. Everything now is about athleticism how high can you jump. Everything is a dunk. You just don't see the pure part of them."

On the other hand, a lot of people are benefiting from marketing initiatives that have made the N.B.A. one of the world's premier sports leagues. The Retired Players Association, the Read to Achieve Program and other outreach programs that the N.B.A. operates flourish because of lucrative corporate sponsorships.

Marketing has taken the league to its current level of global exposure, but it has created a confusing divide between endorsement and worth.

"I just think the league is going to have to really stress and put some focus back on the game and not as much on entertainment," Bing said. "They're trying to get that 15- to 30-year-old market so they can have them for a long period of time. But at some point they've got to get back to the product, which is the game."

The Rookie Challenge premise is also good: second-year players have a chance to show the new kids how it's done. But, without direction from the league, the game can become a dunking exhibition disguised as a game, as it did Friday night. And dunking is not the most attractive thing about James or Anthony.

Bing believes as I do, that James and Anthony should have been in last night's game. Instead, after playing at a major league level for three months, they were relegated for a night to the minors. They sold tickets, but the game was not what it could have been. In a league whose forte is marketing, Friday's game was a marketing mistake. Not a big one, but a mistake.

"They're the future of the league," Bing said about Anthony and James. "They were outstanding in some of the things they did in the rookie game, but there's doubt in my mind where their preference was. They're disappointed, I'm sure."

If James and Anthony, with the skills they have, are the league's future, then the N.B.A. must do everything it can to showcase their skills in the All-Star Game, not the Rookie Challenge, Bing said.

"I just think we got to think more about where we want to take the game and not so much just focus on the entertainment piece," Bing said. "I think ultimately that's going to come back to haunt us."

Jerry West, president of the Memphis Grizzlies, said he stopped watching the rookie game.

"I turned it off," he said yesterday. "I couldn't stand to watch it." {Great minds thinking alike?}

West said that the game Friday "looked like a bunch of kids out on the playground playing and having fun with no regard of who wins or loses."

"I don't like that; I like substance over style and I think that wins for you in this league," he said. "I have great respect for the game. I care about the game more than most of those guys, because this was my way out of hell. I'm not sure these young kids realize the trials and tribulations that this league has had to get to this point in time."

The N.B.A.'s youth movement is fine, but the influx of young players has given the league's hierarchy a new challenge. This weekend, symbolized by the Rookie Challenge, is a reminder of the dangers of giving the keys to the kingdom to 20-year-olds. There is something to be said not just for experience, but also for the accumulated wisdom of age.

02-16-2004, 04:46 PM
I feel old-fashioned, but I think there is just a right way to play. I don't see that very often these days - especially in these games.