Friday, July 4, 2008
The Fix In 2006
I started following NBA basketball in the late 1970s. For me, the battles between the 80s Celtics, Pistons and Lakers were the pinnacle of the Association. I've never seen pro basketball played with a higher degree of both skill and physicality than I saw during those golden years of the league. But my love for the game outlived those teams and I followed NBA ball for another two decades.
For me, everything changed in June of 2006.
In 2004, I finally ordered the NBA League Pass package from my cable provider and started watching games around the league on a nightly basis. I enjoyed some of the new metrics that statisticians were developing to rate players and spent a lot of time talking basketball on internet forums. The sport I'm most passionate about is hockey, but during the NHL lockout, NBA basketball had my undivided attention. Even when play resumed in the NHL, I kept my League Pass subscription and continued to watch hoops around the league every chance I got.
I've always had a gripe with how the league officiates games. I don't particularly care for the special treatment star players receive. To my mind, the best players are still going to be the best players, even without getting favorable whistles. But the league is all about star players and their numbers, and debates about which player is the best this year, who is the best ever and will so-and-so ever become the "next Jordan." It's how the game has marketed itself, and it's the mindset it caters to. It's not about teams, really; unless we're talking a huge market team, in which case any news is big news, even if the story is that the team sucks. No, the NBA is about LeBron taking over the big playoff game, the little Canadian guy with the floppy hair winning consecutive MVP awards and the least likable professional athlete of the millennium going for 81.
Even so, I still love the skill and speed of the game, and the fierce competition at the highest levels; so, I still watch the games. When the real season starts, it's best of seven games, and the better team wins. At least, that's how I felt until a couple of years ago. I really didn't see anything that troubled me at the dawn of the 2006 NBA Finals. I thought the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks got to the biggest dance pretty much fair and square. But after Dallas took a 2-0 lead and the series shifted to Miami, what happened next changed the way I've watched every NBA game since.
I was willing to write off the wildly poor officiating and general turn of events in game 3 as the league's customary insurance policy that the series not end in a sweep. Just the fact that so many fans like myself "understand" that that's just how things work in the NBA is pretty damning, but as I said, over the course of a playoff series, I never believed that all the questionable calls would ultimately snatch the series from the better team. After game 4, I felt differently. It was becoming clear to me that Dwyane Wade was playing under a different set of rules than everyone else on the court. Suddenly, I had no idea what a foul was. What was going on? That's what I kept asking myself. By the time Dallas went home down 3 games to 2, I had the sense that they simply were not going to win another game. It was as if it had been decided. After it was over, I couldn't shake the feeling that it had been.
I've watched a lot of basketball games, and I've seen some atrocious calls. There were many playoff series over the years that suffered from awful officiating, and like anyone else, I scratched my head and wondered. But I never bought into the idea that the league might actually execute a plan in which one team would essentially be handed a championship. This series was the first time. It wasn't like nobody else noticed. People like myself - fans of the game with no horse in this race - were searching for an explanation for why one player was deemed absolutely untouchable for the last 4 games of the series, all of them Miami wins.
The evidence is pretty hard to explain away. You're an NBA official, but everyone knows you're not perfect and can't always get a great view of every play. But if there is never even the illusion of contact, from any angle, how do you justify blowing a whistle?
And we're not talking about one bad game or even one or two bad calls per game. We're talking about something that shaped most of a playoff series and, in my opinion, decided the outcome and crowned an undeserving champion. I used to laugh off conspiracy theories about the NBA, but damned if I wasn't at a complete loss to find a rational explanation for what I'd seen in this series.
I still watch the NBA and enjoy the athleticism, talent and excitement of the games. But I no longer let the outcome of the games affect me at any kind of significant emotional level. I simply don't have faith in the "best team wins" principle anymore. I don't know what's really going on in the league. The Donaghy scandal has undoubtedly damaged the league's credibility, and probably even to an extent that it doesn't deserve; plenty of crackpots have probably had their craziest notions validated by this whole mess, but it doesn't mean they aren't still crackpots. And honestly, it didn't take the news about Donaghy to sour me on the integrity of the NBA; I was already there. But it sure doesn't help, either.
One thing I'm sure of is that David Stern needs to go. This league has seen unprecedented economic growth under his reign, but it's come at a terrible price. The league is drawing not entirely ridiculous comparisons to the WWE now. It's not a time for stubborn arrogance anymore, it's time for the NBA to admit it has a problem and take serious steps towards fixing it. And I don't believe David Stern is capable of that.