Thrill of Victory

Why the NBA is worth watching again

I loved the NBA when I was a kid. When it came to competition and drama, you couldn’t beat Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and when the playoffs rolled around, like most kids, my brother and I were often glued to the TV. Would the Celtics beat the Lakers? Would Michael finally get his ring? The competition was great and the games were exciting, and the league had the TV ratings to prove it.

But something happened to the NBA in the mid-’90s: it ceased to become interesting. I’m not sure where it started – I think it might have been with Bill Laimbeer and the Pistons in the late-’80s and early-’90s – but teams started to figure out that you couldn’t beat the Jordans of the world in an athletic contest, but you might have a shot with a forearm shiver, or a chest-bump, or a carefully-executed jersey-grab than an official couldn’t see.

By the mid-’90s, Pat Riley’s Knicks were doing this more than anyone – and because they won, others copied. The game soon seemed to resemble some variation of wrestling more than what James Naismith had in mind when he nailed a peach basket to a gym wall and asked his P.E. students to heave a ball through it.

That, however, was only half the problem. Put a bunch of hyper-competitive athletes together on the floor and allow unduly-physical play, that’s already a recipe for trouble. The NBA also did little to distance itself from the gangster-rap culture that a lot of its heavily-tattooed players embraced, and rightly or wrongly, fans and media began to even refer to certain players as “thugs.”

The NBA was no longer just boring, it was flat-out repulsive. When Latrell Sprewell choked coach P.J. Carlesimo in a 1997 practice, sports fans were outraged. By the next season, TV ratings began to drop. It only got worse: in 2004, the Pacers and Pistons had a brawl that was so epic, it has its own Wikipedia entry.

By this time, I’d tuned out long ago. So had a lot of other sports fans. We loved basketball, but we hated the NBA. When its highlights came on the news, I grumbled constantly about having to watch them if I hadn’t already flipped the channel.

But a couple of years ago, something happened. I started watching the highlights and judging the players who played the game with more of an open mind. Once the bitterness I felt towards the NBA started to fade, I noticed a stark truth: the NBA’s players are demonstrably more talented than when I was a kid.

In the ‘80s, the NBA was an American game; now, its rosters have players from every corner of the world – a world with about a billion and a half more people than it did 20 years ago. Just to make a roster, you have to be considerably better than the fringe players were 20 or 30 years ago.

In the ‘80s, a 7-footer back in the day could plod down the court, plant himself in the paint, hit his layups and free throws, and make a nice living. Now, you have 7-footers like Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol who can handle the ball and even shoot from the outside a bit.

Then, I started thinking about the maxims we’ve all heard over and over the last two decades: The NBA plays no defense. (Really? Watch 10 seconds of highlights. It’s harder to get good shots because players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before.) Players can’t shoot. (In spite of the improved defense and more 3-point attempts, the NBA’s shooting percentage continues to hover around 45 percent.)

Are there things I don’t like about the NBA? Sure. I’m not as big a fan of some elements of the game; I liked it more when there was a more passing, team-oriented approach than the one-on-one game it often becomes. But had I grown up a kid in this era, I might feel differently.

The NBA also deserves praise for cleaning up its image. For starters, just look at how the players dress and present themselves compared to a decade ago. Of course, the players aren’t perfect and there will always be some incidents of bad behavior, but there’s also no shortage of sincerely good guys around the league who are heavily involved with charity work, including superstars like Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant.

It’s time that sports fans like me who wrote the NBA off long ago give it a fair chance again. We might even find we enjoy this brand of basketball as much as we loved back in the day – and for all the right reasons.