EDIT: You know, I got a little carried away with a portion of this post. And I want to put this edit here and apologize to Kelly Dwyer. After the abortion that was Game 2 of this series I immediately went to the Ball Don’t Lie Live blog, fully expecting to see the creme-de-la-creme of the NBA blog world calling it what it was. Especially KD. He didn’t see it like I did (which I have to be clear I DO NOT understand how that is even possible). However, there was no excuse for me to question his motives like I did and he works far too hard and is far too knowledgeable for me to have written what I did. Especially coming from someone like me who jumps onto this feed whenever I feel like it with really no discipline or regularity. It was insulting and he didn’t deserve it. Kelly, I hope you’ll accept my apology and I hope you understand that I attack because I love. You’re among a group that is doing some really good things on the Web, and while I hold that group to a high standard I got carried away. -sht
It is amazing to look at the reaction in the media from last nights NBA Finals Game 2 of the Lakers vs. the Celtics. There’s an immense variety of opinions (or distinct lack of opinions) about the obvious manipulation by the officials and by extension the NBA at large. One of my favorite NBA pundits JE Skeets from Yahoo! Sports and the excellent “Basketball Jones” podcast said on today’s show that he is constantly defending the NBA from sports-savvy friends who seem to be baffled that he could watch a product that is, in their minds, so obviously tainted. He laments that a game like last night’s seems to validate all of those friends opinions. The NBA lost them a long time ago. Dudes like Skeets and I are TRYING to keep the dream alive. And it’s pretty damn hard.
I wrote a comment on Deadspin ages ago where I said that one of my favorite things about sports is the process of watching something with your own eyes and then watching how it is covered, spun, written and talked about after the outcome has been decided. I love the analysis of the media coverage in the aftermath of something that has a definitive, qualified, statistically “pure” and otherwise objective outcome. That process is unique to sports media. In other news media we see bits and pieces of something like the Iraq war, but we don’t really know what’s REALLY going on. And though we do have statistics (of varying degrees of objectivity and integrity), we don’t have a score or the whole thing on tape. We can’t watch it unfold with our own eyes, and therefore the critical analysis of what the news media is telling us happened isn’t nearly as informed as what they say happened in a Game 2 of a NBA finals.
The NBA has long been accused of being overtly manipulated. There are all sorts of conspiracy theories about draft order manipulation, big market teams like LA getting calls to get them into games and series where they can help ratings and small market teams like Utah getting calls to keep the fans coming back to the arena. There is widespread belief that there is a “star” system where merely average to good players are made good to great by getting the whistles and benefit of the doubt from the officials. There is a belief that officials dictate how a game will be played from game to game and that the tone and rules of the game change at times depending on how a series is going, and where it is being played. For instance east coast teams are “defense oriented” and therefore get to be more “physical” with west coast teams who are more “offensively minded” and therefore get to do things like set moving screens, travel and systematically carry the basketball. All things that are against the rules, but things that many people believe happen. Many people believe that the NBA and it’s corporate and television sponsors stretch playoff series out to increase advertising revenue. Many people think that superstar heroes are created and helped by the league since they typically endorse products and brands that pay a lot of money to the NBA for advertising and sponsorship deals. Many people believe that David Stern (the Commissioner of the league) is a very shrewd, calculating figure who overtly manipulates the NBA to make it a better “product”. All of these things are believed to be true and they are 100% correct. They are not “conspiracy theorists” they are realists. They may be cynical, but they are correct.
It is not surprising that figures like Mike Wilbon, Magic Johnson and the entire staff of ESPN don’t stress these things. Why in the world would they? It’s completely biting the hand that feeds. Even figures who are relatively honest about the league like Charles Barkley and Bill Simmons stop short of completely calling the NBA what it actually is and acknowledging the degree to which all of the “conspiracies” are correct. Newspaper reporters basically shill the party line for the most part. They have access that is important to their career. Toeing the company line is a basic career necessity for most of those people. We’re not gonna get anything close to the straight dope from people that have a financial imperative to not rock the boat.
But we are in the age of blogs and podcasts. The Internet is a very egalitarian place. Access has been granted to the barbarians and a lot of the barbarians have a lot of good things to say (whether Buzz Bissinger likes it or not) and a lot of the barbarians could give a shit about having their access revoked. “The Basketball Jones” podcast is as available as “Pardon the Interuption” for anybody with speakers and an Internet connection. The often excellent basketball and sports sites like Free Darko are on the same footing as ESPN.com from a distribution and access standpoint. Ostensibly these outlets are free from that financial imperative and many of them have a serious following. However, we’re entering an age where a lot of these barbarians are really close to being “in the club”. And once they are in are they gonna keep telling it like they really see it? There are some bloggers and Internet pundits who either strike me as unqualified to have the audience they have, or are shilling for the league and a hopeful place “in the club”. Reading Kelly Dwyer during the Ball Don’t Lie Live Blog and his subsequent article on that site has made me believe that he is either unqualified to have the soapbox, or he’s a shill (or worse, a wanna-be shill). Maybe he’s just in denial that the league he’s covering is this tainted. I understand that and I really hope that’s the case.
I wish I could turn away from David Stern’s “product”. A product that has systematically marginalized it’s rules (traveling, carrying over) to make it “better”. A product that makes a marketable player like Carmelo Anthony a “superstar” while a less marketable, but equally (or more in my opinion) skilled player like Tayshaun Prince is merely a “good” player. A product that changes the way it calls games to favor a player, a storyline or increases the advertising revenue from television by extending a series. A product that is so lucrative to so many people that very few of them are going to speak freely and tell it like it is. Tell us that what we’re watching is much more scripted than we think. It isn’t a “conspiracy”, but a fact.
But I’m not turning away. Partly because I’m sick in the head. Partly because like any good story where it is 95% character and 5% plot the NBA tall-tales have some great characters that do some remarkable things on the basketball court while the actual outcome of a game or series or world championship is increasingly irrelevant in the face of such manipulation. I’m not turning away because the process of seeing HOW the media reports facts that I’ve seen with my own eyes is tremendously informative with regards to applying that experience to how the media reports on things that are really and truly important like a war or an election. I’m not turning away because with so many bloggers becoming “big” somebody has to hold their feet to the fire and remind them that the Internet is the great equalizer, and that the world of spin and propaganda is the world of the established media and that there is such a thing as selling out. There is such a thing as integrity in reporting and there are people who appreciate that, even if the focus groups seem to have told David Stern that losing the hardcore fans who can’t stand his “product” won’t matter because, ultimately as long as the right team wins and the story works, those fans don’t matter. (This last point is VERY debatable especially in the face of really pretty bad ratings in the Finals considering it’s the Lakers and Celtics, considering that viewership and interest tends to fall off as the season and playoffs progress and considering the fact that most knowledgeable fans of basketball consider the NBA to be something of a joke).
It is interesting that in this moment there is a guy who could do more for the NBA by giving it some tough love than anybody else (maybe ever). That guy is Bill Simmons. His beloved Celtics were just the beneficiary of one of the most ridiculously called Final games since Heat/Mavs. He has a HUGE audience. Everyone knows he’s got the NBA disease that is true fandom. How about it Bill? Call it like it is. Tell them that people who care about the sanctity of this “product” matter. Keep with the roots of the Internet that has given you so much and disrobe The Evil Emperor Stern and the Worldwide Leader who has inspired a generation of sports fans so disillusioned with it’s “coverage” that there has been an entire movement devoted to providing alternative sources of sports journalism. You’ll be like the Paul Atredies of NBA fans rising up to destroy the evil that is the corporate sports media.
Or just write a piece that talks about the times the Lakers have gotten the calls. Or that the Celtics really would have won anyway. All that stuff may be true, but it doesn’t seem like such a good use of the platform that you have and the fact that you may be the only hope for the true NBA fan.