By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
March 14, 2014
From a profit-at-all-costs perspective, I understand all the adulation that went David Stern’s way when he recently retired from his post as NBA commissioner. The NBA has never been in better financial shape than it is today. Give him credit for that.
However, from a “best interests of the game” perspective, I believe Stern damaged the game significantly — not just at the professional level but also down to the youth level.
The game of professional basketball has, for the most part (see the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder for notable exceptions) devolved from a game of beauty to a game of butt ugly and that can be traced directly to long-time commissioner Stern.
In perhaps his most egregious move, the “marketing genius” Stern decided to glorify the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons and their brand of Thug Ball in the late ’80s. Instead of moving to curb Bad Boy copycats, Stern and his minions decided to launch a comprehensive Bad Boys marketing campaign. The NBA even produced a Best of the Bad Boys-type video, which showed the Pistons at their baddest and ugliest and depicted some of the team’s more despicable cheap shots.
The Bad Boys, along with Pat Riley’s New York Knicks, turned the NBA into something more closely resembling arena football than the beauty of the 80’s Lakers and Celtics, and their artistic, free-flowing fastbreak offenses.
In effect, Stern sold the league’s soul for a short-term marketing burst of Bad Boys revenue. He spit on the spirit and integrity of the game by celebrating a slow-down, physical (read: dirty) style of play, which gradually seeped into the college, high school, and youth games over the next couple of decades.
As the ’90s proceeded, more and more teams scrapped the running, cutting and passing styles of the ’70s and ’80s for power-based Thug Ball. Time in the weight room became more important than shooting, passing and dribbling drills. Bicep sizes went up but basketball skill levels went down.
For Stern, the Bad Boys marketing campaign was just the predictable next step in actualizing his warped basketball etho — marketing over the good of the game.
In the mid-1980s, the NBA, led by Stern, and the marketing-types he brought to the league office, made a major philosophical change. The league decided that the game of basketball would, from that point forward, be secondary to creating “entertainment value.” NBA decisions would be driven from a marketing perspective, not a basketball perspective.
The first application of the “profit-first, basketball-second” philosophy was with the game’s rulebook. The NBA, in its infinite wisdom, decided that the rulebook was a nuisance and that officials didn’t really need to call those annoying violations and infractions that every other level of basketball called, such as three-seconds, palming, traveling, free throw lane violations, etc. According to the marketing gurus, these “petty” things got in the way of “entertainment value.”
While ignoring traveling and palming bothered basketball coaches and fans, it’s when the league stopped calling fouls by the rulebook that the NBA game started to transition from annoying to unwatchable.
The marketers also hopped on Dennis Rodman’s bizarre bandwagon, and pushed him as one of the faces of the league. Moreover, in arenas across the league, the game itself was almost buried under an avalanche of lavish halftime shows, ubiquitous mascots, scantily-clad cheerleaders, constantly-flashing scoreboards, indoor blimps and ear-splitting music. As NBA beat writer Terry Pluto stated, “Never forget that the product is being diluted by Stupid Marketing Tricks ….”
Even worse, the NBA also began to exalt finger-pointing, trash-talking and chest-thumping through its promos and teasers. “In Your Face” machismo became the NBA’s thing in the ’90s.
Television analyst Hubie Brown said, “Some of the teasers for the NBA looked like they were promoting the World Wrestling Federation.”
For Stern and his executives, sportsmanship simply got in the way of the “street cred” that his marketers wanted to cultivate. As veteran scout Al Menendez wondered, “Maybe we have become such a big business that things such as sportsmanship and the beauty of the game don’t matter anymore.”
Perhaps the worst part of the ethical demise of the NBA is that its slow-down Thug Ball culture has increasingly crept into the lower levels of this great game. College hoops has progressively become a wrestling match on hardwood, especially in the Big Ten Conference where Tom Izzo and other coaches seem to prefer putting forwards built like linebackers in their lineups over skilled finesse players. Scores are low in the Big Ten but shoving and trash-talking are high.
While it’s certainly not completely his fault, the fact is, a lot of basketball’s long-time values and ethics eroded during Stern’s reign as basketball monarch.
Go ahead and enshrine David Stern in the sports marketing Hall of Fame if you’d like. But don’t suggest the game of basketball is better off because of the role he played.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans
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