To begin with, there is something inherently grotesque about the NBA regular season itself, which is insanely long and borders on meaningless. At 82 games, the entire slog is more than two and a half times the length of the college season and exponentially less satisfying. Unlike Major League Baseball, whose marathon season tends in large part to separate the weak teams from the deserving contenders, no such consequence occurs from the NBA glut. An astonishing 16 of 30 NBA teams qualify for the postseason. Middling teams frequently take measures to lose so that they can miss the playoffs and qualify for a better draft position. Something is very wrong when it’s harder to miss the postseason then to make it. If there is a credible case for this structure above and beyond a revenue grab, it is entirely elusive to me. Essentially the regular season is five months of glorified exhibitions — pump it up when you really don’t need it.
For all intents and purposes, meaningful competition in the NBA commences with the postseason, which is also tiresomely elongated. As the playoffs wind endlessly through best of seven series that could easily be best of five (or, in the fashion of the NCAA tournament, best of one) a few heavily promoted superstars are baldly cheered on by advertisers, broadcast partners, and arguably the league itself. It is at this point the marketing takes on a fevered, hard sell edge verging on the pernicious.
The three-headed marketing hydra bet its wad forcefully this year on a Lebron James-Kobe Bryant head-to-head tilt in the finals. Nike launched a series of not particularly clever commercials touting the supposed ‘dream matchup’ as essentially inevitable, while ESPN hired out Spike Lee to direct a lengthy Bryant hagiography which has aired frequently in the last week. It is an article of faith that NBA commissioner David Stern and his fellow league brass are all but praying for the Cleveland-Los Angeles finale, and ESPN/ABC color analyst Jeff Van Gundy was recently moved to declare during a broadcast that Kobe is the ’greatest Laker ever’. For Van Gundy, who has forgotten more basketball then I’ll ever know, it’s a flagrantly silly remark, almost indefensible. It’s the statement of a hired shill. The Kobe versus LeBron hype carries on at such high volume that one can easily be forgiven for mistaking the conference finals for mere preliminaries — a formality useful mainly for further building out a cult of personality revolving around the two stars.
Happily it appears that all of this may have constituted a major fuck up. Pitted against a physical, talented and resourceful Denver Nuggets team, the “greatest Laker ever” and his supporting cast look no better then even money to advance to the finals. In the meantime, the Orlando Magic are, for the most part, running James’ Cavaliers off the court, establishing a 3-2 lead going home for game six. Whatever one’s individual feelings for Bryant and James — I find Lebron genuinely likeable and Kobe utterly insufferable — the derailing of the league and Nike’s best laid plans should feel gratifying to anyone with a tendency to feel oppressed by the ceaseless marketing apparatus.
My personal “dream matchup” of Denver versus Orlando in the finals likely won’t materialize. Two upsets of this magnitude are probably a little much to hope for. But why exactly would such an outcome be so bad for the league? There are plenty of great stories and lots of spectacle with both the Nuggets and the Magic — Dwight Howard’s emergence as a dominant and charismatic big man, Chauncey Billups prodigal return to Colorado, the maturing of Carmelo Anthony under the tutelage of George Karl. But none of this will be treated with anything more then grudging interest if one of these teams deprives the league and their advertisers of the two teams they obviously want to see play in the finals.
This is the curious provincialism that infects the NBA and leads to speculation that James will soon be pressured by his sponsors to move from Cleveland to a larger market. It is all weird and unseemly. Can you imagine the NFL evincing something like outward disappointment that last year’s Super Bowl was comprised of mid-market teams and something less than Brady- and Manning-like superstars? When the small-market Steelers rampaged through the 1970s, the NFL made a virtue of what might have been a liability by promoting their unique collection of intimidating and eccentric personalities. Now you can scarcely visit a sports bar in this hemisphere on any football Sunday without being assaulted by a teeming throng of passionate and full-throated Steelers fans, all ginned up on black-clad testosterone, just looking for someone to scream at. Actually this is very upsetting when it happens. But you get the point — there is no inherent reason why small-market franchises cannot accrue a global following.
It is perfectly understandable that the NBA and Nike are anxious to mint another marketing icon along the lines of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. But individuals like Woods and Jordan are incredibly rare: prodigious winners with transcendent charisma who can very plausibly called the greatest ever in their sports. In their desperate anxiety to shoehorn Bryant or James into that level of heroic prestige, the NBA and its cudgel-like hype machine leaves the experience of the game feeling diminished. There is just something deeply unpleasant about being hectored into acknowledging a greatness that isn’t truly manifest. Like Johnny Rotten said before the final show at Winterland: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”