Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Modest Proposal for the NBA

[Cross-posted at Firedoglake.]

When the NBA Board of Governors meets tomorrow to vote — as we know they will — to move the Sonics out of Seattle and on to Oklahoma City, I’d like to suggest they take another vote alongside it: Drop the names of the cities where your teams currently reside from the teams’ names. Adopt the system used by the Japanese: Just name them after the corporations that own them.

That way you could have teams like the Target Timberwolves and the Vulcan TrailBlazers and the Cablevision Knicks and, now, the Chesapeake Rustlers.

At least then it would be more honest. Fans then would know they are in fact rooting for the company that owns the team, not for their communities.

As it is, the NBA looks more and more like a bunch of slick-talking grifters who come to the little burgs and offer to sell them a fine bronze statue of the town’s founder but instead sell them a cheap thing made out of pot metal with the face melted off.

And that way, when owners want to pack up and leave, they can just go ahead and do so, no hard feelings. That’s what this vote is all about, after all: David Stern wants the owners to be able to move at will, especially if the local community isn’t all hot and bothered to ante up hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade their facilities only so that they can keep up with insane NBA salaries. And so the owners, being owners, of course will gladly approve this move.

The communities? Screw them. What have they done for us lately?

Now I’ll admit that I was one of those poor saps who fell for the NBA’s little grift for many years. Back when I was a kid growing up in the rural Northwest and you had to choose between California teams and the rest of the country for teams to root for — regardless of sport — the arrival of the Sonics in 1967 was a real godsend. Even in remote Idaho, they were the hometown team. I followed them in boxscores each day and was ecstatic when Bill Russell finally coached them into the playoffs in ’74-75; delirious when they nearly won the title in ’78, and out of my mind when they won it outright in ’79.

Since then, I’ve rooted for them every year, through thick and thin — mostly a lot of thin. After I moved to Seattle in ’89, I attended as many games as I could and covered a number of them for the newspapers where I worked. I was a season ticket holder from 1995 through 2006 and attended more games than I can count.

I’m a basketball nut
– tried hard to play it when I was young, and gym ratted a lot in my 20s, but I was never any good, and a knee injury in my early 30s ended my playing career, such as it was. But I love watching the game. In my mind, basketball players are the world’s finest athletes; and I loved watching the NBA because it was home to the world’s finest basketball players.

But most of all, I loved to root for the Sonics because they represented my community, and I mean the larger community of the Northwest. They were my hometown team and rooting for them was all about standing up and taking pride in the place you lived. Sports are kind of silly entertainments, but they’re also more; much of the larger cultural value of sports, especially as a kind of secular religion that everyone could coalesce around, lay in the way they were real repositories of the hopes and aspirations of their community.

Now over the years, especially as the season tickets mounted, there was a lot not to like. The gross commercialization at NBA games is just overwhelming, and you have to learn to shut out the constant bombardment if you’re there to enjoy the game.

And the officiating: a travesty. It became increasingly clear over the years that NBA officials were corrupt, but not in the usual way; they called games badly at times that were convenient most of all for the NBA, when it wanted certain marketable matchups in the playoffs. They were also corrupt in that they clearly made calls based on grudges they held, and their egos became the most dominating force on the court. The "superstar call" is a staple of modern NBA games. So when confirmation of the usual kind of corruption as well arrived in the person of Tim Donaghy — well, no one was exactly surprised.

But the officials were just symptomatic of the larger problem of the NBA game generally: team play — which is really where the beauty of the game emerges — has for years been sublimated to talent. Michael Jordan in effect ruined the NBA, so that now all that fans root for is that somehow their team can draft or somehow nab the league’s next great talent. Defense is an afterthought in the NBA, and the pick-and-roll is about as team-oriented as you get on offense. The college game — though its players are inferior — is far superior from the standpoint of the game itself.

Meanwhile, the salaries for that talent have gone through the roof, so that perfectly good basketball stadiums like Seattle’s Key Arena no longer can be profitable in today’s NBA, because revenue demands are so high that all NBA facilities require high-revenue-stream offerings.

This has all occurred on the watch of David Stern, whose every move has been about promoting the league’s superstar mentality and sublimating not just the teams but the communities themselves. NBA teams are no longer community assets — they’re marketing platforms for athletic superstars.

Now, there have been a number of team moves previously, but the history of those moves — from the Lakers’ departure from Minneapolis to the Grizzlies from Vancouver — has always involved teams that had only been in their communities for a relatively short length of time, had always had trouble drawing fans; the majority have taken place in the era of mass expansion.

The Sonics, in contrast, have been in Seattle for over 40 years. They’ve never had trouble drawing fans, even in down years. The only problem we’ve had has been with idiot owners making boneheads moves, like the time they fired George Karl because he chafed some front-office types. Or selling the team to con artists from Oklahoma.

But that matters not to the poobahs of the NBA. What matters is making the wealthy team owners wealthier and wealthier, along with their players. All that money has to come from somewhere, and if some of the suckers get tired of being played, well, there are always new ones to be found.

So of course Stern not only has no compunction about moving the Sonics to Oklahoma, he’s been content to bash Seattle and warn us that we’ll never get another team here for years and years.

Nevermind, of course,
that the new Sonics’ owners not only lied outrageously to the community when they bought the team. Well, it’s true that Clay Bennett put on an elaborate show to convince folks he had done his best to convince the politicians to finance a new stadium. Thing was, he wanted to move the stadium far south to Renton — where hardly anyone in Seattle would travel to see a Sonics game — near the worst traffic intersection in the state. And the bill was a mere $500 million, out of which Bennett and Friends were only, haltingly, willing to commit $100 million. The taxpayers were to pay the rest. It’s no wonder it died in the legislature.

But all that time, in turns out, Bennett was assuring his co-owners that "the game" had only begun, and that they could count on having the Sonics in Oklahoma City eventually — sooner if not later. Bennett was also lying through his teeth to Stern, who he was assuring all along that he was working in good faith to try to keep the team in Seattle.

And it probably tells us everything we need to know about the NBA that it didn’t bother Stern one iota. What’s a little lying among fellow thieves, after all?

So really, fellas, when you vote today to swap your presence in the nation’s 14th-largest media market for one in the 49th — we know, you just can’t help but shoot yourselves in the foot when there’s money to be made from it — go right on ahead. Because even longtime NBA fans in Seattle have been given a front-row view of your scam, and we’d probably just as soon be shut of it.

Sure, I know that in a few years NBA execs will start hinting that something can be done about getting a team back here. It’s too big a media market for them not to be in. But that will probably mean ripping the heart out of some other community, and frankly, having been there, most of us want nothing to do with that. Overexpansion has already made the NBA a joke, so please don’t bother us with the idea of putting an expansion team here.

No, I figure if you move, you’ll be gone for good. And ya know what? Don’t let the door hit ya on the way out.

Now, in the meantime, we will get our little revenge. When you lose your lawsuit to enable the Sonics to breach their contract with the City of Seattle two years early, as you almost certainly will, you’ll be stuck keeping the Sonics here through two more years. And as you may have already figured out, Seattleites are not so generally stupid as to give their money to people who intend to abscond with their team. The seats will be empty (Kevin Durant notwithstanding), and Clay Bennett and his pals will suffer.

I’m sure there’ll be offers to pay us off to escape those final two years. I say no way. Make them suffer. And not just out of spite, but because we really would have nothing to gain from taking their money.

After all, why would Seattle want to have anything to do with the NBA in the future? Why would we take yet another team in, just to have them turn around in seven years and begin demanding tax packages to underwrite their newest state-of-the-art money-sucking devices? Eh?

I’m sure the folks in Oklahoma City will get to see that side of the NBA soon enough. Indeed, they just voted to pass a tax to pay for an improvement of their local stadium. Good on’ em. Enjoy it while you can.

In the meantime, I suspect that there will be other cities who wake up to your grift, fellas. Because there’s a whole city up here willing to tell everyone all about it. There will be other threats, and other removals for the insufficiently obsequious.

So just spare us the histrionics and change the way you name your teams. Name them after the companies you fellow represent. Or maybe you can even name them after yourselves. After all, hey, the NBA is where the egos come to play. Just quit conning people into thinking that these teams represent their communities. Because we know now that that’s just a scam.

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