America's forgotten league
There was a small dent in the American sports psyche this week that anybody mentioned. The World Series has obviously taken over these parts, with debates about Johnny Damon's dash and Chase Utley's tub of hair grease circulating all over campus. The NFL takes over the weekends, with stories like the Giants' demise and the Jets' annual futility. But there was something else. Something few — including myself — had no idea was starting until it was randomly on ESPN one night. Yes, believe it or not, the NBA apparently started this week.
In the '80s, the time of Larry vs. Magic and the Jordan Rules, this would be almost like some kind of holiday close to opening day in baseball and week one of the NFL season, but now just gets lost in the shuffle of actual important games. The opener in an 82-game season never really matters, but one would think it would still be nice to watch your team take on the juggernaut Lakers, see the ascension of Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant or the prodigious foul totals of the Trail Blazers' Greg Oden. But no. Nobody outside of ESPN.com's Bill Simmons has even looked twice at the season, and even the "Sports Guy" himself is on a book tour, so he cannot pay close attention.
Outside of my fantasy team, I haven't heard a peep about this season. Maybe the league has run out of stars to market? No, that can't be it, with Chris Paul, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the aforementioned Durant leading the charge. Are the large markets struggling? Los Angeles and Boston, the two most traditional NBA cities, are on a crash course for the finals and the Knicks are always there for a good laugh. Is there a leadership problem á la hockey and Commissioner Gary Bettman? No, David Stern, a University graduate, is probably the most powerful and revered commissioner in sports when Roger Goodell is not on a power trip. So what's the problem? Maybe the fans have finally wised up.
Ever since I became a somewhat casual fan of the NBA, circa 2001, one of the main problems with the league has always seemed painfully obvious to me: the referees. It seems as though the league is deciding who wins based on the number of free throws, being extremely lopsided in key games. In the 2002 Western Conference Finals, the Lakers received 27 fourth-quarter free throws en route to an upset of the Sacramento Kings. The free throws were 37-16 in favor of the Lakers in 2000 in game seven vs. the Blazers. And then there were the phantom fouls on the Dallas Mavericks in 2006 that essentially handed the championship to the Miami Heat. There was even the story of referee Tim Donaghy fixing game and point spreads for gamblers during his time. This is why I can't take meaningful NBA games seriously — I don't know if the outcome is legitimate.
The other main problem with the NBA is the playoffs. In the MLB, NFL and NHL, there are countless upsets where the lower seed or underdog knocks off the favored teams to the surprise of everyone. But when an eighth-seed knocks off a No.1 seed in the NHL, it's no big deal, just an upset. In the NBA, the same thing is considered one of the biggest sports upsets of all time. The Denver Nuggets knocking off the Seattle SuperSonics when they were the No.1 seed still isn't forgotten. Does anybody, even hockey fans, remember when Damian Rhodes and the Ottawa Senators knocked off the vaunted Devils in '98? Of course not. The higher seed wins much too often in the NBA. The only series' that seem to matter in the first round of the NBA playoffs is the 4-5 matchup, but neither of those teams are ever good enough to win a title except in very rare situations. Everyone knew the Lakers would be in the Finals and most people thought the Cavaliers would be too — except their coach stopped coaching, so that threw a wrench into the scenario. And most thought the Lakers would win and they did. The consensus-best team won the title. This is OK sometimes, but what's the point of watching the playoffs if I know the outcome two months beforehand?
What should the league do to attract more casual fans and make them care? My idea is to copy the NCAA Tournament and make the playoffs one-and-done. More upsets would be created, and who knows how much money they could pull in off of brackets and marketing? The NCAA is pulling in gobs of money with its tournament and many more people care about that than the NBA playoffs. The only problem is that nobody would care about the regular season, much like NCAA basketball. But I'm fairly certain that nobody cares about it now. So let's get my plan going to fix this league, because who doesn't want to fill out more brackets come spring?
Matthew Torino is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science. His column, "From the Sidelines," runs on alternate Thursdays.