I love college basketball. In the winter, I blog about college hoops and the NCAA selection criteria. I especially love the NCAA Tournament selection process and have been called something of an expert (obsessed, crazed maniac?) on the subject by Kyle Whelliston (of ESPN) amongst others. I even went on Louisville's ESPN Radio twice last year to yak about which teams were going to get into the tourney or be left at home.
A spirited discussion with my brother-in-law this past weekend forced me to think about why I do not watch professional basketball, or the league known as "The Association." That's the NBA for us un-hip, stodgy basketball purists. The prompt for this discussion came from a book(1) that I received for my birthday. The first chapter deals with communitarian philosophy and small-town high school basketball, and I find much common ground in Stephen Webb's opening essay entitled, "Building Communities One Gym At A Time: Communitarianism and the Decline of Small-Town Basketball."
Webb states that communitarians believe "that the needs of the community outweigh the individual" and that "communities determine meaning, not individuals." Communitarians also believe that individualism is too shaky a foundation for a solid community. Further, "communities are more than a collection of individual persons, just as a basketball team is more than the sum of its parts." And here lies the problem(s) with the NBA.
1. Individuals are marketed over teams. The NBA does not market teams. It markets players. People watch the NBA because the are "the best players in the world." Maybe. But they are not the best teams. In world events like the Olympics and the World Basketball Championships, these great individuals are getting their butts handed to them regularly by teams from other countries without ANY or very few "great" players. Why? Because Argentina has a great TEAM. Argentina and Puerto Rico are far more than the sum of their parts. The USA usually consists of a collection of great players, but they are far from a team. It is a collection of All-Stars comprised of world class athletes with suspect shooters, mediocre defense, and an collective inability to submit to a team concept. Argentina is forged metal. The US is a bundle of rods loosely bound and easily scattered.
That said, it is perfectly fine if a fan wants to watch great individual players--in fact, I enjoy that, too. However, that is simply good entertainment and not good basketball. The talent of any one player is secondary to the team concept in my basketball values, and in the NBA it is all about LeBron, Kobe, T-Mac, Shaq, D-Wade, etc. The star player is valued and marketed over the team for which he plays. This undermines the team concept and promotes individualism in our culture and in our kids watching basketball. I simply do not like it.
It happens with college hoops, too, but it is pretty rare once we get past Ohio State, North Carolina, Duke and the rest of ESPN's favorites. Quick! Name the best player from George Mason's Final Four team in 2006! Could you name any player? It's hard to do because that was a team and not a marketed product centered on a star player. When they made their run, they were referred to as "George Mason"--a team, and not "Greg Oden and the Ohio State Buckeyes" or "Joakim Noah and the Florida Gators" or "Tyler Hansbrough and the North Carolina Tar Heels." In fact 95% of college basketball are teams. It's the ESPN and media hype machines that turn college stars into one-man shows. In the NBA, it is all about the top players.
2. Ugly basketball. Admittedly, the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks play wonderful basketball. These teams do adhere more to a team concept, but even at that Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are marketed over the larger team by the league. With a team like Cleveland, it's all LeBron all the time. Lakers? It's Kobe and four other guys. The offense usually works like this:
--Give the ball to Kobe high on the wing
--Set pick for Kobe
--Kobe drives. If the defense stays home, Kobe shoots. If it collapses, Kobe still shoots, or MAYBE he'll kick it to a teammate.
Where are the offensive sets? Where is the pick-and-roll? Where is the artistry? It gets lost in the 6-step Electric Slide that Kobe gets away with without dribbling on his way to the hoop. There are WWE-sanctioned wrestling matches taking place under the hoop. It is ugly basketball.
Watch a collegiate game involving Air Force or Georgetown on offense. It is precision passing and cutting. Watch a collegiate game with Southern Illinois playing picture-perfect, textbook, half-court, in-your-shorts, man-to-man defense. Heck, watch VMI create mass chaos in a turnover-filled free-for-all. These are all done with a team philosophy with all players submitting to a system to achieve a goal. Not so in the NBA for most teams. Kobe IS the system.
3. Overpaid Prima Donnas. I'm sorry. I find it hard to watch guys making millions play a game at half-speed. Guys who gain 30 pounds in the offseasons. Guys with a $7 million per year contract who hold out for a to get $7.8 million. Guys who coast all season and then try to turn it on in the eternally-long playoffs. I can encounter greed anywhere. I do not need to watch it soil a beautiful game. Are college players any better? In a word: YES. But, we must look past the television darlings.
One can point to the elite levels of college basketball and see the same kind of NBAttitude by big-time stars currently playing on college teams. But, again, the basketball played by the top 20 teams on TV every night only represents about 6% of Division I college basketball. Did you know that there are 336 Division I college hoops teams? The overwhelming majority of college ball is played by kids who KNOW that they are not going to the NBA. They are there to get a step ahead in life, to get an education, or at the very least, to play a game they love.
Get past the television and go watch a game at Western Kentucky, Murray State, Tennessee Tech, or Montana State. Nearly every player on the court (save a gem here or there) is playing college ball and it is their last stop. There are no millions waiting for them.
So, connecting this with my fast food post, get out and support the local teams. Is college hoops not your style? Kentucky is a great place for high school hoops, too. Webb states, "Small towns used to be the source of many of America's cultural values and social standards. Residents of small towns did not feel like they were being left behind by the glamour of big cities." So many small towns in Kentucky announce Wal-Mart's coming as it if acknowledges their importance in the world. In fact, what already exists at their local diners, barber shops, churches, and gyms is what defines their character. Wal-Mart only allows them to be like everybody else. Healthy individuality is fostered by strong community.
I know that my WKU Hilltoppers will likely never win an NCAA Championship in hoops. I know that my church will likely never be huge. I know my personal boycott of McDonald's or Wal-Mart will not make a dent. But folks in those communities at WKU, at my church, and at my local places of business might appreciate it.
Our communities are more than the sum of their parts. And that is why I hate the NBA.
1. See especially Stephen H. Webb, "Building Communities One Gym At A Time: Communitarianism and the Decline of Small-Town Basketball" in Jerry L. Walls and Gregory Bassham, Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint, (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007), 7-18.