Monday, June 26, 2000
By now it's official - this year's NBA Finals drew the lowest TV ratings in history. Ouchie.
The NBA deserved that.
Columnists have been trying to do some splainin'. That Tim Duncan is great but somehow doesn't excite fans is a popular excuse, and it has some juice - after all, Duncan's a seven-foot behemoth whose signature move is a baby jumper. Off the glass. His emotions on-court run the gamut from mopey to annoyedly mopey, and he reserves his biggest emotional outbursts for moping aggressively at the refs, arms extended, palms up, as though he's delivering a big bundle of mope with the ref's name on it.
But that's not why the Finals tanked.
Another explanation is that the Michael Jordan's departure is still hurting the league. Another is that the cities involved were Small Market. Yet another says that defensive teams depress ratings... There are plenty of counterexamples to each and every one of those lame attempts to avoid talking about the real reason, the Nike-clad elephant in the room, the thing sportswriters won't say because it seems resentful, or dangerous, or too uncharitable to the Champs or basketball itself.
But I'll say it. The NBA deserved its lowest finals ratings ever because the Spurs got there unfairly. The better team, the Phoenix Suns, didn't even get a fair shot at it. They were cheated. The fans were cheated. Everyone I talk to about the playoffs who's not a sportswriter mentions this.
Have other teams, in other sports, suffered unfair, even series-changing setbacks? Sure. The '82 Cincinnati Reds were eliminated from the playoffs after their bus got towed with their closer still on board. That's not true, of course, but you see my point: What sportswriters don't get is that while the Suns weren't the first team to suffer some bad breaks, what matters to people are Stories, not bare facts. And the story here is unpleasant, unjust, and the league completely failed to take control of the narrative. Does David Stern NEED to be a storyteller? You bet he does. It's what he built his career and his league on. [Or maybe you've never read "Larry and Magic's Larrymagical Showdown." No? How about "Michael Jordan and the Goblet of Air?"]
The story here was clear. A fabulous, high-flying team arrives to usher in a new age of basketball, and what stands in their way is the old school, moperiffic San Antonio Undertakers. Power vs. Beauty. Could've been great. EVEN with a Spurs win, it could've been great.
Then Amare Stoudemire came out and said what a lot of us fans had been saying for years. The Spurs kinda fight dirty. You might not agree, but I do. They play like there have been no rule changes in the past decade, they harangue the referees into submission, they "accidentally" hurt a lot of players by being the wrong kind of reckless, and they will only interrupt a good sneaky jab in order to flop. And vice versa. Can one mope, push, whine and flop simultaneously and STILL be a great player? Apparently, yes. But don't ask me to love you.
So there was a game wherein the referees handed the win to the Spurs in front of a national audience. Game 3. Okay, it happens, happens in almost every series in every sport. Hell, if I were a ref, I'D occasionally hand an important game to one team or another, just as a way of saying. I Exist. Adam Was Here. Every official is entitled to that kind of existential crisis, and you gotta let 'em do it once a series or so.
But we all watched a poorly-called game, the Spurs got away with murder while Amare sat on the bench with fouls, and you had to think the refs were going to make it up to Phoenix somehow. Or even with a level field, Phoenix would come charging back.
And then came Game 4. Robert Horry's brutal shove, Amare getting off the bench, the league's catastrophically bad decision.
Here's the thing, league. The story was this: Amare Stoudemire was proven right. Is that true? I dunno. But it's the Story. And the league ended up looking like conspirators. Or at least facilitators. And where's the fun in that? I LIKE hard-working, lunch-pail teams. But when a highly professional team like the Spurs can pick up their lunch-pail and bash the other team's head with it, I'm shaken. When a bench player can use a cheap shot to goad a star into standing up, and thus - by the letter of the law - getting suspended... who wants to watch THAT cheap-ass unjust technicality-riddled bullshit sport? That's what we have our government for.
Did the Spurs vindicate themselves by playing clean and superiorly in the FInals, beating an exciting but not-yet-ready King James and his Court of Misfit Toys?
I don't know. I wasn't watching.