Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Carmelo: A Rough Notebook of Ideas

I. I cannot recall ever knowing more details about a trade in which I had no real rooting interest--and not even a great deal of interest, period--than this Carmelo Anthony deal. There are several reasons for this. First, the team acquiring Anthony, the New York Knicks, has degenerated into one of the more dysfunctional franchises in professional sports, and happens to be based in the largest media market in America. Second, Anthony himself (and his representatives) accomplished the bizarre feat of telegraphing precisely where he wanted to wind up long before he got there, which has happened in the past but never quite like this. These factors led to a third reason, which is that the media, already kineticized by The Decision and the proliferation of Twitter and recognizing the rampant dysfunction on both sides, felt obligated to report every single rumor and supposition in real time, for fear that, given the parties involved--and the continued meddling of a Drago-esque Russian billionaire only contributed to further weirdness--anything could potentially be true.

This is why it seems like the Carmelo thing has been going on since the Pleistocene era; because since it began, it's never really stopped. And since I am only a casual NBA fan (at least until the playoffs commence), I will leave it to others to debate the merits of the trade for each respective franchise. I think the bigger question here is what it says about the future of the NBA.

II. A few days ago, Buzz Bissinger wrote a column for The Daily Beast in which he claimed that the NBA is losing popularity due to its inability to appeal to white people. While there is a certain amount of inherent truth to any column that argues for racial identity as a factor in American culture, I think Bissinger missed several points. There may be some whites who turn away from the NBA because of the lack of a prominent white American superstar, but I would think there are more people who turn away from the NBA because A.) Its season is too long, B.) Our perception of what pro basketball could be never quite matches the reality,* and C.) NBA players reside in a completely different world than we do, and in a league that relies, more than any other, on its major personalities, that can lead to problems.

If those ideas sound familiar, its probably because you read them here, in 2007. Four years later, the NBA has changed completely, and yet it hasn't changed at all. The league still seems constantly on the verge of collapse...only now, with a work stoppage looming, the issues feel far more serious than they did then.

III. And that, I think, is what's most disturbing about the Carmelo trade--it reinforces some of the laziest thinking about the NBA, at a time when it least needs those stereotypes (whether based in race or not) to be reinforced. The information overload only heightened the drama. And so some will think that the league is doing whatever it can to generate a viable franchise in New York despite the ineptitude of its ownership. And some will think, as with The Decision, that all NBA superstars are so singularly focused on themselves that they are willing to hold their current franchises hostage in order to get what they want. That's the narrative that emerges from all these months of Carmelo-watching; and it may not be true or nuanced or fair, any more than it may be unfair to label LeBron James a villain all these months later for choosing to leave Cleveland***. But it is the perception.

I think the NBA will survive this moment, just as its survived every other moment, largely because the product, when it does meet our expectations, is unsurpassingly beautiful.** But one thing we've learned about the NBA is that perception is often more important than reality.

*This, I think, is why so many people presume that the game is somehow "rigged"--because whenever we watch an NBA game, except maybe at the climax of a playoff series, it never quite looks the way it should. No one is trying hard enough. No one can shoot well enough. Given the sheer amount of talent--and anyone who doesn't acknowledge that there are more colossally gifted NBA players now than there ever have been is probably not paying much attention at all--is rarely as fluid or as beautiful as we imagine it could be.
**See: Griffin, Blake.
***Even if his method for announcing his departure from Cleveland was completely maladroit.

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