If the years of third-place status haven't made it abundantly clear, basketball itself isn't enough to capture our nation's attention.
Without the violence (ahem, physicality) of football or the mystique of baseball, the NBA is relegated as a semi-distant third—far from a niche sport, but perhaps equally far from the incomprehensible economic heights of the NFL.
The NBA's TV numbers are growing and interest is generally high during points of particular intrigue (the playoffs, All-Star Weekend, etc.), but nothing puts a damper on such thrilling festivities like a string of unfortunate injuries.
Derrick Rose—one of the league's most charismatic and likable stars—was stolen from the postseason limelight in his first playoff game of the year. The ever-popular Knicks were devastated by injury before and during their short playoff stint. Chris Bosh, however ridiculed he might be, was ruled out of the Eastern Conference semifinals, making the Miami Heat less competitive (and less intriguing) in the process.
These playoffs needed some kind of spark—not to hold the interest of serious basketball fans, who already tune in nightly for regular displays of superhuman athleticism, crisp offense, and (in the worst cases) grind-it-out attrition, but to have some allure to those not terribly interested in basketball for basketball's sake.
Well, to those who demand some extracurricular activity to go along with such high-quality gamesmanship, these playoffs now have their own series of ridiculous subplots.
Tuesday night's game between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers not only reinforced how capable this Heat team truly is (even without Bosh) of dominating their opposition, but it escalated the physical intrigue of a testy series to previously unseen levels.
Tyler Hansbrough sent Dwyane Wade to the floor. Udonis Haslem retaliated with a flagrant foul of his own. Danny Granger persisted in his confrontational yapping. Dexter Pittman sent Lance Stephenson reeling. Basketball fans got a bit more WWE than they bargained for, but the most casual of viewers— those merely tuning in to what they believe to be event television—found a much-needed carrot.
It would be fantastic if more people could appreciate such a beautiful display of movement and form for its artistry, but there's little hope in wishing for America to come to its aesthetic senses. Basketball will likely never have the same domestic appeal as either football or baseball, no matter how enthusiastically Americans wrap themselves in March Madness, or how much they raise their voices at the NFL's concussion policies.
Basketball is a first-rate wonder masquerading as a third-place sport, and though some needless physicality may only make the level basketball fan roll their eyes at all the macho-driven antics, it's those same bits of savory drama that keep the uninitiated coming back for more.
The game isn't necessarily aided by hatred and physically manifested malice, but the league most certainly—and sadly—is. I wish it didn't have to be this way, and I'd guess that most of the NBA faithful feel the same.
But the NBA registers at its greatest volume when things are at their chippiest, and while Heat-Pacers has offered plenty to the committed and detail-oriented basketball fan, it's only now turned the corner—however unfortunately—into considerable mainstream appeal.