NBA, the Soap Opera: Love It, Hate It—But Get Used to It

Marshall ZweigContributor IINovember 13, 2012

Are they the Lakers huddling to call a play? Or the NBA version of the Real Housewives, gossiping about who SHOULD have been their coach?
Are they the Lakers huddling to call a play? Or the NBA version of the Real Housewives, gossiping about who SHOULD have been their coach?

Much of the time, the NBA seems less like a pro sport, and more like The Real Housewives of Whatever City All Hell's Breaking Loose In Today.

Trade demands. Coaches getting called out. Player-led insurrections against management. Referees on the take. Custody battles. Brawls. Lurid scandals. Lawsuits. Conspiracy theories.

Oh, and Lamar Odom on a reality show...a Kardashian reality show.

Forget TNT. The NBA knows drama. Maybe too well.

It's gotten so out of hand, even Hollywood would reject the twists and turns in this saga we call professional basketball. I mean, who would believe it?

Case in point: the "Mike Brown is fired" potboiler shocked us...and yet at the same time, it didn't surprise us one bit. What surprised us was the Mike D'Antoni hiring. Why?

Not dramatic enough.

Come on. Everybody knew how this was supposed to go. Phil Jackson was supposed to get lured out of his ring-infested retirement for one more round with the Dwight Howard Lakers. Right? Isn't that what you figured?

Admit it. When it comes to the NBA, whether you love it or hate it, you expect a soap opera.

Dwight Howard's on-again, off-again trade demands last season weren't dramatic enough. No, his Machiavellian scheme to get Stan Van Gundy fired, that was NBA-worthy drama.

Old-school basketball had controversies, like the Kermit Washington assault on Rudy Tomjanovich, but they were almost always basketball-related. Off-court drama was generally reserved for drug violations (Roy Tarpley, for example), non-conforming uniforms, coaches criticizing referees...the kind of drama we expected. The stuff that was "inside the lines."

Sure, you had your Magic Johnson AIDS announcement, or Dennis Rodman kicking a cameraman, or Vernon Maxwell punching a fan, or Latrell Sprewell choking a coach...but when those events happened, we were all truly shocked.These things just didn't happen in the NBA.

And then Allen Iverson uttered his now-infamous—and by comparison, innocent—"Practice? We talkin' about practice?" diatribe in 2001. 

Suddenly a new era began in the NBA: The league's drama went from predictable to uncharted, and previously unimaginable, territory.

Kobe Bryant accused of rape. Jason Kidd accused of domestic assault. Jayson Williams accused of murder. Good guy Scottie Pippin cold-cocking a heckler after a game. Fans beaten by Ron Artest—excuse me, Metta World Peace—and his fellow Indiana Pacers players in a full-fledged brawl. Jeff Van Gundy accusing referees of a league-mandated bias in foul calls. Tim Donaghy admitting to fixing games. Tim Hardaway's homophobia. Gilbert Arenas pulling a gun on a teammate in the locker room. Isiah Thomas sexually harassing an employee. Rumors of Delonte West having an affair with LeBron James's mother.

And all in suits befitting Vito Corleone and his minions, courtesy of the NBA dress code.

It's enough to make resurgent villain J.R. Ewing look like Richie Cunningham.

But whether the drama enhances your enjoyment of basketball or detracts from it, it's not going away, despite David Stern's attempted crack down on bad behavior.

Why? Hard to say. Maybe it's because many players go from difficult childhoods into stunning fortunes at a very young age, and are not emotionally prepared to deal with it. Maybe it's because the hip-hop culture promotes and celebrates behavior that is perceived as anti-establishment.

And maybe it's because these actions sell newspapers and magazines and drive ratings and give sports shows plenty of content, content that they're hungry for.

The old adage states that there's no such thing as bad publicity. I think there is—the melee at the Palace being one example—but bad publicity is very rare, and it is evanescent. So in general, any news is good news. Which means the only way to stop the drama is if there is a monetary repercussion.

The recent referee strike in the NFL, for example, was bad publicity for the league. So is that why the strike ended? If that's what you think, you're naive.

Although the league won't admit it, many believe it ended because blown calls were having a deleterious effect on betting in Vegas.

So NBA attendance going down would potentially drive a change in player behavior...but per-game attendance was up in 2011-12 compared to the previous year. Declining television contracts would potentially drive change...but television contracts continue to escalate.

The NBA is still a massively profitable business, so there is no commercial impetus to change things.

Now, bear in mind, the NBA is not alone in its drama. The NFL had Bill Belichick's Spygate, Sean Peyton and the Saints' bounties and the aforementioned replacement referee debacle. Major League Baseball had Roberto Alomar's spitting incident, followed by steroids and steroids and more steroids.

The difference is, in those sports the drama sure seems far less frequent, and generally far less outrageous. Is that bad for the NBA?

It depends on whether you like your entertainment with a little drama.

An example: Many of those who watched and loved the sitcom Friends also bought the magazines that told you about each cast member's love life, or watched the behind-the-scenes shows that recounted the cast's salary holdouts. For many, it enhanced their affection for the show by creating a more intimate connection with the reality behind the entertainment.

And in fact, isn't that what these scandals do? They simply show us the human side of these roundball magicians. And perhaps knowing about that humanity does make us all closer.

Maybe we're all tired of the same tired lines, the "gotta take 'em one game at a time" and "we beat a very good team today" chestnuts. Maybe we want something more real, and maybe that's what this drama gives us.

In the wake of the Pistons-Pacers malice at the Palace, I remember being moved by the very sincere comments many players made about the debacle. There were no clichés, because we were in a situation that had never existed before and thus had no clichés. No one said "it is what it is" or "we gave 100 percent." Instead, the players gave us heartfelt responses to the drama.

The NBA hadn't felt so alive in a long time.

Perhaps the best illustration of this benefit drama provides are the back-to-back Hall of Fame induction speeches of Michael Jordan and John Stockton. 

John Stockton was a rarity: An athlete who really was a role model. Always playing the right way. No scandals. Never retained an agent, choosing instead to negotiate his contracts himself. Drama-free, just like the classy, dignified, decent and touching speech he gave.

Then Michael Jordan strode to the podium and launched into an oratory that stood in stark and dark contrast to Stockton's, a speech Erica Kane on All My Children could easily have made. It dripped with shocking revelations. Michael was vindictive. He was angry and hurt. He held grudges. And while some were aghast, I found Jordan's take much more compelling.

Why? Because his were not the words of a role model. They were the words of a very very human human being.

Michael's drama-laden tirade was hypnotic for its brutal honesty. He said out loud the things we all think in some way, shape or form, but don't usually say out loud. Like it or not, unnerved by it or not: In the soap opera that was his induction speech, Michael Jordan was not a superstar. He was simply a man, which is what all of these players simply are. Astonishingly talented men, but nevertheless just men.

If you grew up imagining that sports stars were heroes, as I did, then the metamorphosis of the NBA into a Lifetime movie came with some disillusionment, but think about it. Disillusionment simply means not living under an illusion anymore.

What's wrong with that?

No matter what you feel about the seamy storylines that come with today's NBA, we can all still thrill to an off-balance three-pointer from way downtown, or a last-minute rejection from out of nowhere, or a thunderous dunk to complete a comeback. We don't have to admire the men to admire what it is they do so well.

But if you don't like the drama, consider finding a way to embrace it, since it's now a part of the sport. Alfred Hitchcock once said, "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out," and isn't that what most people say about the last two minutes of most regular season NBA games?

Bottom line: A little drama never hurt anybody.

Well, except for that fan Metta World Peace clocked in the face.