How the Media Machine Creates NBA Stars

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJanuary 4, 2013

ORLANDO, FL - FEBRUARY 24:  (L-R) Jeremy Lin #17 of the New York Knicks and Team Shaq and Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers and Team Shaq look on form the bench during the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge part of the 2012 NBA All-Star Weekend at Amway Center on February 24, 2012 in Orlando, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The latest ballot tallies for the 2013 NBA All-Star Game aren't all that surprising. Kobe Bryant leads all players with 1,177,456 votes, just ahead of LeBron James' 1,151,304. Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett are currently slated to start up front for the Eastern Conference next to James, with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo filling out the backcourt.

And in the Western Conference, Bryant will almost certainly be accompanied by Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.

The most interesting race, as of Jan. 3, is between Blake Griffin and Jeremy Lin. Griffin figures to get the spot in the starting lineup since the West's backcourt is already full, but he would more than likely make the mid-February trip regardless of public input.

Meanwhile, Lin is more than 12,000 votes ahead of Griffin in the All-Star balloting, and he probably won't be representing the Houston Rockets at their own event unless the fans choose him to do so. He needs just over 46,000 votes to surpass Chris Paul as the conference's starting point guard.

That Lin is even in the discussion for the All-Star Game and that Griffin is considered a shoo-in for the game are both indicative of the power of the monolithic "Media Machine" that covers and digests the NBA (of which yours truly is but a small part).

In each case, it seems that the media gloms most easily and willingly onto a talented-but-flawed, big-market young player with a flashy game and a particularly unique and/or interesting backstory.


A Spark of Linsanity

For Lin, the blueprint is rather obvious, if only because it's more recent and much grander in exposure. His backstory made for excellent copy. Here he was, an Asian-American kid who went to school at Harvard, went undrafted out of college and—with hard work, perseverance and a hefty helping of luck—wound up playing for the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

It doesn't take much to spin a story like that into a fairy tale, especially given the size of the prospective audience. Here's a 23-year-old kid (now 24) who's essentially living the American dream, all while strongly connected to various religious, ethnic and international communities.

He was a devout Christian and a Taiwanese-American from the San Francisco Bay Area who was claimed as a native son of sorts in both Taiwan and China.

In short, he was Tim Tebow with global appeal...and actual basketball ability. Lin's star wouldn't have rocketed quite so high (with a boost from the media) had he simply come off the bench for a few points from night to night or just hung around as a semi-valuable role player.

Rather, Lin was fortunate enough to be handed the keys to Mike D'Antoni's point guard-friendly offense while two bona fide superstars (Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire) were sidelined by health and personal issues, respectively.

And with those keys in hand, Lin was off to the races. He razzled and dazzled long-suffering Knicks fans with adventurous drives to the hoop, pinpoint passes and clutch jumpers, among other things.

Never mind that he turned the ball over with reckless abandon, struggled on the defensive end and might as well have played without a left hand. This kid had "star" written all over him.

By the frenzied New York media, anyway.

He became the talk of the town and, thus, the talk of every town into which ESPN's satellites were beaming. According to Deadspin's "Bristolmetrics," SportsCenter mentioned Lin's name 181 times—or, roughly once every two minutes—during the week of Feb. 17-23, 2012. 

Not by accident, either. Lin's cultural ties, skills and location made for a nearly endless supply of potential story angles, even more so when the media stumbled over itself in hinting at his race, intentional or otherwise.

ESPN ignited a firestorm of its own with some rather poor word choice in connecting a Knicks loss to Linsanity. That, in turn, led to another discussion about the intersection between race, sports and the media, which boosted Lin's profile even further.

And so, in the span of 26 games, Jeremy Lin went from a D-League nobody just trying to scrape by in The Association to a lightning rod of controversy and an economy all his own. And he's since parlayed his fame into a $25 million contract with the Houston Rockets and numerous lucrative endorsement deals.


Another Griffin, Not From Quahog

Blake Griffin's rise to fortune and media fame was both more obvious and more insidious than Lin's. On the one hand, he was the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA draft. He was a prep phenom who blossomed into a superstar prospect during his two years at Oklahoma.

Little was made of his biracial background, and his personal life didn't creep much into his public story until Wilson Holloway, his best friend, succumbed to cancer just prior to the 2011 All-Star Game.

Even a knee injury that ended what would've been Blake's rookie season didn't really factor all that heavily into the "adversity" angle, at least not to the extent that Jeremy Lin's "against all odds" tale from the bottom to the top was in his situation.

That may have had something to do with the fact that he was employed by the hapless Los Angeles Clippers and, at the time, looked to be just another unfortunate result of their forays into the NBA draft.

Once Griffin came back to the court, though, and started leaping tall buildings like he was Superman, the stories wrote themselves. They had little to do with a mixed-race kid from Oklahoma who had to spend a season in street clothes and everything to do with a 6'10" man-child who could handle the ball, throw down highlight-reel dunks and single-handedly inject life into a long-suffering franchise.

One that just so happened to make its home in the second-largest media market in the country, in a building adjacent to ESPN's West Coast studios.

It was only fitting that Griffin played in the All-Star Game as a "rookie." After all, his Clippers were co-hosting the festivities in Los Angeles with the Lakers, and who better to represent Donald Sterling's stunted squad than "Pumpkin Spice" himself?

When the world found out that Griffin was as funny and gregarious on camera as he was fun to watch on the basketball court, the endorsement deals came flurrying in. Subway, Kia and GameFly were among the many to jump on the Blake Griffin bandwagon during his first two official years as a pro.

So, too, did other NBA stars. Griffin's presence transformed the Clippers from a doormat to a destination franchise, with Chris Paul as the first to come aboard. Since then, big names and veteran players have been flocking to the Staples Center to play, and not necessarily for the Purple and Gold.

All the while, Griffin has established himself as a perennial All-Star, though more for his steady numbers in conventional categories and aerial antics than for his particular skill.

To be sure, Griffin deserves (most of) the accolades bestowed upon him. He's a fine, young player who goes hard (sometimes too hard) all the time and regularly makes SportsCenter's Top 10 as a result. He's very good and getting better by the day, particularly as his jump shot continues to sharpen.

But a true superstar, he is not. His shooting stroke is a work in progress, as is his defense. His post game is solid, but certainly not at the level it "could" or "should" be. He's a good rebounder, not a great one, and he still plays a bit out of control from time to time.

All of which would be perfectly fine for just about any other 23-year-old in his third full NBA season and with considerable physical gifts. But because Griffin is already considered by many to be a superstar and because his Clippers are flying high in L.A., his flaws tend to be magnified.

Such would seem to be the price paid for stardom at the whims of the monolithic media, whether or not the star in question wanted or chose any of it.

The question is, who will be the next soul to be thrust into the spotlight by the Media Machine?




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