The Post-Jordan Age: Will the NBA Ever Get Back on Track?

Adam SpragueContributor IJanuary 29, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 04:  NBA Commissioner David Stern speaks to the media before the start of Game One of the 2009 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Orlando Magic at Staples Center on June 4, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. 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 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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When I was in high school, I used to chalk up my friends and girlfriends not understanding NBA fouls to their ignorance of the game. Who had the time to explain charging? Charging was charging; it was obvious to any fan of the game when it happened.

I sat on my couch watching a recent Bulls/Rockets game and my wife turned to me and said, “Why is that a foul?” I turned to her, opened my mouth, but no words came out. I couldn’t explain the call. Had my knowledge of the game lessened? Had there been new rules put in overnight that I wasn’t aware of?

Obviously, the answer to these questions is no. So why couldn’t I explain the call? Why couldn’t I explain the whistle after that? Or after that? All I could say was, “I’m not sure...they call what they want.”

In that moment, my heart faded to a new color of black towards the NBA. Over the course of year after year, head scratching call after another, I realized I had completely lost faith in the officiating of this sport. I asked myself, “What is attracting new fans to the NBA?” Nothing came to mind.

It’s obvious that since the days of a certain Michael Jordan the sport declined. It may have leveled off recently but athlete/fan violence, slow play from excessive whistles, and the youth of the players has done nothing to help it begin to rise again. The issue goes deeper than the myth that ratings are down simply because the wrong teams (e.g. small markets) are making it deep in the playoffs.

In Jordan’s prime, if he was playing for a championship, the ratings of anything else on television suffered. Now the NBA is almost a non-factor for ratings competitors. The problem is the product on the court, not the fan.

There used to be a kind of sophistication to the NBA. Graceful moves combined with power. Now in the age of under armor commercials, elongated team introductions and fist fights in the crowd...that sophistication is hard to find.

So for the casual NBA fan (or potential new fan) what’s there to bring them in? It’s been a while since Jordan, so that excuse of hunting for the next superstar really doesn’t apply. Plus there is LeBron and Kobe running atop their conferences to fit that bill. But to faithfully get behind a player or team just to have fouls called that fans don’t remotely understand makes no sense for the casual fan.

It’s why soccer and the NHL don’t take as easily as the NFL. The NFL basic rule is easy—get 10 yards...get to the colored line on the screen. Grandmothers and NFL die-hards alike can both understand the concept.  The NBA, NHL, and MLS will always lag behind because of this.

It’s not just me that has noticed problems in the league. Gregg Easterbrook (well-known and respected NBA writer) has said that NBA players, “Lack training in fundamentals…launch off-balance shots, won’t listen to coaches, and endlessly try to mega-dunk .” If you want off balance shots and mega in your face hits why not watch the NHL? At least their fighting is “part of the game” (separate issue).

This combined with the fact that NBA teams are drafting players, but then watching them play in Spain. Or drafting players that never see the court the upcoming year. Fans finally get excited about an aspect of their team but never see the product on the court.

One reason why the NFL season generates so much buzz is because of the NFL draft and fans being able to see rookies on the field the next season. The NBA is lacking this entire component.

Ex-players have got on the NBA, too. NBA great Charles Oakley has said that he wouldn’t spend any money to watch an NBA game, claiming that NBA players are too frail and injure too frequently. To pay for good seats to find out your favorite player tweaked an ankle five minutes before tipoff is disheartening.

So, if ex-players won’t even watch, why are we?

The NBA used to be my favorite sport above the NFL. Then it turned into more of a casual viewing hobby during the season and passionate viewing during the NBA playoffs. I wonder to myself what will motivate me to watch the playoffs this year...I doubt even David Stern knows.