One Nation Under Me: The NBA's Crisis Of Viewpoint

Mordecai BrownerAnalyst ISeptember 19, 2008

It goes so much deeper than Josh Howard.  While I'll never begrudge a man for what is, at root, expressing a political opinion, the content of Howard's flippant remark is, sadly, the tip of an iceberg that seems to run much deeper in the National Basketball Association.

While no one else has openly called The Star-Spangled Banner "s***," many actions have been taken recently that raises concerns about what message the NBA sends its players.

Take, for example, the National Team.  In 2002, a team completely lacking of our top talent finished sixth in the World Championships.  Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, or countless others led to complete embarrassment for the world's greatest basketball nation.  We settled for bronze at the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 World Championships; at the latter, many of our players put a slam dunk fest before losing to Greece.

What drove that total lack of commitment to a national team in a sport where other nations had serious set-ups and teams that played disciplined basketball and team defense? 

Why did it take the United States of America—the land of Larry, Magic, and Michael—eight years to "redeem" themselves?  Why did many of the stars of the '08 team seem guilt-tripped into playing in the games?

Contrast the attitude of those who turned down proudly wearing the navy blue to Hakeem Olajuwon, who, at age 36, put on the American jersey with a broad smile after becoming a naturalized citizen.  What a difference from Shaq's "I might play if I get my way" stance.

The difference in attitude becomes even more apparent when one considers the case of Chris Kaman.  Kaman, a farm boy from Grand Rapids who plays professionally for the Los Angeles Clippers, decided to play for the Germans in 2006. 

Kaman is not German; his great-grandparents were, the ones who died before he was born.  He didn't even have a German passport—he had to get one before being cleared.

I have German blood.  Lots of it, actually, and I have two years of German under my belt (die Sprache des Beckenbauers!).  But I would feel like a perverted fraud wearing their colors.  I would feel dirty playing against the United States, trying to beat the country that, for better or worse, is my home.

And now Josh Howard has been caught blatantly disrespecting the national anthem.  And what is his owner's response?  It's a "publicity" problem, says Mark Cuban: "I have explained to him that cellphone cameras are not your friend."

According to Cuban—himself an oddball made filthy rich by the American dotcom bubble —the problem with Howard's remarks is not the underlying belief that all America stands for and has given him is mistaken, but rather that he needs to learn how to hide those beliefs.

It's obviously not merely an issue of black or white, rich or poor, owner or player, but rather it seems to be festering under the surface in a way it just doesn't in Major League Baseball or the National Football League.  While those sports have their John Rockers and Ocho Cincos, neither seems to be rife with fundamental issues of understanding the way the NBA is.

And in perhaps the most truly unpatriotic thing about the NBA?  Forty percent of them have criminal records according to Jeff Benedict's Out of Bounds.  Words are one thing; a systematic history of supporting those who violate our legal system is another.

What causes this seemingly underlying attitude, not just with the players, but also with the league owners and executives?

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the bad side of the Michael Jordan revolution.

It was the slogan everywhere: Be Like Mike.  They all grew up wanting to wear the Hanes and be on the Wheaties box, grace Upper Deck boxes and soar over the Nike swoosh.  They didn't just want to be like Mike in Dallas or Boston, but they wanted to be like Mike in Bangkok, Cairo, and Oslo.

With Michael Jordan at the helm, basketball ripped around the world in popularity.  Stagnant leagues became solid and basketball sprang in places like Israel and Angola.  Josh Howard wanted to be him.  So did Chris Kaman—it's just Chris Kaman's "Mike" played for Germany. 

Why be a star for the city's second-fiddle when you can start for the German national team and gain the admiration of 80 million?

Not only did kids want to be Mike, but their parents and handlers started pushing them to Be Like Mike, too.  Josh Howard's certainly did, giving him permission to be a complete and utter moron while hoping—praying to a shoe-company Jesus, even—that he would become the next Mike.

Basketball is more of an egoists game than baseball or football.  An NBA Hall-of-Famer can virtually account for 50+ wins by himself.  See, for example, Kevin Garnett's career.  In baseball, a Hall of Famer wins about 12-15 games a year (according to Bill James, anyway), and in football one player guarantees virtually nothing.

David Stern and company have pushed the NBA to go global over the last twenty years with tremendous profits.  However, with as much success as they've had, they seem to have forgotten to instill a sense of American or community pride in these players.  NBA Cares, the NBA's community service branch, launched in 2006 to the praise of many sports writers.  The problem?  They were about twenty years too late.

There's a certain responsibility that comes with running a sports league that youth will invariably imitate.  Even with the Pac-Man Jones' and OchoCincos, the NFL has done an outstanding job of presenting its image as a community-building force, and this in turn apparently promotes positive attributes in both current players and prospects.

Even while it became a hit overseas, the NBA has had nothing short of marketing disaster domestically.  And it isn't necessarily a matter of backgrounds.  Many NFL players come from lower-income homes in undesirable places, and the NFL remains popular across economic and racial boundaries.

In the end, Josh Howard is a total idiot, but I don't think the investigations should stop at him, a twit who scored "roughly in the 500s" on the SAT.  Instead, we need to look at Stern and his posse, evaluate Mark Cuban and his leadership techniques, and ask why the NBA focused so much on their global image while letting their domestic one rot.  The problem, Mark Cuban, is not that the players don't know when and how to say things, but rather they've had their opinions formed in a completely warped environment.

I'm not saying Michael Jordan reading at a library would have changed the world, I'm just saying you get what you ask for and the NBA asked for a league of narcissist self-aggrandizing demigods and not a league of humble winners who value the communities that stand behind them.

The reason that Howard, Kaman, O'Neal, Garnett, and so many others have a completely neutral feeling towards their home country is that they serve a greater land: themselves.  Service?  Nope: people serve Josh Howard, who by virtue of skill is entitled to his legions of toadies.  Citizenship? Malleable: Chris Kaman allies with who wants him.  Integrity?  Ron Artest doesn't even know what that means.  Literally.

It's not just Josh Howard and it's not even restricted to patriotism.  The NBA, in its rush to capitalize on its popularity, forgot that community-building makes for hard work, especially when many the workers one hires have disreputable pasts or never went to a decent high school, much less college.

This Josh Howard flap?  It's just part of the Mephistophelean accord's uincomfortable, drawn-out second part.  Don't expect it to be the last incident of its kind, no matter how hard the stones get thrown.