NBA Finals 2011: Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks & Changes to the Face of the NBA

Cliff PotterCorrespondent IJune 12, 2011

It was a major gambling problem.

He was the greatest basketball player in the world. Then it turned out that he had a gambling problem. He lost more than a million dollars to someone when playing golf, along with many other losses on various wagers.

Michael Jordan retired from the NBA in 1993, a few days before the NBA concluded an investigation into his wagering and found no violation of league rules. He said at the time of his retirement: “If the urge comes back, if the Bulls will have me, if David Stern lets me ... I may come back.”

Did Jordan gamble on NBA games? No one may ever know, although most believe he never did.

But Michael Jordan came back and starred once again in the NBA.

It was a Colorado hotel room hookup in 2003 between a worshipping fan and one of the NBA's most famous players. According to the athlete, it was voluntary sex. The victim said she was assaulted and raped.

Some facts were not in dispute. Kobe Bryant, a married man with a beautiful wife and newborn daughter, had sex in a hotel room with a 19-year-old woman who claimed he had raped her.

Kobe Bryant was soon charged with crimes in Colorado. Despite the upcoming trial and related hearings, Kobe Bryant continued to play for the Lakers while traveling to court in Colorado.

After apologizing to his wife and settling a civil case brought by the woman, criminal charges were dropped by the Colorado prosecutor because the victim refused to testify during the trial.

Bryant was and remains a large part of the face of the NBA.

LeBron James intentionally bumped his coach as he went to the bench earlier this season. This remains one of the worst examples of on-court player conduct over the past several years in the NBA. What happened?

Nothing. No fine. No public reprimand. Just claims that the bumping may not have been intentional or was just a minor factor in James' overall performance this year.

And LeBron James never suffered much from the bumping incident, remaining one of the key faces of the NBA.

It was an incredible 2000 Summer Olympics for the track star. The woman, one of the world's greatest track stars, won five medals in Sydney. But those medals were returned, and her place in Olympic history removed, when she finally admitted to using steroids during those Summer Games.

Marion Jones became another cheater in the growing lineup of those who have used performance-enhancing drugs to succeed in their sports.

Jones now plays professional basketball in the WNBA.

It was a small accomplishment. A momentary lead in a game in this year's NBA Finals. Yet LeBron James and Dwyane Wade celebrated the lead in Game 2 as if the players had won the 2011 NBA Championship.

It was the typical self-congratulatory actions of two of the three star players advertised as the Three Kings.

It was just a bad decision. Nothing like the actions of the others mentioned above.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade began making fun of Dirk Nowitzki's coughs and bad health before the media. According to Wade, it was done so the media would run with it. Maybe so. But Wade had already made his mark on this point during a recent interview.

Wade had already made it clear that he believed the story of Nowitzki playing through illness and injury—the Mavericks' superstar tore the tendon in his left middle finger in the series opener—had been overblown.

"I have respect for him as a great player. I'm not going to get into the injuries," Wade said Wednesday. "Everyone is injured at this time. I'm not going to get into the fun-loving story of him being sick, either. Once you show up on the court, you show up on the court. Everyone is equal.

"He's a great player without all the dramatics of the stories that's been going on."

To Wade, discussion about Nowitzki playing through the injury to his left hand, his primary hand when rotating to the basket in his favorite way, was something everyone does. "Everyone" is injured, playing with a dangling finger that requires a splint. And playing through a 101-degree fever was a "fun-loving story" that the media should not cover.

There is something about the way Wade and James conducted themselves with the media watching that reminds us of the lack of maturity and character of these athletes.

"King" James is perhaps the most attention-drawing, self-congratulating athlete in today's NBA. From his pregame chalk ceremony to the chest-pounding, preening and on-court referee pleading, he acts as if he reigns over all of professional basketball.

Yet most in the media continue to fawn over "King" James.

It is no coincidence that each of the incidents listed above deal with the NBA. The NBA tends to punish lesser players greatly but forget conduct by its offensive stars. From Jordan to Bryant to Wade and James, the transgressions run from minor to major. And in each instance, stars seem to do better than those who are not stars.

The "Jordan Rules," the bias in Jordan's favor when calling fouls in the NBA, are accepted as fact by most NBA observers. They continue to this day. Except, it appears, for Dirk Nowitzki.

Stars simply do not foul out. And they get the slightest touches and phantom fouls called in their favor.

If there are bad characters in the 2011 NBA Finals, they are Wade, for his criticism of the media and jokes about Nowitzki's illness, and "King" James, for his antics on the court. Many dislike James for the way he treated the Cleveland Cavaliers in moving to Miami.

Should character be a focus of any sport? Should we treat immaturity, attitude and off-court conduct as less important than physical skills?

Will players with personalities like Bill Russell and Dirk Nowitzki ever be as revered as Michael Jordan and LeBron James?

Not if many in the media have their way. Michael Jordan and LeBron James are good copy, and appear to have suffered few, if any, adverse effects from their conduct, including intentionally bumping a coach and largely unrestrained betting.

It is perhaps with Tiger Woods that the most obvious media bias in favor of star athletes is plainly evident. Tiger Woods' extramarital exploits came during his wife's pregnancies and despite his children.

He was, according to some, unable to control his conduct and seeking medical advice. But Woods' conduct was clearly already legendary, and somehow protected by the media, despite his liaisons often being very public.

Many in the media have protected Woods ever since. Michael Wilbon of ESPN delivered what seemed to be an apology for Tiger Woods' extramarital affairs, contending that almost everyone in sports is an adulterer.

Wilbon also supports "King" James, claiming he is a great and flawed player, "like most great athletes," and that if he does not win a championship this year, LeBron James is still young and deserves more time.

Is Wilbon's apologist commentary for "great" athletes stale and outdated? Are his views material to the state of the NBA and sports in general, or does his influence have an impact on what is happening and will happen to the NBA in the future?

Finally, is the viewing public going to continue to permit many in the media to sustain immorality and bad conduct in sports? Should we dismiss this conduct because everyone does it, an athlete is young, or an athlete's private transgressions are unrelated to their performances on the field?

The guess here is that integrity and proper conduct are becoming more important to the viewing public these days. Today, athletes are no longer considered so good that their wrongful behavior is ignored or marginalized because everyone does it.

Many cite the Internet as a large reason for the public's knowledge of a public figure's indiscretions and potential crimes.

Yet, the Arnold Schwarzenegger adultery was not uncovered by anyone in new media. It was almost single-handedly the work of the National Enquirer, whose work was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

TMZ first released the information about Tiger Woods' affairs.

And Michael Jordan's legendary gambling, which had to have been obvious to the NBA and many in the media long before it was publicly revealed, was not exposed until one of his fellow gamblers identified him as a compulsive gambler in 1993.

And while many, if not the majority, of those in the media have supported separating Tiger Woods the golfer from Tiger Woods the sex fiend, the general public has had little place for the man since the events in 2009.

His advertisers have abandoned him. The public virtually does not see him anymore except on the golf course, where he is a golfer with diminished skills and little likelihood of another win, much less another major.

So it will go like this: the greatest athlete ever to play the game of golf will be marginalized by his sexual exploits, his place in history forever tarnished in the public's eye by his immoral acts.

There has been a great clash in sports over the past few years because the public is able to voice its opinion more easily and be heard through new media. The dichotomy between the athlete playing his or her sport and the person who lives outside the field of play continues to be supported in some circles. Many claim that this is good and should continue.

But the general public has seemed to embrace more and more the need to have athletes subjected to the same scrutiny as any other public figure, linking the athlete with his or her off-the-field conduct. And its voice is being heard.

Greater scrutiny is also occurring in other situations, with the end result being a refusal to separate private lives from the public lives of those involved.

Anthony Wiener's sexting and online activity continuing this year, despite his wife's pregnancy, is disgusting and likely to force his resignation. Private conduct of our elected officials is no longer off-limits, and has become the basis for the resignation of more legislators recently than at any previous time in history.

Chris Brown's mugging of his girlfriend Rihanna was also widely reported. These actions have been linked to his performing career, which has never been the same after the incident. 

For this and other reasons, the guess here is that, if it had a choice, the NBA would not have the Miami Heat as the face of its game. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James cannot be the NBA's first choice for this role.

Surely Dallas, with Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki, is its preferred poster team.

In the first two games in Miami, it looked like Miami would win. The officiating was questionable in several instances, and fouls were rarely called on whoever was guarding Dirk Nowitzki.

While this could have been mere home team advantage, and the officiating could change once the two teams reach Miami tonight, it is more likely that it will remain consistent with the games in Dallas until the end of these finals.

James will no longer get many, if any, phantom calls. The flopping that has occurred, although marginally less than in the games before the Finals, will likely bring no whistles.

Dallas will finally bring home its first championship trophy.

The NBA will have a more international and mature face to portray to its growing international fan base.

And LeBron James will have to wait to next year.

Can the NBA want it any other way?


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