July 1, 2011

Locked Out

A year ago today was one of my most optimistic days as an NBA fan. July 1, 2010, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Carlos Boozer, and a whole host of others became free agents. My favourite team, the New York Knicks, had the money to afford two of these guys, and although we were able to snag 'only' Amar'e to New York in the end, there was that exciting potential of this many talented guys shuffling things around a little.

That summer, which I previewed in my article on July 1, 2010: the 'Summer of 2010', turned out to be more explosive than expected, and taking the cue from July, every month of the NBA Calender there onwards, July 2010 - June 2011, became more and more exciting. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade teamed up to make the most hyped/hated/talked-about 'SuperTeam' in Miami. The Knicks got Amar'e, and in a mid-season trade, got Carmelo Anthony, instantly bringing back excitement to New York. Boozer joined the Bulls, and became an important piece in their significant improvement last season to end up with the best regular season record in the NBA.

From then onwards, it was as if the NBA's wildest marketing fantasies came true, one after the other. All of the league's biggest markets - Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, and Boston became relevant. The NBA featured the perfect mix of old school stars (Garnett, Ray Allen, Kobe, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash), in-their-prime stars carrying the hype of the league (LeBron, Wade, Nowitzki, Kobe, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard), and great young stars looking primed to make sure that the NBA remains in good hands in the future (Durant, Rose, Griffin). Yes, I know I put Kobe in two lists up there, simply because he's old school and still a marquee name.

You know what else went right? Pretty much everything short of a dream Lakers-Heat Final. The All Star Game got great ratings, a home-team superstar performance by Kobe Bryant, and a grand show by Blake Griffin which included an over-the-car dunk. The playoffs were one of the most exciting ever, getting the fans to believe that the NBA is not as predictable as cynics say it is. And the Mavs winning out in the end was a karmic finish (for those who like things coming full circle and all that) for Nowitzki, a feel good win for team-oriented, "nice guy" play against the three-headed Rakshas over at Miami. Teamplay beat individual brilliance, and it seemed nearly the entire world (except for Heat fans) were happy about this.

Oh, and did I mention that the Finals ratings were amongst the highest in the decade? Did I mention that, despite a poor draft class, this year's draft got the highest TV rating ever? Despite a bad economy in the US, crowds still rushed to watch the NBA games.

I can keep going on: internationally, the league kept the fans on its toes and connected better than ever before. The NBA became the biggest sports league since the English Premier League. The NBA marketed itself brilliantly worldwide, and got all the positive responses.

Simply put: until yesterday, the league was officially in one of the best positions it has ever been, primed to have another legendary, hugely anticipated season.

That is just one way to look at it.

Because the undercurrents to this all was a serious, rising threat of an NBA lockout. No matter how much hype you saw around you, there was always a sobering article somewhere, reminding us that the CBA negotiations were not going well, that the two sides were far apart, that a lockout was near inevitable. I didn't believe it of course - I'm a damned optimist, and when I read anything that depresses me even a little bit, I can't pay attention to it. The words skim over my head and I quickly distract myself with something else.

Unfortunately, I can't distract myself any longer, nor can I ignore this reality. July 1, 2011, exactly a year after that summer of optimism, begins the summer of depression. The NBA announced that it will commence a lockout of its players, effective at 12:01 AM ET on July 1, 2011 until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA).

What does this mean for us?

It means, possibly, maybe, no Summer League in July. Possibly No Pre-Season in October. Possibly no NBA Regular Season in November. And if things look really bad (they do), then say goodbye to any basketball until later next year.


The word 'Lockout' brings out 2 memories to my mind. The first is from my favourite basketball related movie of all time, Space Jam, where the NBA had to lock-out the 1995 season because the aliens from Moron Mountain stole the talents of Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues and Shawn Bradley to beat Michael Jordan and the Loony Toons, aka the 'Toon Squad'.

The second memory is slightly more real, when the NBA locked-out FOR REAL after Michael Jordan retired (if you didn't know, MJ runs everything basketball. Now you know) in 1998. The 1998-99 season started a little late, and only two-thirds of the regular season was played. The playoffs included a dream run by the Knicks to become the first eighth-seeded team to make the Finals, which were eventually won by the Duncan/Robinson Spurs, and sparked the beginning of one of the most consistent teams in NBA basketball.

That 1998-99 season was the first real season that I closely followed NBA basketball. That was the season where I could call myself a real fan, not just a casual over-hearer of news. And of course, because of the Knicks' amazing run that year, that the the season that made me a fan of NYK.

For Knicks fans like me, it's been downhill ever since, all until, ironically, today, when the Knicks are relevant again, and we face yet another lockout. CRAP.

So as a fan, NBA basketball has come full circle, starting with the last lockout and peaking with this one, before it all comes crumbling down again. I blame everyone involved. I blame David Stern (NBA Commissioner) for not softening his approach to the players. I blame Billy Hunter (NBPA Executive Director) for not softening his approach to the owners. I blame the players for not accepting lesser money. I blame the owners (who say that 22 out of 30 NBA teams are losing money) for being greedy.

The reality is of course several times more complicated than my super-simplified version in the paragraph above. I actually feel that I'm disrespecting the complexity of the negotiations by that simplified above paragraph. But no matter how deep you go into the issues, it all comes back to the basic, painful truth: there might not be any NBA games in the recent future. Not David Stern, or Billy Hunter, or the Lakers' Derek Fisher (President, NBPA), or the owners, all the other millionaire men in shiny black suits, or and millionaire athletes in fresh NBA jerseys... The lockout will hurt someone else much, much more.

The fans.

For the fans, the formula is simple. You can't see your favourite teams and your favourite players perform at the highest level. Until things get figured out, there will be no more excitement of trades this offseason, no one checking to see if rookies are developing, no teams getting upgraded, no faces of NBA players on any NBA websites (this one hit me HARD - check out NBA.com).

And worst of all, there will be no NBA basketball.


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