November 12, 2011

How the Lockout punctured NBA's brighest moment in India

There is no good time to have a lockout, but the timing of this particular shut-down of the NBA couldn't have been worse. The league was at its height of popularity and it featured an exciting group of popular veterans (Kobe, Garnett), incredible in-their-prime stars (LeBron, Wade, Nowitzki, Dwight Howard), talented youngsters breaking into the elite (Rose, Durant) and tantalising prospects for the future (Blake Griffin, John Wall). In addition, the NBA seemed to be becoming open and unpredictable again: Mavs, Heat, Bulls, Thunder, Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, etc all boasted formidable, exciting teams.

But for the NBA fan in India, the lockout couldn't have come at a worse time: the NBA was at the height of its popularity in India last season. For me, the feeling has been of taking a big bite of my favourite dish (Butter Chicken) to build an appetite, and then being robbed of eating it anymore, and instead staying hungry. Now multiply that feeling by a 100 and replace Butter Chicken with Test Cricket. That's the Lockout.

Rewind back to a year ago and you'll know what I'm talking about. The 2010-11 season couldn't have been better for NBA fans in India. Things started off on the highest note possible in the off-season itself, as India was visited by two of the best big players in the planet: Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. If that wasn't enough, Gasol even brought the Larry O'Brien trophy with him to India. The NBA Trophy in INDIA!!! Even recalling that moment gives me the chills.

But hype for the upcoming season had already been built before Howard's and Gasol's visits, since a certain LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach, ie. join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. The Heat became the most-talked-about team, for better or worse, even before playing a single game, and all eyes followed them through every move in the season. This influence wasn't lost in India, obviously, as more fans than ever joined in the excitement and anticipation of what the Heat will bring in the new season. A couple of other off-season moves - Amare to Knicks; Boozer to Bulls - added to the intrigue.

And then the season started, and to the delight of Indian fans, it was soon announced that the NBA will be showing four live games a week on Indian TV - on Sony PIX and Ten Sports - after signing deals with both the channels. And then, this number went up to five, and near the end of the season, it was up to six. Six live games in India every week! I was getting no sleep, waking up at wee hours of the morning every single day, and it was okay! By playoffs time, we were watching nearly every game live. It was certainly the golden age.

Of course, the NBA continued to increase its programming and web presence specifically for the Indian audience, showing a clear interest in catering to the growing legions of fans here. There were several NBA-themed shows on TV, and the NBA's India website featured regular blogs from fans in India - including a bi-weekly blog by me - in addition to promoting players/teams via social networking in India.

Wait, I'm not done: things got even better when the NBA announced that they would be releasing authentic NBA jerseys for fans across India! There were only a few available because of the first-time launch - Kobe, LeBron, Dwight, and Garnett - but it was a start.

By the end of the season, Chris Paul had chatted with Indian fans online and Brandon Jennings had also come to India. Things were real good.

We had already been spoiled as fans: So to see exciting individual and team performances live in our Indian living rooms in the playoffs was an incredible cherry on the top. Compared to the LeBron/Kobe bandwaggoners, their may have been fewer Mavericks, Thunder, or Bulls fans in the country, but rest assured, these teams and their superstar players gained several popularity points by the time the season ended.

It was all good... Until... Well, until look-at-where-we-stand-now...

And now, here we are: It's mid-November, a period that should be about two weeks into the 2011-12 NBA season, but instead of seeing Wade and LeBron and Kobe and Carmelo Anthony, we see David Stern, Adam Silver, and Billy Hunter. I've stopped thinking of Derek Fisher as the clutch Lakers starting point guard and started thinking of him as a lawyer in a suit.

The optimists say that the deal is near. That if the players agree to the NBA's latest offer, the league should start by December 15th. The pessimists say that the players are unhappy with the offer and could decertify from the union instead, sending progress way back again. Either way, the damage has been done, and there's no NBA on TV, no scores to follow on the internet, no real sporting news to discuss with fellow fans.

After a season of its highest point in connecting, engaging, and interesting Indian fans, the NBA is seemingly on an Anna Hazare inspired maun vrath - a vow of silence. I'm sure a lot of new fans were made last season, and a lot of casual fans became serious fans, and a lot of serious fans (like me) went downright neurotic (in a good way!). The thing about casual fans, though, is that they need constant reminders to be kept hooked before getting reeled in to join the hardcore fans. With a long locked out summer, with no rumours, no big free agent signing, no trades, no preaseson, no dunks, no game-winners, nothing, it becomes difficult to keep the casual fan hooked on.

Recently, in a poll done by, 76 percent of American fans showed signs of switching off from the league, saying that they don't miss the NBA. 12% had no opinion about it, and only 12% said that they were missing the league.

But it isn't just the American market where the NBA may be losing fan support: The NBA has a massive international following, bigger than all the other major American sporting leagues (NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS). It is this following that actually helps the NBA remain as rich as it is, and it might actually be the most important factor when determining it above the other leagues mentioned above. Since the lockout, international fans are also a devastated bunch, and it'll be depressing to see more casual fans from across the world lose interest in the product when it does return.

Of course, the serious fans are hurt too: It's impossible to look past the sham when your favourite league and your favourite players begin a very public and bitter dispute against each other. We feel disillusioned that our favourite game, our favourite league, could be stopped by men in Meeting Rooms.

Will everything go back to normal once (and if) the season does begin? Will we easily get distracted by the six live games on TV every week to remember how barren and crappy this lockout was? Will Kevin Durant or Paul Pierce visit India and be received with the same enthusiasm as the fans as Dwight and Pau were last year? Will jersey sales increase?

Perhaps, yes, because at the end of the day, the NBA provides an incredibly exciting and addictive product, which, if you are reading this blog, you are most likely in love with. You and I will both be happy when and if the NBA returns no matter what, and with the current crop of talent and excitement around the league, you and I will most likely forgive the months we spent in the NBA Dark Ages during the lockout. It will be like forgiving and accepting a loved one back again after they have done you wrong, because no matter what you did, you still love them.

But it's not all that simple, is it? Because forgiving something doesn't mean that the bitter taste of betrayal has been washed out of your mouth. We'll be happy to have your beloved NBA back, yes, we'll forgive what we missed out as fans, but we aren't going to forget this summer.

The NBA was on the cusp of a breakthrough internationally this year, especially in India, and its phenomenonal progress was brought to a screeching halt by the cursed lockout. Let's hope that it can soon get back on track, and get back to blowing our minds again.

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