On the NBA: The State of The Player

As a person who writes a column about the NBA, once per week, I am both thrilled and annoyed by the sheer amount of compelling news and media surrounding the sport, between each column. Usually, I react to the overwhelming question of what to write about by picking a manageable topic—like assessing the season’s wins-and-losses progress and prospects of various teams and players, throughout the league. And doing so in a purely basketball-focused way.

But the recent influx of coverage for decidedly offthecourt elements of the league urge me to speak to something that’s had me itching for quite a while: the state of The Player, in the modern NBA. What are his relations to his other players, to his coach, owner, and organization? To the media which constantly frames him, and to the fans—who, ultimately, make him relevant.

It’s been said that the HBO series ‘Entourage’ be watched to better understand the re-atomizing free agency explosion in the summer of 2010. If the title alone didn’t make it clear, a survey of one episode (maybe even the one LeBron James cameos in) brings light to a culture of fame that’s far less subservient to it’s source of wealth than it is to the micro-society it creates around itself. While LeBron’s private life is LeBron’s private life, and none of us blogsters really know what he’s up to off the court, it seems quite feasible that his decision to take his talents to South Beach was:

1)    Basketball-based; it’s obvious that teaming with Wade and Bosh was a terrific option for championships—if not entirely clear that taking his talents to Lake Michigan wouldn’t have yielded greater results.

2)    A good move for the huge enterprise of friendships-mixed-with-business-mixed-with-loyalty that supposedly surrounds James and his every move.

Gone from the decision were old-fashioned concepts of legacy. James didn’t want to play in the bright lights of New York—or L.A.—play where Michael played, or be a hometown hero or franchise man (one in the same, in this case). James signed with one of the lesser-storied teams in the league, and it was a move that suggested many more to come in his effort to write a new kind of story of NBA dominance; to become a Neo-Superstar, if you will. Here’s a guy who does summer workouts with his top competitive rival, refuses to do the Dunk Contest, accepts less than a max contract, and even occasionally displays a socio-political awareness that’s entirely surprising for a pro athlete—not that anyone doubts the intelligence on current issues of sports prodigies; just their willingness to speak out about such things. Michael was notoriously mum on anything political, or potentially barbed, throughout his career.

When James heard of the potential sale of the Kings to a group of Seattle-based investors for $525 million, he took to his Twitter to call out the NBA owners, wondering what the point of 2011’s lockout was; the enormous price tag is only 65% of the struggling Sacramento franchise’s projected worth, which means one thing, above all: the owners are doing just fine in this league, especially considering that LeBron (the league’s best player and largest media figure) makes a comparatively beansy $17.5 million per year.

And recently, NBA Players Union President, Derek Fisher, has wondered, too, what the lockout was all about. And it seems (as clearly as ever, in hindsight) that the players—unequivocally—were losers in the lockout’s negotiations, which instituted new rules that, essentially, ensure owners they’re working within a system that guarantees profits. Gone, in theory, are the free agency overpay blunders of Eddy Curry and Gilbert Arenas. Cap restrictions have been put in place that force teams to more fully consider what they’re paying for, in their players—the new luxury tax guidelines act almost like a financial punishment to players, levied as a result of farcical management decisions.

It’s easy to see how this happened, now that NBPA Executive Director Billy Hunter’s been exposed for the maligant sloth that he’s been for the organization. Hunter was NBA Ownership’s dream come true: a pushover who just wants to get back to his vacation home, paid for entirely by the players’ misappropriated money.

But the encouraging  (and dynamic) thing, here, is in the players’ reaction to Hunter. The imposition of their private legal investigation of Hunter’s behavior, and subsequent suspension of his duties, suggest that the NBPA is an alliance of increasing pride and awareness. Whether they can negotiate a payment system which more accurately represents their worth to the league, and how long it will take, will be a longer test of these positive signs.

Also heartening is the revolution in fashion that’s taken place in the locker rooms and press stands, in recent years. Issues of taste aside, the exuberance and creativity in these self-presentations are fun combatants to the conservative dress code Commisioner Stern issued back in 2005—a move to conceal the true personalities of players like Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett, who the league saw as alienating certain demographics with their attire. Let this current wave of absurdity—which seemed to reach new heights in last year’s Finals, the first in which a new generation of superstars was guaranteed to become champion—be one more reminder that individualism always finds a way, and that the NBA Player, always variously embattled with his employers and audience, is on the rise.

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