“Wow the NBA really sucks.”
This thought crossed my mind a few days ago over spring break while I watched the Oklahoma City Thunder take on the Los Angeles Lakers at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The game was halted for a few minutes so that the “heavily wounded” Kobe Bryant could limp off the court into the locker room with the team trainer, clutching at his right elbow which was covered by his fashionable (yet completely purposeless) shooting sleeve. Don’t ask me why he was limping when it was his arm that was supposedly injured.
Minutes before, the Thunder’s lanky guard, Thabo Sefolosha, had barely grazed Bryant’s arm playing a light man-to-man defense.
This insignificant play was re-shown about 20 times by the time the quarter was over. ESPN interviewers anxiously swarmed the Lakers’ head coach, Mike D’Antoni, to ask if Bryant would return to full form. By the way, Bryant ended up going for 30 points in the contest, so it’s safe to assume there were no broken bones.
Before this game, I had watched Michigan beat Michigan State by one point, clinching the victory off a last second steal in a furiously fought battle.
In comparison to this heart-stopping college basketball game between two state rivals, the NBA just seemed a bit…dull. Dull? The NBA?! I can already hear die-hard sports fans around the country crying out in protest. Yet despite the windmill dunks, alley-oops and big-name players, I have always thought that the enduring passion in college basketball overshadows the histrionics of the NBA.
The often lackadaisical defense, excessive media coverage and extreme veneration of high-profile NBA players have diluted the game of basketball within the framework of professional play.
First, there’s no defense in the NBA. Everyone has heard this age-old objection about the National Basketball Association. In the absence of aggressive in-your-shorts and ball stopping defense, games in the NBA are dominated by fast breaks and short cuts around the essential features of good, fundamental basketball. And it’s not solely a lack of defense: the league showcases the most offensively talented players in the world competing against one another, inevitably leading to high scoring games. Sure, an NBA game that ends in a score of 125-110 is certainly an entertaining show, but it’s nothing like a four point Villanova victory over Syracuse in a low scoring game.
Second, television glamorizes the transparency of the NBA. Sports Center is constantly on a highlight reel, showing the best dunks and flashiest plays of the night. I enjoy a 360 slam dunk as much as the next person, but I’ve noticed that athletes tailor their style of play to feed into this media coverage, oftentimes turning an NBA game into a Harlem Globetrotter’s performance.
Third, we turn basketball players into celebrities. Team fidelity has certainly been eclipsed by an obsession for specific top performers in the NBA who garner as much attention as the Kardashian sisters. Long gone are the days of fandom revolving around regional affiliation; now we are fans of whatever team the hottest star has been traded to. The respect and attention players like Carmelo, Kobe, Durant, LeBron and Rondo receive is definitely warranted—they are amazingly talented players—yet our singular focus on these big names in basketball obscure the team dynamic of the sport. For example, the buzz about Steph Curry dropping 54 at The Garden was so overwhelming that many people forgot his team ended up losing to the Knicks that night.
We often forget that the NBA is first and foremost an entertainment industry. Unlike college players who are representing their school community, professional basketball players are representatives of a corporation committed to making money from an avid fan base. NBA players put on their uniforms every game with the incentive of receiving a pay check at the end of the night. In jumping from college to the NBA, the game of basketball transforms from a passion to an occupation.
I admit that I haven’t even begun to discuss the ways in which Division One basketball programs mimic the pitfalls of the NBA. For instance, college players get a free education, are treated like royalty within their respective institutions, and oftentimes receive illegal benefits that slide under the watchful eyes of the NCAA. And perhaps the tangible passion and solid fundamentals present in college basketball are only evident because players are fighting to one day reach the NBA themselves.
Yet even still, I would rather see an intense college basketball game between two unranked teams than watch Kobe Bryant pout through four quarters of overrated hyperbole.
So, here’s to another jaw dropping March Madness that will most definitely outshine the NBA playoffs—particularly if Villanova is the dark horse.