About a year ago I wrote my long treatise about some of the problems facing the NBA, now it’s time to offer up solutions. Actually, it was time a year ago, and so I wrote this a year ago - but I’m just now finishing off the last few points and publishing. Such is life when you add kids, job, life into the fold. Anyway…
If I was Magic Czar the Almighty, Ruler of the NBA, able to smash through labor disputes and drive the game forward, here’s my game plan:
Problem: Many teams aren’t playing good, team basketball, there is little innovation, and the wrong guys are getting paid big bucks.
I put all these together in one problem because the solution is the same for all of them. First issue, players with better stats get bigger contracts. In 85/86’ Rambis made 500k to Magic’s 2.5MM and Kareem’s 2MM. That’s probably no surprise to anyone. It worked like a charm tho, Rambis played his role and the team won repeatedly. But that doesn’t happen enough. There aren’t enough guys out there like Tim Duncan who will give up millions in the hopes of his team signing strong players. Economists are huge believers in incentives, and with good reason. Most of the time, people just do what they’re incented to do. Rambis and Duncan are exceptions. The structure of the NBA incents players to put themselves first and it shows on countless teams. You literally have to have a coach as accomplished as Phil Jackson to get teams to play together - and even Phil has a hard time with it most of the time.
So what do we do about it? Change their incentive of course! What if the total amount paid to all players is the same, we just distribute it differently - change players comp to a low base salary with most of the earnings coming from team performance. Then you eliminate the draft, making those who would’ve been draftees a free agent instead, giving each team the same amount to spend on them. Here’s some detail:
- Load far more of the players compensation towards team excellence. Let’s make sure the pool earned by players is the same (so we can get the player’s association to agree). The current salary cap is based on a percentage of league revenues and is something like 54MM, with each player’s comp averaging out to about 5MM (because team’s can go over that cap if they’re willing to pay the luxury tax, take mid-level exceptions, or they invoke the Larry Bird rule intended to keep great players on the same team, because fans don’t like their favorite players switching teams every year). I propose that we make the salary cap more like 10MM. Teams can use that 10MM however they want to pick up free agents (including draftees), but they can’t go over the 10MM no matter what. Make the first round of the playoffs, and the team wins 10 million bucks more for its players. Second round gets you another 30MM for the team and so on so that ultimately, the same amount is paid to NBA players but it’s distributed far differently. (tell me LeBron would’ve been strolling around in the playoffs with that kind of money on the line for him, his coach, and his teammates). But here’s the trick - you prorate it out to each player based on minutes played. You make more if you contribute more to a winning team, and more doesn’t mean just points, it means anything that helps your team win! Bench guys who don’t play a minute get more money too albeit less - and this incents them to stay out of trouble off the court, make a great locker room atmosphere and push their teammates in practice. Team income is mostly their ticket sales and things like that, and you want them incented to push hard to get butts in seats so let’s leave that. But significant revenue should be collected at the league level and prorated out based on performance too, just to make sure we don’t have any owners that think they can make money by running everything poorly (you know who you are).
- The first problem you probably see with this is that players will move from team to team, which fans don’t like - the very reason the Larry Bird Rule was created. I actually think this is ok. People LOVE the Pittsburgh Steelers. LOVE em. Why? They love the system. They love hard nosed defense, and hard running. Free agents are very rarely kept, and it’s never a problem for the fan base because they love the system and the team’s ethic/credo. Chad Brown left, no problem, reload and run our system. Greg Lloyd left. No problem, run our system. Neil O’Donnell left, no problem. Plaxico Burress left, no problem. Alan Faneca. You get the picture. Why can’t NBA teams do the same thing? Find a system that works and your fans identify with. LA’s system could be run n’ gun Show Time cause it would work in that city. Middle American teams might choose physical D and ridiculous hustle and heart. The twin tower program worked great in Houston. Couldn’t the Pacers go for Hoosiers-like fundamentals with every player having a college education, amazing court sense, and an ability to articulate themselves? Pass n’ screen away Doug Moe flow would be great in party town Miami cause it’s fun to watch. The Triangle could work in Oakland where Silicon Valley guys might appreciate it’s intricacies. The Duke “everyone is about 6’7” and super athletic and well rounded Lamar Odom-like” might work in New York where they love the game cause those guys would look beautiful playing it. It’s great when you love teams rather than just players, it creates a more lasting bond for the fans I think. It’s even better when you love a team’s system, and you love the players in it because they fit your ideals.
- The second problem you’ll point out - players will band together to create super teams that are unfair. Wonderful I say! People loved when the Show Time Lakers mopped up the West because they were watching greatness. In some ways, it’s happening now with LeBron, Wade and Bosh (and maybe Stoudamire who just signed with the Knicks) all try to figure out a situation where they play together. Let’s pour fuel on it! Imagine a team puts LeBron, Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Bosh together. People are going to want to watch that, and they’re going to be fascinated when that team is beaten by the more balanced team with Kobe Bryant, Gasol, Ray Allen, Battier, and Nash. And then they’re going to lose their minds when both lose to a small market team of greyhounds that play 12 deep and press the living bejesus out of you and bomb 3’s with reckless abandon. Which brings me to my next point:
The pay-for-team-performance will drive innovation in the sport. There are only so many big markets, and that’s where the All-Stars will combine to try to make super teams (gotta be there to get those endorsement deals and build your personal brand will be the prevailing wisdom). The small markets are going to have to innovate to be competitive. Here’s one possible innovation: It has always frustrated me that no team has gone out and pressed full time for an NBA season. Pressing teams create chaos. A great zone press is very hard to deal with. Pitino took an undermanned Providence team to the Final Four with the press, but then didn’t use it at Kentucky or Boston. I think it’s because he couldn’t get his players to do it. But what if money was paid out based on team performance? Couldn’t you get 12 NBA level guys to press for 82 games? Particularly if they could shoot with no conscience at the other end of the floor? I always thought the genius of Westhead’s Run n’ Gun at LMU was not that it shocked teams (although that was part of it’s value), it was that it gave average guys great confidence. They could shoot in a flow with no reprimand if they missed because many more shots were coming. You have to watch an average NBA guy casually shoot around to understand what I mean. They can’t miss. It’s only the pressure of the game that causes them to miss. It’s a confidence thing. People forget that Rambis was Santa Clara’s all time leading scorer, but with the Lakers when he shot it often slammed so hard off the glass you felt bad for him, and the glass. Create a system that gives these next tier guys confidence and you’re going places.
- Here’s another innovation - you play your best players. If you’ve read Moneyball, or talked to any professional athletes, you’ll find that the best players aren’t necessarily getting minutes. Other factors like draft position, salary and the like cause organizations to play the wrong guy. One of my favorite outcomes from the pay-for-team-performance strategy is that the best players get unleashed (team revenues should depend on performance as well). I had the opportunity to talk with Daryl Morey, GM of the Rockets back when he was with the Celtics trying to create a Moneyball type system for basketball. He wouldn’t tell me any trade secrets (and if he did, I wouldn’t be writing them here anyway, he’s a good guy and it wouldn’t be right) but it’s no secret they are trying to figure out how to get the best teams built. Battier. Scola. Guys who wouldn’t cut muster on a lot of teams play key roles on his successful Rockets teams. I wish all teams were doing this more successfully. It’d be great for the game. Which brings me to my next problem with today’s system.
The wrong guys are getting paid the big bucks. I lost my mind when I saw the top paid players of 2010. Jermaine O’Neil? Shaq for 22 minutes a game or whatever he played? Michael Redd? McGrady at #1? How is this possible? This is fundamentally broken, and those teams that are stuck with these guys are in a world of hurt. And fans hate it. Pay for performance puts the money in the right player’s hands each year.
- McGrady - 23.3MM
- Bryant - 23MM
- Jermaine O’neil - 22.9MM
- Duncan - 22MM
- Shaq - 20MM
- Dirk - 19.7MM
- Pierce - 19.7MM
- Ray Allen - 19.7MM
- Rashard Lewis - 18.8MM
- Michael Redd -17MM
Eliminate the Draft. I’m not the first to write this, but I believe strongly in it. Why should a team be rewarded for stinking? Where does that happen in the real world? This is not the correct path to parity. Today, you get the number one pick - sometimes it’s Shaq or Duncan, sometimes it’s Kwame Brown, Bogut, Bargnani, or Olawakandi. Then you have to pay them a mint regardless of whether or not they help you win. What if you could pay them based on how they contributed to the team? If they don’t, they’re gone. No guaranteed contracts in this league buddy. You have 10M a year in base salary to dole out, you could give it all to one guy if you wanted to so long as you could find 11 other guys to play on the hopes that they’ll win. So when these new players come out, now they’re trying to find the best team for their style and where they can be successful and get minutes - the base salary is less of a factor and they have choice like everyone else entering a job market! Fun!
Bob - this is communist thinking. No it’s not, I swear! Communism would be paying every NBA player the same amount regardless of performance. My system is more like making each team an internet startup. You don’t get much salary but you have a lot of stock options, and that keeps you hungry, looking for ways to innovate and get better, and anxious to work together to succeed. Teams, like companies, will have to work even harder than they do today to create better work environments to attract talent (think health care, nutrition, how the press is handled, excellent coaching, job training for post NBA careers, or whatever they come up with).
What about length of contracts? I think what happens will be similar to what happens today to some extent. Some guys will be very confident, with no fear of injuries - they’ll sign short contracts so they can move around if things aren’t working out. Others will try to lock up longer contracts to make sure they’re at least making an NBA base salary - which is a lot of money for most people.
What about Europe? This is the best argument against the plan. Some guys will take guaranteed money to go play in Europe rather than risk being on a loser or getting hurt, or having some numbskull coach bench them. I would guess NBA brass would never roll out this plan simply because it could lead to competition they don’t currently face (well not too much anyway, there are Ricky Rubio’s out there who skip the NBA already). There are a couple of reasons to plow ahead anyway says this magical czar.
- We’re going to have a killer pension package. Guys who make teams are going to have more money coming in for the rest of their lives because we’re going to take some of the current player pool and give it to the old guys.
- There will be a certain pride in getting to play in the best league, as there is today. Guys want to play against the best. Those that don’t, you have to wonder about them.
- Europe offers zero protection against getting stuck on a losing team, getting hurt, or having some numbskull coach bench you, so all you get is the money of the first contract and no pension. We know how well that works out for most guys.
- Most people, NBA guys included, don’t like to live outside their home country. They don’t like the life overseas as much as they do here at home. We still have Europeans come here despite this fact, but I think there are a lot of guys who’d make the call to leave Serbia to come to Los Angeles. Not as many would do the reverse. It’s just a fact.
- The most powerful argument against Europe or some new US based league taking over - the fans and therefore the money. Who would you be a fan of? LeBron’s team in France or your favorite Bulls, Mavs, etc. Why? Distance partly. But also, because people like to see the best of the best and NBA teams in this structure would be the best. You’d even pull in a lot of college fans because now they’d be getting the heart and desire of college kids combined with gifted NBA players.
OK, I think we’ve solved the core of the problem in the NBA by making each team like a start up business full of hungry employees (instead of one where many of the super stars are just taking the night off left and right). Let’s look at a few of the other things that turn fans off.
Problem: Flopping, Whining, and other things we try to teach our kids not to do
Solution: easy one. Instant replay after the game. If NBA officials determine you flopped around like a ninny, vlade, or fisher - that’s 20k. You’re grabbing jersey’s cause you got beat on a play? 20k. Let’s cut this crap out of the game. It’s a form of cheating.
Problem: Many players went to the Madonna-school of self promotion.
Solution: Ah Dennis. Dennis Rodman. What have you started? Here’s the thing. You role out the plan above, and you’re going to have even more guys who focus on endorsements and attention. They’re going to go after it either by taking the Rodman route, or the Grant Hill route. All you can do I think, is take a Yankees like approach (no facial hair, clean cut, or you don’t play here). I think you do it at the league level since the Yankees approach only works because they pay the big bucks and they win. Then you require under armor to cover tattoos. Players don’t like it, they can work for another company (time to go learn Italian).
Problem: The NBA’s brand is “Where Amazing Happens”
They’re capitalizing on today’s celebrity infatuated world and short attention span, and our need to be “wowed”. I completely get it. But what if they rebranded to something that focused on substance. Let’s get a marketing guy on this.
Problem: All this is impossible. And I’m not Magic the Czar Almighty or whatever.
OK, fine. This whole post is a dream land. Until I become a (multi) billionaire and can start my own league, this is how it’s gonna have to be. In that case, can we just do one little thing? It’s completely doable. Let’s bring back the hand check.
People talk about how great Jordan was. You know what? He deserves every bit of it. Imagine if he played now! Michael Jordan, with no hand checks. It’d be ridiculous. He’d average 45 a game. You want a quick way to bring back passing, hard work and action among the 9 who don’t have the ball, more team basketball? Want teams to stop going to the “ok, let’s clear everyone out and give it to our best guy so he can dribble till there’s 7 seconds left then barf up a bad look” play that everyone runs at the end of games? The one that’s maddening to any fan of the game? Bring back the hand check. Make it harder to just beat your guy (with defensive 3 seconds now a rule, there’s no one camping under the basket as a second line of defense either). The hand check was banned in 1994. In 1997, the forearm on a player facing the basket was removed. Now only the few great defenders are able to stay in front of their man, the rest get beat. Offenses shoot a better percentage, fewer fouls are called, there are more possessions during a game - all sounds great, right? Except it’s not. Because everyone’s playing 1on1. Just do this one thing: Bring back the hand check. It’d be huge.
A lot of people are writing about Google+, and I think you’ll read mostly positive reviews. And they’re well deserved. Some reasons why:
- Clean: It’s a very clean interface, and people respond well to clean interfaces - the initial impression is critical to any new product. It’s basically a slightly cleaner Facebook, which people already understand so no training is required.
- Circles: Facebook has allowed you to group your friends for a long time - so this feature is hardly new. The only thing Google did was put a good user interface around it, and skew the product to center on types of friends a little more. This was a very smart tactic, because if there’s one thing people don’t like about Facebook it’s the privacy aspects of it. A) they don’t trust Facebook (Zuckerberg has been cavalier with people’s privacy for better or for worse) and B) they don’t want to share everything with everyone. You’ll hear people saying “Hey, this is facebook but less creepy”. (Old people mostly.) Maybe “B” is less about privacy and more about targeting your messages, but there’s certainly privacy in there.
- The Black Bar: A very intelligent way to promote a new service. (It looks a lot like Quora’s top header bar btw). I think it does a very elegant job of tying all your Google services together in one.
- The Tie in With Gmail: There’s something about how they recommend friends for circles that just works. I suspect it’s because they’re looking at who you email with the most and put those names in front of you, but even if it’s that simple, it still just works.
So, you have to credit Google with firing a nice shot across Facebook’s bow. This is no Google Buzz. They got the overall user experience right (primarily because it’s basically Facebook’s), they nailed the Circles UI (both the Circles page, and the recommended friends on the right of the stream), and I think going after Facebook on the privacy angle was a smart strategy. Since I have very few friends on Google+ during this field test, it’s too early to see if they’re doing anything smart with the stream’s algorithm but the circles could make this better than Facebook too.
But here’s the problem: It’s Easily Copied
Facebook has 750 million users. That’s incredible inertia. Everyone is already there. Do you really want to upload and tag those photos again, follow those companies again, re-login to a number of sites with a normal account instead of my Facebook Connect account, wait while people switch to this new platform - checking both in the meantime etc. etc. etc. Am I that unhappy with Facebook that switching is worth it? Simply put, all Facebook has to do is copy the circles function and they’re good. They get that right (lend the right prominence to it, use it well in the algorithm of what to put in the stream, copy the Google UI) and Google+ is left with few differentiators: Huddles (group text messaging based on those circles, very replicable - and why isn’t this just Google Talk btw?) and perhaps copy the “hangout” function (which actually requires you to download a plugin - ouch). It’s hard to imagine everyone switching if Facebook offered these same features.
So, while going after Facebook with Circles was a smart strategy, it needed to be one of many strategies, not the only strategy. It’s too easily copied. And when you consider that the rest of Google+ is a copy of Facebook, and FB already has the group’s feature as a start, Facebook doesn’t have far to go…
There are a number of things you’re trying to evaluate the candidate on, so here’s a question or two to help you with each category.
Passion for the web:
What are some of your favorite websites? This does two things. one, it throws them just a tad off because it’s an unusual starting question, a way to watch them scramble on their feet. Two, you get to see if they’re a “student of the game” or if they just barf out “amazon” or “apple” or something. Obvious follow ups to help you determine their product ability would be “how would you make that site better”, “why do you think they chose that design for the site”.
Common sense interview preparedness:
I’m sure you spent time on our site, what ideas did you find to improve it?
General Understanding of how products are built:
Many companies use the name product management for varying roles. You probably have developed an ideal role for a PM in an internet company of this size. How would you describe that? Here’s where we learn if they understand the PM’s role and more importantly, if they think about what it should be and strive to make it better. At a minimum they should give you the largest categories in chronological order: Ideation/Business Model, Spec/Creation/Conception, Project Mgmt, then “managing the product” and all that each entails.
What Part of the Job Do They Like to Do:
Rank the main categories for me in the order you like them the best. Biz Case, Spec, Project Mgmt, Managing the product. This can help you spot weaknesses and strengths. I love when they say they like the creation and spec phase the best - I think those are the ones who tend to make great PM’s. But truly, there is no officially correct answer, it’s more about getting to know the candidate and seeing if they have skill and passion for the role in its entirety.
Now we’re past the easy stuff, and we have a sense for whether it makes sense to continue. Time to test a few other things:
Problem Solving. Analytical Ability. Experience. High and Low Level thinking.
Suppose you started here, and your first task was to improve conversion of the checkout portion of the site (any PM will understand checkout). What would be your first steps? Often, people start to describe the first month of tactics in painstaking detail. If that happens, it tells you a little about the level the candidate thinks on, and you can reel them in by telling them you’re looking for what they’d do in the first 5 minutes. You’re looking for someone who starts thinking high-level “forest” and then demonstrates their ability to move down around the “trees” if you will. The better answer is organized and crisp and it describes a game-plan. ”I’d delve into the data to get to know the customer’s experience on the site: GA or Omniture for consumer patterns, whatever survey data you’ve already done, I’d speak with Customer Service and see what they are hearing, I’d talk with co-workers (and you!) to see what you think, I’d look for user testing tapes if you have any.” Then layer in some detail to demonstrate they know what to do with the data. ”Once I knew the lay of the land I’d look for quick wins, like pages with high-drop offs, or not making people choose the credit card type since you know all Visa #’s start with 4 and all Amex’s 3 etc, and I’d go about prioritizing the work.” Bonus pts if they throw in a suspicion of something that could help your site.
What do you think our site’s design should be, and why? You’re looking for answers that point to an understanding of the user (or they should ask who your user is to formulate their answer) the brand, and esthetic’s. For example, “your site is primarily visited by women, and you’re brand is trying to connote a strong understanding of family and children, so I’d consider pastels, try rounded corners and use friendly fonts so it’s still soft feeling. Maybe bring in some hints from things you’d find around a family’s house like post-its on a corkboard or children’s drawings on the fridge. Certainly a good designer would drive a lot of this but those are directions I’d be thinking about.”
An intelligence question. Don’t make it one you read in a book somewhere tho - it has to be original, show an ability to keep multiple things in your head at once, calculate math in your head, not a trick, and for the right candidate, kinda fun. How about:How many people do you think travel from Southern California to Northern every day on Southwest airlines? Here you want them to think about how many flights there would be each hour, out of all the airports, how many people must be on each plane, and an ability to keep it all in their heads and do the math.
Let’s work on a UI together, it’ll give us each a sense of what it’s like to work with each other. Everyone thinks they have UI skills, but really, only a few do. So we’ve got to determine which bucket the person is in. Go to a white board, or to a piece of paper and draw a particular page that relates to your business or a hobby of theirs (both show they think about how to improve things that are in their life). I think you have to do this with a candidate, it’s really the only way to know if they have a good sense for UI or not. It’s important that it not feel like a test, but rather like two people drawing something up together. A great way to determine if they can organize information, enjoy building the UI, and are good to work with all in one shot.
Along the Way
It’s a lot of questions and would take too long, so usually we have different interviewers ask different ones and piece together the answers after. If the role is more backend/tool based, or more marketing based, obviously add in questions that help you judge those types of things. Certainly, along the way you’re watching for an ability to articulate, charisma and creativity. The only other thing I’d stress, look for fit. Fit is incredibly important in a good PM because they have to work with every group in the company to get good product built, and it’s key that they be able to do this well.
The great product people I’ve worked with weren’t great because of their experience, in fact they came from many walks of life, but they tended to share the following innate traits:
Great product people tend to notice the sign in the airport that mostly works but could confuse 5% of travelers, have an idea for how the dashboard of the car could have been better, or how if the remote control where shaped differently it’d be easier to control without looking at it, etc etc. They’re just natively interested in how humans interact with everything - not just web sites.
Forest and Trees
The great ones have a very good ability to see the whole forest, pick a path, then bounce down in and make sure that the trees are as they should be. They can find a winning strategy, but also create the specs for the product. You can create great products if the strategy and the implementation are done together. People who do one or the other are far more common than those who do both.
They tend to have played with Lego and Lincoln Logs when they were kids, maybe wrenched on cars or building models as youths, torn apart the toaster to see how it worked, they’re the kid who made the sand castle instead of laying in the sun. They just tend to have it in them, a curiosity for how things work, a drive to build, and a sense of “having left their mark” from their creations.
A Concise Articulator
An incredible ability to boil down to the main point, and then say it persuasively and in a way that teammates and users find intuitive.
Decipher-er of Customer Input
Most product people love qualitative (user testing, input from Customer Service) and quantitative feedback (NPS, A/B, web analytics). But the great ones are good at determining what questions to ask, then deciphering which input is important, what the input is actually saying, and then turning that into the next great product.
Speaker of Many Languages
The great product person in a large company has to be able to understand/motivate/persuade/incorporate into the project, lawyers, marketers, customers, clients/partners, execs, engineers, customer service, designers, QA, accounting etc. These people all approach things from different angles and speak different “languages” if you will. A great product person has the innate ability to get along with and to understand all of the needs and translate them into the winning product.
Charisma and Leadership qualities
Related, the great product person can inspire and motivate all the various team members in the previous paragraph, and drive them to build something special.
They’re Incredibly Creative Product Designers
They make great product.
Often it’s design: The Aston Martin DBS, not the best car but man is it beautiful. You’ll pay more for it just because it’s so beautiful. It must be said that if something looks hot, you’ll get more for it, your team will be more fired up to build it, and consumers will be more forgiving of it. Great product people have a great design sense.
Sometimes it’s simplicity: The plastic lid on your coffee so you don’t spill in the car but can still drink.
Sometimes it’s creating a category: An early Tivo. Netflix. Even the toaster you pulled apart as a kid was a new thing at one point.
Sometimes it’s ‘the best’: Nike’s latest hoops shoe the Kobe V (lightweight, lowtop, but somehow great support - and it has looks).
All of these things came from people who figured out what the consumer wanted/needed and found a great way to deliver a great product.
I’m a life-long basketball junkie.
There are several reasons for it really. My father played at North Carolina under Dean Smith and then was drafted by the Knicks. Heck, I practically had a ball in the crib. Said father also had court side seats to the Lakers in the 70’s and early 80’s, before you had to have a private jet or be named Nicholson to be there. (side note: I vividly remember one time catching an out of bounds ball. It was Cavs ball, so some guy on the Cavaliers came over with outstretched hands to retrieve it, thinking it’d be a little thrill for me to pass the ball to an NBA guy. I did what any decent Laker fan would do - I threw it past him over to Kareem. It drew a little laugh form the crowd.) In my early teens, the Lakers and Show Time kept this junkie hooked. I even used the sport to get me into college as a poor-shooting defensive stopper 3man. In college, Lakers vs. Celtics came out for Sega Genesis. My favorite player, Tom Chambers, had an unstoppable move where if you pressed shoot from the 3pt line at the top of the screen he did this guaranteed double pump dunk. Even the Japanese wanted me to be a junkie!
I guess maybe all that is why I got hooked, and that turned into a level of obsession that caused me to do funny things. In 8th grade we were asked to write our own version of Marc Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar - mine was about the impending fall of the Clippers and rise of the Knicks because they won the lottery and were going to get Ewing. (I’ll post it sometime, it actually holds up). My Junior and Senior years of high school, during the season I wore at least one article of clothing bearing the logo of my beloved North Carolina Tarheels - every day. In ‘88 when Arizona smoked UNC by 18 to knock them out of the tourney, my English teacher pulled me aside to make sure I was ok and wasn’t going to do anything stupid. I didn’t have a typical nerf hoop in my room - I had a brass one engraved “Manute Bob”. I made what had to be one of the first user generated videos back in the 80’s by literally sitting there with my finger on the record button of our VCR trying to catch Nike Jordan videos and Slam Dunk highlight clips from various news shows. I had a lot of free time. I read every page of Bill Simmon’s “Book of Basketball”, even the analysis of each player in his pantheon. Not even Simmon’s has done that. I’m nearly 40 years old now, and I still play in competitve city leagues every week (naturally, the team name is “the Junkies”). I love the game.
But over the last 10 years, the NBA has been trying this particular junkie, and I think really our collective patience.
And it’s because NBA brass thinks the NBA is about show business instead of the purity of the game. Players forgo team in favor of stats because they’re incented to by bigger contracts, NBA referees appear to be fixing games to maximize revenues, the announcers don’t point it out because they’d be fired by execs who fear it’ll hurt viewership (and their chances to renew their lucrative contract), and the media goes along with it - well, I haven’t figured out why they do that. No one’s pulling for purity!
I can see why the NBA does it.
Purity means boring teams led by boring personalities sometimes win because they played the best (cough. San Antonio. cough. Tim Duncan. ahem. Texas in general I guess cause Houston and Akeem are in this bucket too) Those weren’t great years for the NBA, so they made the change. It’s way more fun when big market teams win.
So what does NBA as show business look like?
Here’s a well known one. Players were literally allowed to take 3 and a half steps in the name of higher scoring until fans soured on it so much that the NBA decided it was better show business if they limit it at least a little. Literally, the rules were ignored.
Then there were the “great” rivalries of the Kings and the Lakers in the early 2000’s. What a sham. If the game was in Sacramento, it was an offensive foul on Shaq. In LA, the same play was a flop by Vlade. (Vlade to this day is associated with the flop, not even Derek Fisher can unseat him). Regardless of who was right, the NBA was going to see to it that the Lakers won and it took them as many games as possible because that’s how the NBA makes the most money. Anyone watching could plainly see it. Ugh. (but I gotta give Robert Horry some credit - that dude made some ridiculous shots).
Don’t believe me (which means you must not have watched those games)? Consider this from NBA Referee Tim Donaghy’s Wikipedia page:
“On June 10, 2008, Donaghy’s attorney filed a court document alleging, among other things, that Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings was fixed by two referees. The letter states that Donaghy “learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew Referees A and F to be ‘company men’, always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA’s interest to add another game to the series.” The Lakers won Game 6, attempting 18 more free throws than the Kings in the fourth quarter, and went on to win the 2002 NBA Finals. The teams were not named, but the Western Conference Finals was the only seven-game series that year. The document claimed that Donaghy told federal agents that to increase television ratings and ticket sales, “top executives of the NBA sought to manipulate games using referees”. It also said that NBA officials would tell referees to not call technical fouls on certain players, and states that a referee was privately reprimanded by the league for ejecting a star player in the first quarter of a January 2000 game. Stern denied the accusations, calling Donaghy a “singing, cooperating witness”.”
Our third rendition of the dream team does a better job than any meaningless blogger (me) in demonstrating the quality of basketball in the U.S. The 2004 Bronze medal in Men’s Basketball goes to… the US. and barely. Poor team basketball. Poor shooting. Wonderful slams. But the US had the talent to win, it just didn’t know how to cope with teams that passed well and shot well and worked hard on D - teams that played basketball better. We rested on the excuse that many of the best Americans stayed home to rest their legs, avoid potential terrorism in Athens etc. But also, fans were disappointed that these guys didn’t want to represent the US at the Olympics. Me too.
My next example. Fast forward a bit to when Shaq left and the Lakers became the LA Kobes. The ‘Us Weekly’ level drama leading to it, and the resulting “one player does everything while 4 sit and watch” Lakers of 2004-05 were so punishing that I took a 1 year, self-imposed NBA ban. Enough was enough. I would not watch a game or read an article. This should’ve been near impossible for a junkie since I had a job with great access to tickets, but it wasn’t. I loved basketball and the Lakers weren’t playing it.
I come off of my ban and what happens? Magically, the Lakers get Pau Gasol late in the 2007-2008 season. Everyone knows it stinks, but it’s the Lakers, so it’s ok. Me too, I’m a Laker fan after all. Gasol immediately propels them to the NBA Finals for another NBA orchestrated 7 game series, this time against their old rivals, the Celtics. Every news source and every announcer talks about the rivalry. It’s like a toddler with a noise making toy - the kid’s the only one who doesn’t think it’s annoying and repetitive. Games 1 and 2 go off without a hitch - every call goes to the Celtics and it’s clear the officials are going to make this another 7 game series. They’re not even trying to be discreet about it. Manute Bob is beside himself. (check this video and see for yourself - Lakers lost this by 6 despite a 38-10 FT disparity: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQbbkISeo_I) Then something remarkable happens - the aforementioned Donaghy allegation comes out on June 10th, the day of game 3. Now the Celtics have their big lead in the series but the Lakers aren’t going to get the free wins they’re entitled to. The change in the psyche of the Lakers is evident, they win that game, but fold the rest of the series and lose 4-2. They would’ve taken one of those first two games in Boston under normal circumstances. What a shame.
The 2010 season is comparably ridiculous. LeBron tanks, literally strolling around the court in the playoffs. Unwatchable. An affront to the game. To his job. I actually think it merits an apology (and not a mummy-with-a-puppeteer-hand-in-his-butt apology like Tiger Woods’. I’m still convinced that was actually an animatronic figure from Disneyland up there. You could hear the clack of hard plastic every time he blinked). So LeBron gives the Celtics a pass to the finals. Great, now we have to be hit over the head with more Lakers vs. Celtics bleating.
Well, at least I’m a Laker fan, plus the Donaghy thing has happened so it’s going to be officiated fairly and we’ll get a fun series. So I thought. The NBA is somewhat more discreet about things this time. In one game, they give Kobe phantom fouls so he can’t drive to the basket or guard anyone, but they also call a number of fouls on Celtics big men. It gives the Celtics a large edge, but not as overtly. Neat. In another, a critical out of bounds play at the end of the game is called the wrong way - anybody watching the game could see the call was very atypical, you just don’t call that play that way. But now we have the instant replay, so we re-watch over and over again and see clearly that the ball should be awarded to the Lakers. So obvious that even the announcers feel safe enough to say it. Guess what happens, it’s still Celtics ball! The examples pile up, and naturally the series goes to Game 7. I’d been calling a 7 game orchestrated series all along, torturing everyone around me with it, but deep inside I want badly to be wrong. I keep watching game after game. I’m powered by 5 minute stretches of the Lakers running the triangle beautifully. When they do it, there’s nothing better. There were at least two moments when my father and I turned to one another and said, “This is amazing basketball.” But when the series goes to 7 in an unnatural way, I’m so disgusted I go out to dinner rather than watch.
A life-long LA native and basketball junkie, at my level of addiction no less, literally skips his team’s game 7 of the NBA finals. But not any game 7 of the NBA Finals, one featuring perhaps the greatest rivalry in any league -Lakers vs. Celtics. I flip through some of it on Tivo later that night (I am a junkie after-all), and see that of course I missed an absolutely craptastic game, in which Kobe shoots 4 for 73 and is named the MVP instead of Gasol. Wow. The highlight for me (and most of us really): Artest thanking his psychiatrist during the post game on-court interview. Fitting that the highlight of a Game 7 isn’t really basketball related.
Sprinkle in the fun of players fighting fans (another thank you to Ron), the Portland Jail-Blazers, a tattoo-per-player ratio that would shame a motorcycle gang, Craig Sager’s retarded outfits and worse interviews, a league expansion that watered down the league too much, guys in short shorts firing T-shirt guns, players sprinting to half court with a dumb smile on their face if they don’t agree with a call, and I question my faith in the NBA. Kids look up to these players? Fans can get so excited by this obvious farce? Can’t they see it’s not that different from an episode of “The Bachelor” in that it’s supposed to look real (heck, they call it reality tv) but it’s basically scripted? How come no one is talking about missing the beauty of the game?
Then I remember. It’s just show business.
(tune in next when I lay out my plan to make things better - I tell my kid “no whining” all the time. If you just complain without trying to help, that’s whining.)
Something has happened to me a lot in the last few months, and whenever I tell people about it the reaction is invariably a combination of slight disgust, a bit of awkwardness, and some disappointment with the new world we live in. The initial reaction is that “it’s just wrong”.
Here’s what happens: Facebook’s algorithm recommends that I “reconnect” with one of my closest high school buddies, which would be pretty unremarkable except for the fact that he died in a tragic accident about a year ago.
I completely understand the reaction, it seems somehow unfair that Facebook is so unknowingly insensitive. I know I felt that way the first time it happened. But I immediately realized something when I decided to click on his picture.
Facebook has inadvertently created something wonderful. Something that’s very important to me. Another place for us all to remember him. Whenever I see Facebook’s suggestion, I do reconnect with him, very much in fact. I think about him. I browse through the pictures of him on Facebook. I think about all the dumb things our group did together in high school, I think about his young son and my young daughter, I think about his father and his wife. In effect, I visit him. It’s like bringing flowers to his grave but in at least one way it’s actually better. His other friends and family are there, posting their notes to him. It’s hard to convey how impactful it is to see all the birthday wishes on what would’ve been his 39th birthday.
I’m incredibly grateful that whenever I think of him, I can simply jump online and take a trip to visit him.