Current state of the Association
There's something ironic about the NBA's use of "This Little Light of Mine," a civil rights anthem, to accompany shots of young stars such as Paul George, John Wall and Kyrie Irving in a promo for the start of the new season. The song hearkens back to a time of marches and protests. It was the background for change. In other words, it was the soundtrack for an era that's the exact opposite of where the NBA is now.
The NBA is an establishment, no longer an outsider. It's more stable than at any point since the late 1980s/early 1990s, back when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird popularized the league and Michael Jordan stepped up to become a shoe-selling kingpin. The Association has survived a brawl in the stands and a scandal that sent an official to prison. The owners have tilted the sport's economic system in their favor, even if they had to abbreviate two seasons to get their way. They're all set for a peaceful succession of power from David Stern to Adam Silver in February. Even more symbolic is that Allen Iverson, the rebellious icon who ushered in the NBA's hip-hop era, is officially retiring. So say goodnight to the bad guy.
And while you're at it, make room for LeBron James at the head table.
When television trended toward anti-heroes in the mold of Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White, LeBron played that role for the NBA. But three seasons, two championships and one Olympic gold medal later, LeBron is back in good graces. You'll notice he no longer cracks the top 10 of America's Most Disliked Athletes.
The 2013-14 season begins with no true villains. Dwight Howard? His saga generates more fatigue than anger. And he also made a post-LeBron move. At this point the concept of a star switching teams in his prime to join another star is more passé than outrageous. (Another reason the anger at the idea subsided? It kind of worked for LeBron.)
Kill any talk of an analytics-driven battle, as well. It's over. The stat geeks won. Pounding the ball into the post is out, spreading the floor is in. Nowadays one out of every four field goal attempts is a 3-pointer, a rate that's an all-time high. Even an old-school coach like Doc Rivers is following the trend. For him it's not about whether to go big or small, it's choosing between what he calls a "big-small" lineup or a "small-small" lineup.
But the absence of friction means there's also no tension. Heck, even Shaquille O'Neal has gone from tormenting the Sacramento Kings to investing in them. Conflict is essential to any drama. And counter-culture is a component of that most elusive of components: cool.
There used to be a sectarian devotion for NBA fans. The league wasn't for everyone, and that was part of the appeal. Other leagues had bigger audiences; the NBA had Charles Oakley. Now the NBA Finals draw ratings that are comparable to the World Series and, while it may never challenge the NFL in America, basketball dominates the helmet-and-shoulder-pads version of football overseas -- particularly in China, where the huge population adores Kobe Bryant and would be likely to ask, "Peyton who?"
The only problem with being a fixture is it means you no longer can be an influencer. Change comes from the margins, not the mainstream. Now the NBA -- like hip-hop -- is losing its hold on trends.
You can see it in fashion. Where basketball once dictated men's style, now it's become a distorted reflection of it. Michael Jordan altered the perception of the male look for two decades, leading the way toward looser clothes and shaved heads at the first sign of a receding hairline. The Fab Five took it to the extreme, dropping their shorts' hemline to the knees and shaving their heads long before male pattern baldness was an issue. They ended the last vestiges of the Afro era and ushered in the baggy look of hip-hop.
The NBA fought back and instituted a dress code. Then the likes of Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade came along and took it to the extreme, wearing goofy prints, skinny jeans and Capri pants to the arena.
I've always had a sense that while the players were putting their own twist on these styles, it seemed as though the "geek chic" represented a turning point for the NBA: although a majority of the NBA's players come from African-American neighborhoods, the same can no longer be said about the origins of its style.
I sought the opinions of Robin Givhan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her fashion commentary. (Years ago we worked together at The Washington Post, and once covered the unveiling of the Washington Wizards' new name, logo and uniforms together. I'll never forget her description of the home jerseys: "Less successful." It's such a kind put-down. We should use it in sports. As in, "Howard's free throws were less successful.")
"This generation of NBA athletes seems completely connected to fashion, not disenfranchised from it," Givhan wrote in an email. "But more important: They understand the nuances of it. They see how having chic style -- not just flamboyant or protest style -- can work to their advantage. Some of that is probably related to the fact that men in general, particularly those in their 20s, have a relationship to fashion and an ease with it that is very different from that of men who are now in their 50s.
"The nerd chic look is pure high fashion, hipster style. It comes from the runways of folks like Prada, Dior Homme, Raf Simons, Gucci. It comes from neighborhoods like Williamsburg. It's European and more cosmopolitan. But I think black men do it in a way that harks back to Harlem Renaissance and the jazz era with their embrace of color, pattern and texture. I think black men continue to influence our cultural sense of what is cool. But those men have developed a more sophisticated style, one that isn't predicated on physical power, intimidation or the like. Instead, I think it's more creatively expressive. It's kinder."
"Kinder" is a different mode for the NBA. It used to be edgier, a battleground for the larger culture wars in our society. Even in this current state the NBA had a chance to lead the discussion on gay equality -- but the offseason came and went and no team signed Jason Collins, meaning we still have not had an openly gay player on a major professional sports team's roster.
The NBA used to feel like a show on HBO or AMC; now it's more like standard network fare. The on-court product is actually as watchable as ever, with talented and likable players throughout the league. It's the broader story, the larger meaning that's been lost. The games will be shown in high definition, on demand and on a variety of platforms. Only, in a twist on the Gil Scott-Heron song, the televised will not be revolution.