Tuesday , Dec , 18 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

Seven Problems with the NBA: An Open Letter to the League

Don’t get me wrong now: I love the NBA. It’s no accident that hoops went from an interest to an obsession to a job for me, but I still have beef with the game. You see, I realised that no matter how much you love something, you’re always going to be able to find fault in it. I love fried chicken, but it gives me gas. I love cartoons, but they addle my brain. I love Christina Milian, but she keeps playing hard-to-get with the restraining orders and constant pepper spraying.

Thus it is with the NBA. The league I loved long before I first felt the loving embrace of Ms. Milian’s mace might hold a special place in my heart, but it also gets right on my nerves. They say it’s not healthy to repress your issues (whatup, Sigmund?), so, in the interests of catharsis, I present my open letter to the NBA.

Dear NBA,

Remember me? It’s Chucky Ellis! I’m the one that sent you all those letters back in the day. You didn’t reply, but I know you enjoyed the crayon drawings of me and Michael Jordan. I was sixteen then, and things have changed since.  Mike retired. LeBron was drafted. The Charlotte Bobcats came. The leather ball went. The leather ball came back. To quote my homeboy Charles (Dickens, not Barkley), “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Through all of that, I was watching, and although I enjoyed it for the most part, certain things got my goat. I’ve held my tongue for a minute now, but something inside me snapped today, and I just had to tell you how I feel. That’s what this letter is about. I have more beef besides, but in what follows I’ll outline the things that disturb me most about the NBA right now.

The New York Knicks
Come on now, NBA. How could you let this happen? I might not have been born a New Yorker, but in the short time I’ve lived in the Big Apple I’ve come to consider it my hometown. Accordingly, even though I don’t support the Knicks, it kills me to see the team that represents what M.J. called the “Mecca of basketball” flapping and flailing like a fish in the bottom of a boat.   

Between James “How on earth did I become a millionaire?” Dolan and Isiah “Freaky Zekey” Thomas, the ‘Bockers have gone from being one of the finest outfits in the league to the butt of everyone’s jokes. I think I realised exactly when it all became too much to take, too. I first moved my affairs to NYC in 2005 and, after a couple of months staying in Harlem, I became accustomed to telling people I lived in New York. Then Larry Brown was canned. Then Isiah was hired. Then things started looking bad. Then things started looking irremediable.   Then I started telling people I lived in Jersey. And that is how bad the Knicks have become.

The Frills
I remember my parents taking me to the circus as a kid. I hated it. Between the deafening  music, the loudmouthed ringleader and the dancing fools with their painted faces, I couldn’t wait to get home, and considering I lived in a housing project, that’s really saying something. Sadly, the NBA arena of today has the feel of the big top, and it’s driving away countless fans. 

Deafening music? Check. Loudmouthed ringleader? The goofy-ass in-house announcers aren’t far off. And the dancing fools with painted faces? Try the cheerleading squad. To go slightly off-topic (not that we were on one to start), does anybody really need to see a gaggle of semi-naked young ladies every five minutes to maintain their interest in the game? I’m not saying it doesn’t make for good viewing, but there’s a time and a place for that sort of thing, and it’s called the internet. The game, however, should be about hoops.

Still, you might enjoy the comforts of the modern arena. Indeed, many people like being able to eat a three-course meal in their seats, and why shouldn’t the organisers try to bring a little razzmatazz to the fans? I can’t argue there, but what I can tell you is this: The best time I’ve ever had at a game had nothing to do with the popcorn, the halftime show or the dancing girls, and everything to do with the basketball itself. Once you realise, NBA, that the fans can have as much fun sitting in bleachers held together with duct tape as in the skybox, you’ll recognise that we might not just tolerate the lack of frivolities but appreciate it.

General Softness
I’ve ranted about this matter many times before, and I don’t think I need to craft a concerted argument here since few, if any, would maintain that this trend towards softness has been a good thing for the league. To quote a wise man from my neighbourhood who, if not homeless, at least enjoys spending a lot of time in the park, “Back in the day, men were men and women were women. Nowadays, women are still women but men are bitches and the government spies on us through tiny cameras attached to animatronic pigeons.” Crazy Jake’s drinking habits may mean that he can’t stay on-topic long enough to finish a point, but the one he started holds true for the NBA. While we’re referencing amateur philosophers, Charles Barkley has more to say here.

"In the old days, you didn’t take two days off for a hangnail or a yeast infection like they do these days. I can’t believe a guy would sit out of a game for a broken nose. I played with a broken nose. I strapped one of those head gears on, couldn’t see side-to-side, so I took it off like a man and played. I saw Larry Bird do it too. You can’t sit out with a broken nose. You don’t need your nose to play basketball."

So, while Sir Chuck was happy to get down and dirty in the paint with nothing more than a piece of tape holding the two halves of his beak together, the 100-pound wonder Richard “If I call myself ‘Rip’, will people think I’m tough?” Hamilton has been rocking the mask since MF DOOM was Zev Love X. Even LeBron James, a man who bench presses light aircraft and flosses with a towrope, has sat out multiple games this season with a sprained finger. 

A sprained freaking  finger? What else are we going to see on the injury reports? Hay fever? Gluten intolerance? Split ends? I once played a game with a soft cast on my shooting wrist, and the seven figures I made that season were all zeroes. I propose that from now on, any player who decides to sit with a sprained finger or another similarly frivolous boo-boo should be noted in the box score as “DNP: Bitchelism”. Make it happen, NBA.

Amateur Dramatics
The cousin to general softness, amateur dramatics have sullied the game of soccer for many years, and unfortunately they seem to be prancing their way into the NBA, too. Flopping, flailing, feigning injury and moaning like a horny whale at the slightest contact all qualifies, and hitting the deck after every layup is a provisional inclusion. I see you, Dwyane Wade and Tony Parker. Diving and rolling doesn’t make it look as if you were fouled; it makes you look as if you were tased.

T.P. was also responsible for one of the more histrionic performance pieces of the season last year when he and Steve Nash clashed heads as they hustled for a loose ball. While Nashty stayed on his feet despite suffering a wound to the bridge of his nose that required multiple stitches, Mr. Longoria, who was later diagnosed with a “bump on the noggin”, ended up in the third row clutching his forehead and asking if he should walk into the light. (Incidentally, though he may not have been awarded the foul, he was nominated for worst actress at The Razzies.) I know I’m not the only one who’s tired of it, NBA, so please have a word with your guys and tell them to just stop it.

Things Were Fine Before the Fines
Sure, league, you’ve got to make sure you keep your product clean or the families won’t cough up their dough. I know this. Still, while business is business, it’s not everything. So please, please stop fining folks for every little thing they say and do. Nobody’s going to argue it would be better if players could run their mouths whenever they wanted, but it’s reached the point that they’re not just scared to use the f-word; they’re scared to use the letter.

Go the other way, and you’ll fine them for that, too. Remember when Rasheed Wallace tried to dodge a fine and prove a point by responding to every question in the postgame interviews with “Both teams played hard”? Well, for that small rebellion he was hit with a hefty fine by David Stern and the Legion of Doom, and hardly anyone batted an eyelid. I’m not saying ‘Sheed was playing the role of a gully Gandhi with his act of civil disobedience, but he hardly deserved to take a shot to the pockets either. I don’t know how much further you can go with this, NBA, but I do know that you’ve already begun to lose some of the personality that the Charles Barkleys and Dennis Rodmans of the league brought to the table. They’re gone now, and I’m afraid you’ve already scared the next generation of characters into their shells with your constant levies.

International Neglect
You keep telling us how international you are, NBA, so why do you keep forgetting about the hoopheads who call somewhere other than America home? You make it so tough to keep up with what’s going on if you’re outside the States that many who would otherwise have been fans just don’t bother. Opening up new offices in China is a step in the right direction, but don’t forget about the smaller markets, too. 

Since I’m currently in Buenos Aires, let’s take Argentina, birthplace of Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and numerous other NBA players, as an example. A ride on the subway here costs a little under a quarter, a hot dog about forty cents, and last night on my way home from the movie theatre a young lady on the corner offered to perform an act I had to look up in the dictionary for a shade over twelve dollars. So, with the economy being as weak as it is here, you’d think it wouldn’t set you back too much to catch a few NBA games, right? Not so, as I found out when I looked to sign up to NBA TV and was told that it would run about seventy bucks a month. For a blue-collar worker in this part of the world, that’s a few days’ salary. 

In certain more affluent parts of the globe (I’m thinking specifically of Britain now), it can be downright impossible to catch more than a game or two a week regardless of how much you’re willing to pay. I spent the majority of my teenage years in England, and in that time I watched so many games on bootleg streams from Chinese TV that I now have an understanding of conversational Mandarin. As an aside, I found out that the nickname the waiter at The Golden Dragon restaurant had for me wasn’t a term of endearment. I’m not sure exactly what it means, but the commentators used the same word to describe Shawn Marion’s jumpshot.

Who’s Taking Care of the Kids?

Boys will be boys, and more often than not that entails doing some inordinately stupid shit. So why isn’t there someone keeping an eye on the young players? I’m not saying that you need to hire babysitters, NBA, but having something along the lines of a mentor travel with the squad to ensure the youngsters don’t do anything they’ll really regret might be in order. At least put somebody’s mother on the team plane to make them feel guilty for what they’re thinking of doing. I don’t propose for a moment that players should be barred from having fun, but when millions of kids worldwide hold you up as an role model, you should probably have someone a little older and wiser nearby to give you an occasional reminder to, you know, not f*ck up.

And please, before you brand me a paternalistic old fart, you should know that I’m around the age of an NBA rookie, and consequently I understand just how ill-equipped these kids are to make sensible decisions with their lives.  In October, I spent nearly sixty percent of my paycheque on sneakers. Last month, I hit the store three times to buy new socks when I’d run out of clean pairs. I ate ice cream for two separate meals today.   And you know what’s sadder than all of that? I’m probably more responsible than a lot of recent draftees.

Now, I’m not going to make the tabloids for living the life of a financially irresponsible bachelor, but I shudder to think what I might be tempted to do if I were a millionaire athlete-slash-celebrity instead of a bum balling on a budget.   My shopping sprees might see me coming home in a new Ferrari rather than new Jordans, and I’d likely be inclined to scrap the trips to KFC in favour of dining at chic restaurants. Oh, and the women? Let’s just say that there’s a reason you hear about these players hanging around the clubs at all hours of the night. I was once mistaken for Delonte West by a gaggle of groupies as I left the locker room at a charity event, and I got three phone numbers, two party invitations and directions to a hotel before I could explain that I was a reporter. 

I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to what goes on after hours, but I can imagine that a lot of the fellas are racking up numbers you won’t see in any box score. Countless players waste their time and money on the high life, and with the average NBA career lasting just a few years, that leaves too many young guys with nothing but hazy memories of good times, a minor-league contract that barely pays the bills and, occasionally, a criminal record, all of which could be avoided with a little guidance.

Despite my grumbling, I hope you don’t think I’m all out of love for you, NBA. No matter how many minor gripes I’ve got, I’ll always have an eye on the scores, a seat in the nosebleeds and something to talk about for eight months of the year. I’ll be writing a letter to tell you why I became a fan soon, but until then, please consider what I wrote. Oh, and if you could tell Mark Cuban to stop acting a fool, that would be great, too.

Yours sincerely,

C.Y. Ellis

P.S. The pictures I drew of Baron Davis are enclosed. I didn’t get the beard quite right and the headband is too big, but you get the idea.