Friday, June 22, 2007

Jason Whitlock: NBA suffering from U.S. basketball's ills

The Kansas City Star

Posted on Sat, Jun. 16, 2007

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson

It’s going to take more than tweaking the playoff format to fix what is ailing the NBA.

The league that just 15 years ago thought it was on the cusp of catching the NFL in terms of U.S. and global relevance has now spiraled below baseball and could once again find itself a very distant third behind the NFL and MLB.

The just-completed NBA finals was the most-ignored championship series in the post-Magic-Larry-and-Michael era. The Spurs vs. the Cavaliers sparked little discussion, little drama and little television interest.

There are lots of theories about why this happened, including the one-sidedness of the series, the Spurs’ boring style of play, the weakness of the Cavaliers and the Eastern Conference, “The Sopranos” series finale, the overall number of cable viewing options. There is more than a kernel of truth in all of the theories.

Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan in the 1991 NBA Finals.

But I think there is a bigger truth that is not being widely discussed on a consistent basis.

Basketball in the United States is in poor health. Our entire system needs to be overhauled to improve play and increase the passion of fans.

What has happened to American basketball is a prime example that freedom without vision is a dangerous thing. You can have too much freedom, and clearly the NBA is suffering the consequences of the freedom overload granted our players.

The good thing is that eventually the rank-and-file NBA players will begin to suffer financially, too. The current TV ratings are going to damage David Stern’s ability to negotiate the kind of TV contracts necessary to support the salaries of the average NBA player.

Michael Jordan after the Chicago Bulls claimed their sixth NBA title in 1998.

Yeah, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan will always get their money. The shoe companies will see to that. It’s the non-superstar — most of the league — who is going to get hurt, and that will force the NBA players association to work with Stern and the owners to fix basketball.

There are two major things, in my opinion, killing basketball right now: 1. AAU basketball; 2. early entry into the draft.

See, you can’t fix the NBA without first fixing college basketball. The players and David Stern must realize the healthier college basketball is the easier it will be for the NBA to regain its $ignificance.

Basketball fans are losing passion for the NBA because they haven’t been properly introduced to the league’s players.

LeBron James, allegedly, is a big star. He has a huge shoe contract. He’s featured in clever commercials. His face is recognized around the world. So why didn’t people tune in to see him play in the NBA finals?

Tim Duncan fights for a rebound with LeBron James during the 2007 NBA Finals.

Because basketball fans in Lawrence and Bloomington, Ind., and Durham, N.C., and all the other little basketball hotbeds don’t care about LeBron James. He didn’t play their game. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan built gigantic college followings and brought those passionate fans with them to the NBA.

Today’s players bring posses. The NBA players who visited a college campus for one or two years leave their disappointed fan bases behind.

Many college basketball fans hate the NBA. They see the league as an institution that undermines the college game by stealing its underdeveloped players. There are people who want to see the NBA fail. That’s not good. It’s not healthy for basketball.

Rather than whining that an age limit is racist, NBA players need to understand that requiring players to go to college is good for the league and will put money in everyone’s pockets down the road.

This year’s NBA draft has created more excitement and more discussion than any NBA draft since Patrick Ewing came out of Georgetown. Why?

Because the Florida Gators — Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah and Al Horford — stayed in college and won back-to-back titles before jumping to the NBA. Because Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were forced to spend one year in college.

We’re actually familiar with many of the players who will be in this year’s draft. We’ve seen them play. We listened to Dick Vitale overhype them for five straight months. Durant and Olden will help drive TV ratings when they hit the league.

The NBA needs an age limit of 21 and/or a rule requiring three years of college participation.

Greg Oden meets Bill Russell and Julius Erving during the 2007 NBA Finals.

The league and the players association also should work with the NCAA on doing something to eliminate AAU basketball. Our players are too raw and too difficult to coach because AAU basketball — and its undisciplined style of play — has become more important and influential than high school basketball.

I hate to keep using LeBron James as the example because I absolutely love his mental maturity and willingness to be coached, but he is an AAU player. AAU is the reason he doesn’t have a jump shot. AAU is the reason he’s so unskilled in the low post.

AAU is the reason Carmelo Anthony is one of the worst teammates you could have. Yes, he got lucky and won a national championship in college. Trust me, it was luck. His game isn’t about winning. It’s about putting up numbers. He can’t see the floor and what his teammates are doing because that’s not necessary in AAU ball.

Anyway, the NBA — players, owners and Stern — should think big picture when trying to fix what ails the league.

To reach Jason Whitlock, call 816-234-4869 or send e-mail to For previous columns, go to

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