There is a period in U.S. history that is commonly known as the “Gilded Age”. Coined by Mark Twain, it is a name that was used as a reflection of the time just after our Civil War. The term itself refers to something that is rotten and constitutionally corrupt on the inside, but that is also covered with a thin layering of shiny gold to give it an appearance of worth and value. To be sure, the phrase stuck because it was succinctly descriptive and accurate. After that war, our nation began the long healing and binding process that few other nations would have survived to see. In that time of rebuilding, reconstituting, and reconstruction, technology sprang and economic growth moved peoples around the globe seeking a brighter and more secure future. It was an exciting time. Survival and healing usually evoke excitement. With this micro and macro expansion, though, there came with it the stink of corruption laced with opportunism. The bright lights of “what could be” hid the hurt and scar tissue of what was. On the outside everything looked to be looking up, but on the inside there was pain, confusion, resentment, and corpus illness. We were weak, and it was hidden. Much like that time in our great country’s young history, the National Basketball Association finds itself in world of hurt and sickness, and is doing everything it can to distract and delay open eyes to this fact.
Beginning Thursday June 5th, 2014, the NBA Finals will take center stage of the sports world…well, here in the U.S.A. anyway…and until the World Cup…but you get my point. It is sure to be a fantastic rematch from last year’s epic seven game showdown. The Miami Heat, led by the best basketball player on the planet, LeBron James, will vie for their third World Championship in a row, but will have to go through the San Antonio Spurs who feature one of the best Power Forwards of all time in the twilight of his career in Tim Duncan. Trust me when I say…this column isn’t meant to take away from that. As a sports fan, I am looking forward to watching this series as much as any in recent years. The script writes itself, and it is one that will define destiny. Now, one could argue that any and every World Championship in any and every sport is one that defines destiny, but this is especially true of this matchup. Simply, if Miami were to win a third championship in as many years, this particular incarnation of that team vaults itself into NBA lore and stakes claim to the banner of being one of the best teams of all time. When you talk Celtics, Chicago, and Lakers, you’d have to include Miami. That’s a big deal. Standing fundamentally in their way is a San Antonio team that looks to cement a “dynasty” status prematurely hoisted on them by the loquacious hyperbole jockeys at ESPN. An NBA Championship ring here would bookend the careers of three definite Hall of Famers…and would, as I mentioned, remove any doubt as to whether the Spurs of the last 15 years is a dynasty. I don’t care who you are…if you try to argue that a team that wins 5 World Championships in 15 years is not a dynasty, then that word means nothing. In short, we will be watching some of the best players in the league, and in the world, playing for something that extends beyond money and mere fame…I speak of legacy… of hero worship… of history.
The problem is that this shiny circus about to unfold will mask a very sick organization underneath, and I’m writing this because the way they are handling it drives me crazy. It’s actually insulting. One might think that I am referring to that nasty and ongoing saga with Donald Sterling, his wife, and his mistress. In fact, I’m not, but that whole affair didn’t help things. You see, I’m referring to the state of the NBA itself. The nuts and bolts. The dollar signs. The NBA is first and foremost a business. It is a business that puts a product out that they hope we, the people, consume, and my problem is that the product stinks like sewage and they’re presenting it to us like it is a rose.
When the Eastern Conference Championship Finals tipped off 2 weeks ago, everyone in the world knew that the Miami Heat would beat the Indiana Pacers. Most just casually assumed that it was because Miami is a better team…which they are. But doesn’t it strike you odd that there was not even a hint of a miracle possible? Not even a whiff of what if? No…”but it should be interesting?” I find it curious, hence my consternation. That uneasy feeling you get when you contemplate this is your sports soul telling you that the fix was in. That no matter how well Indiana played, there was no conceivable way that they would advance to the Finals. This wasn’t the case with the Western Conference Finals. That series was a toss-up. What was the difference? Well, it must said that the level of play in the West was superior. Fine, I’ll give you that. But we play the game, so that miracles can happen…so that the unthinkable becomes reality. We don’t coronate and crown champions in this country. But that’s what just happened in the Miami vs. Indiana series. The answer to why this kind of certainty goes unquestioned in major sports series is pretty simple…LeBron James is the bad guy and the NBA major markets are in financial and competitive quicksand.
Think about it. For the first time in the history of this league, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and to a lesser extent, Chicago, all absolutely stink. The teams are awful and show no signs of getting better. The NBA would not be the multi-billion dollar business it is today without those teams in those markets being competitive and winning championships. We’ve never seen this before. They are trying every single possible way to fix this problem, but answers have eluded them. This is where Lebron James comes in. He is the closest thing to Michael Jordan we have seen since Jordan. Kobe was a great ball player, but the public never really wanted to like him…and then really didn’t like him after all that stuff went down in Colorado. LBJ is the guy NBA executives have been dreaming of. The problem is that he is hated, too, by half the country. When a hometown kid plays for his down trodden hometown team and promises a ring, doesn’t get one, moves to another place at the first chance possible, has a 60 minute infomercial called “The Decision” hosted by those hyperbole jockeys at ESPN that could’ve been called “Hey Cleveland, go pound sand!”, and then wins two rings in 2 years at his new place…some people are going to have a problem, and that’s a huge problem for the NBA. That is why there was no way Indiana could have or would have won that series. That is why every single game in that series had an integral player on the bench in foul trouble by the 2nd quarter. That is why Cleveland got its third number 1 lottery draft pick in 4 years. In order for the NBA to get healthy, the major markets have to become relevant and people have to forgive James. New York and L.A. are going to be awful for a while, but folks can love LBJ. That’s the easier fix, but for it to happen, he has to win and Cleveland has to forgive him, and just like any break up, that won’t happen until they fall in love again and forgive him.
Overall, I dig the NBA. I truly enjoy the game of basketball. It is an American game. But it is insulting when someone offers you a steak and gives you spam. Don’t tell me it’s 2Pac when I’m hearing Kanye’s weak sauce self. I know the difference between a Chrysler 300 and Rolls-Royce Phantom. Unfortunately, though, this charade will continue, and we’ll just all shake our heads and talk about the genius of Erik Spoelstra. Even Mark Twain couldn’t make that up.
W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.