February 17, 2009

Dreaming of 'His Airness'

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It was perhaps the most memorable dunk contest of all time. The high-flying acrobatics of the two finalists set the stage for future generations. Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins each entered the final round of the 1988 contest with one dunk title already under their belts.
“Nique” had just brought the crowd to its feet with his final dunk of the night, a two-handed windmill slam from the right side of the basket, but the judges only awarded him a cumulative 45 points out of 50. Jordan would at least have an opportunity to defend his thrown as the incumbent dunk champion, in front of a raucous hometown crowd at the United Center.
The 6-6 guard from North Carolina needed a 48 to tie, or a 49 to win. “His Airness” slowly began to clear media members and cameramen out of his way, creating a path from one end of the court to the other. Realizing what was about to take place, the crowd rose to its feet. The last time a dunk from the free throw line had been properly executed was by a guy named “Dr. J” during the 1976 ABA dunk contest.
Jordan took off, picking up speed towards the basket, dribbling once … twice … three times … before he launched himself from the foul line, legs splayed and tongue sticking out. By the time his feet landed on the court, the stunned crowd knew what the judges had already begun to confirm: Michael Jordan was the undisputed, back-to-back dunk champion!
Ah, those were the good old days. The 1988 classic was only the fifth annual contest of an event that has become a staple of the NBA All-Star weekend over the past 25 years. Back then, dunking was still an art form.
Fast-forward 21 years. Quick question: Who won the NBA dunk contest this past weekend?  Better yet, did you know there even was an NBA dunk contest going on this weekend?
Part of the problem is that there are only a limited number of ways one can jam a nine-inch sphere through an 18-inch cylinder. With this in mind, the diminutive 5-9 Nate Robinson captured his second career dunk title Saturday night. So what? I already saw Spud Webb do the same thing 23 years ago and he is two inches shorter. I get it — small players with big vertical leaps make for awesome spectacles.
Robinson, while a nice role player who often provides a timely offensive spark off the bench, is not even good enough to start for the woeful New York Knicks. In fact, many of the other dunk champions this millennium, including such lesser lights as Gerald Green, Josh Smith, Fred Jones, Jason Richardson and Desmond Mason, will most likely never be enshrined in the Springfield, Mass., home of the Basketball Hall of Fame. The only recent winner who was even selected to participate in the real All Star game, Dwight Howard, was essentially anointed champion for his showmanship after ceremoniously donning a Superman cape, pre-dunk. All style, no substance.
However, the other part of the problem is that NBA ratings have declined steadily ever since Jordan retired (for a second time) from the sport in 1998.
Unfortunately, I cannot help but feel that I am part of this trend. Unless Lebron or Kobe are visiting Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena, to trounce my New York Knickerbockers, the world’s most famous patsies, I could care less about the NBA.
 On a related note, nothing makes me turn the channel faster than ESPN’s NBA Fastbreak.
The prevailing philosophy concerning professional basketball these days is that corporate America cannot relate to the antics or personas of the NBA’s tattooed, narcissistic, rags-to-riches athletes, who seem to have as much trouble evading law enforcement than the half-court trap.
However, there are some unmistakable flaws with the perception of today’s NBA. The drugs of choice in the NBA appear to be recreational as opposed to performance-enhancing. Large, inflexible muscle mass is the antithesis of what the professional basketball player desires. This season it also seems that the guys in the NFL, whether it be Plax or Pacman, have surpassed the roundballers in boorish and anti-social behavior. Apparently, dabbling in illegal performance-enhancing drugs does not phase corporate America as baseball and football have each amassed over $6 billion in total revenue for 2008, dwarfing basketball’s $3.38 billion.
Many of the prevailing misconceptions about the NBA are unfair, inaccurate, and borderline racist. How ironic is it that the player depicted in the NBA logo, 1960’s icon Jerry West, is the face of a league, which is predominantly African American? West now represents a league with only 46 white Americans out of 432 total players on current NBA rosters, comprising approximately 10.6 percent of the entire league, with roughly 1.5 white players on average per team.
I am not saying one type of illegal activity is less despicable than the other, but I am saying the NBA receives a disproportionate amount of negative publicity in comparison to other sports.
Relax corporate America. Ron Artest served a 73-game suspension for forcing his way into the crowd at the Palace of Auburn Hills and pulling a “Chris Brown” on the Detroit Pistons fans. I mean, who hasn’t leapt into the stands during a pickup basketball game to put a few unruly fans in their place?  I think we are all guilty of doing this at least once in our lives. Just last week, I nearly slapped around a couple of fourth graders, who had the nerve to question my pull-up jump shot. But seriously, the man served his time.        
If you were one of the unfortunate fans in Detroit to be dished a knuckle sandwich by one of several Indiana Pacers in November of 2004, I can understand why you might be reluctant to watch an NBA game, but I do not know what is driving the rest of America away from the game.
There are those who argue that the college game offers a far superior brand of team-oriented basketball. Interesting. They argue that college basketball athletes play to win the game. I never understood this argument. What are the NBA players playing for?  The little juice boxes and orange slices that the team mom provides after the game? 
There’s a reason Sam Bowie, the No. 2 pick in the 1984 Draft, ahead of the No. 3 pick, Michael Jordan, was a flop. There’s a reason every college analyst, including the omniscient Dick Vitale, thinks Tyler Hansbrough will become nothing more than a sixth man in the NBA. The tools that make a player successful in his collegiate career are frequently not the same skill set that assure superstardom at the next level.
The athletic majesty and high-flying skills of those in the NBA are beyond question. However, its ratings, attendance and revenue have taken a nosedive in the past decade. Is it merely the R.O.M. (Retirement of Michael) factor? Is it the complete deterioration of the team game at the professional level where passing skills, outside shooting skills, and dribbling without traveling is a thing of the past? Defense? Does anyone coach that anymore? In New York, “D” must stand for D’Antoni because the Knicks certainly don’t “defend” anything.
Twenty years ago, real sports fans could automatically recall who won the NBA slam dunk contest and with what special move. Well, can you do that now? The dunk contests were won by the legends of the game, and not by one-trick ponies who average nine minutes per night.
Just as the annual Home Run Derby at baseball’s All Star weekend has come to symbolize all that is wrong with that sport — the aggrandizement of bulked-up steroid and HGH abusers smashing pitch after pitch into McCovey Cove or over the Green Monster — the 2009 NBA Slam Dunk contest has become equally guilty. The glorification of skills that should be honored for making NBA players special has been replaced by adoration of athletes whose abilities are better suited to seeking gold medals in an Olympic high jump event.