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"The NBA: They Still Milk This Game!"

Ah, welcome back, basketball players of the NBA. The sounds of people dribbling basketballs, the sound bites of incoherent Shaquille O'Neals, and the whining voice of Bill Walton have all returned to us, the sheep-like fans.

The first week of the 1999 NBA season was just completed, and things are returning back to normal after the long team owners' lockout which kept NBA teams from starting their regular season.

The whole dispute was about what rights and terms the players had rights to, which they had to clear up with the team owners. Obviously, the team owners are the bad guys in this situation, since they make a lot more money than what comes to the team as a functional unit (salaries, equipment, etc.), but unfortunately for the fans, the basketball players were no help in making themselves look like the victims. Headed by the obvious choices of Patrick Ewing and other player rhetoricians, the player's union managed to sour the mouths of many basketball fans for years to come with their carelessness and selfishness against those who make them who they are in the first place: people like you and me.

The player's union was, among other things, fighting for lesser-known players to earn money, but what the lesser-known players told the press was that it was just the celebrity players like Shaquille and Mourning and Barkley trying to ensure that they kept up their mammoth salaries. The player's union made a big fuss about uniting all the players together in order to get their demands from the owners -- the players who disagreed with the selfishness of the other players were cast out as not being loyal to the cause. Sad, really.

In the end, after a lot of dispute, some basketball players had arrogantly claimed that fans would return to the game just like that, because the fans would do anything to watch the players play. Other players didn't care what the fans thought. It was basically a PR mess.

So the NBA undertook a large advertising campaign to turn its attention back to the fans as soon as the money started rolling in again. Keep in mind that they took no action during the lockout -- a sure sign of indifference. Chiefly, the NBA is using a campaign called "I still love this game!", a variation on the old "I love this game!" slogan. It's meant to show that OTHER people are still fans of basketball, and that they're seeing NBA players going out into the community and showing their appreciation to the fans. The commercials on TV show NBA players at charity events and passing out free memorabilia and autographs to packed arenas.

Fuck that. Actions speak louder than words, and the only thing coming from the players during the lockout were mean-spirited words directed towards the owners. Not that the owners were any better, but who gives a shit about them? What do they add to the game?

The NBA wants to apologize to the fans in order to get them to return to the game. Obviously, a lot of people are just going to watch because it's such a damn entertaining game. As much as I hated the whole lockout, I've been watching the games on NBC over the weekend. It's just FUN.

Meanwhile, the NFL had commercials (which began showing before the NBA's, I might add) showing appreciation of THEIR fans. I thought this was genius, because it made a clear distinction of how the NFL treats ITS fans as opposed to how the NBA treats their fans. The NFL didn't recently betray its fans because of money -- it appreciates the fans. Brilliant, whoever thought that up. The NFL looks like the good guy now.

Others on TV have had their fun on the NBA's behalf. Conan O'Brien, who happens to be the best late-night talk show host out there, in my opinion, ran some segments for awhile regarding the charity basketball game the NBA was holding, with the proceeds going to UNICEF as well as to the lesser-paid basketball players. Conan's thoughts? The NBA minimum wage is only about $275,000 a year -- why is UNICEF trying to hawk in on the proceeds? UNICEF is a greedy, evil company for depriving needy basketball players of their money.

Saturday Night Live ran a skit mimicking an NBC weekend basketball commercial, with special footage of the lockout arbitrations, and seeing "your favorite stars like Grant Hill, Hakeem Olajuwan, and Anfernee Hardaway personally decline playing in the charity basketball game."

It's hard to accept these players after making us watch the interminable, like those really bad cooking shows with foreign speakers making elaborate dishes, or those Praise the Lord shows on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Could we put together a class action suit for damages incurred because of the lockout?

But I'm sorry to say, even after all that, that today I was sitting on my ass, watching the Lakers play the Pacers on NBC. It's just so hard to resist watching Kobe Bryant slash into the lane, putting the ball up and drawing the foul. You can't take your eyes off of Rik Smits pounding the basketball inside, only to dish it out to Reggie Miller at the last second, who nails a rainbow three pointer. And what about seeing Shaq push around lighter 250-pound centers under the basket to shoot a baby hook? Heck, I even remember Derek Harper from his days with the always-sucky Dallas Mavericks, who as a sidenote would probably have some good matchups now with the hapless, stripped-apart Chicago Bulls.

Ah yes, the Bulls... With Michael Jordan retiring, Scottie Pippen traded to Houston, Steve Kerr in San Antonio, and Dennis Rodman possibly in Los Angeles, Chicago's days of winning are over for a very, very long time to come. They'll be like the Cubbies of baseball, I'm sure. The Bulls' end signals an end of an era in basketball for me -- personally, I don't think there's anyone who can step up to fill Michael's place as wholesome, showy, technically sound, all-around basketball player. He has the wisdom that people like Shaq and Iverson and Bryant and all the other young kids don't have yet, and he has a good attitude, unlike the Malones (don't get me started on THAT fool) and Ostertags and Mournings and Shaqs (who comes up again and again). What the Bulls brought was a rare combination of excellent fundamentals, a killer team attitude, team trust, and a good-natured feeling to the game. Now that the Bulls are gone, who do we have?

The Lakers are so excruciatingly painful to watch, because they have all that talent and no chemistry -- it's like watching a bunch of all-stars lose to the Johnson Community College Fords Dorm intramural co-ed basketball squad. The Rockets are, well, the Rockets, and there's not much to say about that -- they have all these good players, but they're not really all that exciting, even with Pippen. The Pacers are a very good fundamentals team (Indiana seems to produce 'em) and I think they will get far, especially with Chicago out. The Jazz will probably win the whole thing this year, since the Bulls have kept them out in the past. Stockton and Bryon Russell and Shandon Anderson and Hornacek are great to watch, but if I have to listen to Malone talk about his stupid pick-and-roll play any more, I'm going to puke. That man is full of so much talk, yet he rarely backs it up. All he does is flop (and not flop as well as Mr. Rodman) and set picks for Stockton to work around. He's right up there with Shaq as far as my respect for skillz goes.

I never get to watch much of the 76'ers, but I'd like them to do well, especially if Iverson continues playing as well as he did this first week. Goddamn! And I like the Knicks a little more than I used to, since I always wanted the Bulls to beat them (loudmouths deserve an ass-kicking). Too bad they got rid of John Starks, though.

My picks? Indiana and Utah. I want Indiana to win, but seeing how Utah's team hasn't changed much from last season, and their offense is devastating to defenses, I'd think the Jazz will finally win one this year. But it's hard not to root for Larry Bird and Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson to win the championship. Even if Antonio Davis is a real annoyance to have to watch (is it true his free throw percentage is worse than Shaq's??). Teams with good technical and fundamental skills are going to keep winning -- the Bulls were the best at it, plus they had the flair and poise to stay in the game until it was their time to strike. Seeing the Bulls dismantle the Jazz pick-and-roll was truly something awesome to watch.

So yeah, I admit I'm still psyched about basketball. I won't make any excuses about it. I do hope, though, that the league suffers greatly as a money-making scheme, and starts paying a little bit more attention to what the game at its core actually is, a bunch of people playing basketball while a bunch of people watch...all for sporting entertainment, and not for anything else beyond that.

Then again, it's foolish to expect any of this. Things will continue just as they did before the lockout until once again, problems arise and everyone has to stop to fix them. Such is the way life is. It is easier to make things up as they come along, rather than ensure stable, suitable groundworks from which to base the rest on. The NBA hardly knows what it's doing anymore, particularly with its pay structure, so is it any wonder why we feel so disillusioned towards the sport and most everything now? How about just returning the good old GAME to basketball? Hell, basketball was probably the most exciting sport out there for Americans last year, and then they went and blew it. With baseball showing new interest last season, and football letting the good guys win for once (instead of Dirty soliciting Birds and coke-sniffing Cowboys), I think the NBA might suffer in the long term from refusing to put aside its internal differences.

We'll just have to wait and see. Until then, I'm gonna watch some b-ball. :)

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