The epithets aimed at the NBA in the past couple of decades might be summarized by saying it was once about competition and now it's about entertainment. But that's spectator sports in a nutshell.
If it were only about competition, the games would be everything and a lot fewer people would watch without all the smoke and mirrors. And who in the game really would want to go back? The players and coaches all would make a lot less money. It's really about money, and it always has been.
Reversing the early years of woe unto the state of pro basketball, players like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas melted the epithets by competing and entertaining simultaneously. Cha-ching!
Magic and Bird, similar players for their rounded offensive skills, saved the league once it was neither competitive nor entertaining, the rivalry pushing black/white, East Coast/West Coast buttons long after each took his Midwestern university to the NCAA championship game.
Then along came Michael, and then he went, a great player turned poor general manager and lame apologist for the Nike sweatshops that line his pockets.
Great player to the eye, but the heart prefers Tim Duncan.
We're still on a first-name basis with NBA stars like Shaq, Kobe and the fellow known in South Texas as Tim. Others — AI, KG and VC — go by initials. It's also become fashionable in recent years to nickname fellows by combining the first initial with the first syllable of a surname, gifting us with C-Webb and T-Mac.
But it's not the same with this generation of players, who've collectively taken more raps than any group of elite players in any sport (though baseball's steroid suspects now are giving them a run for their money). They're often derided as soft, selfish, shot-hogging thugs who eschew defense and don't play hard or smart enough. Too much style and not enough substance or, in Tim's case, not enough style.
The Jordanless NBA never seems to make enough people happy. When physical defense characterizes champions, scores drop, ratings sag and the commissioner orders up a new game based on ticky-tack enforcement of hand-checking fouls on the perimeter. Then the old guard complains that too many of these guys can't defend. The game declines before the purists as the show improves before the lay audience.
In this regard, sports, particularly basketball, is no different than film, music, letters or any of the other performances. If you aim to strike rich, you can't be ashamed to aim low, dumb down, sell out, "think right" — if you get the drift — and whatever it takes.
Disparage the NBA, if you will. But now, more than ever, it's the best basketball we have. If the league signs too many teens without the collegiate seasoning to know what they're doing, the NBA isn't nearly as damaged by it as the college game. Just as the college upper classes have begun to dry up as talent sources, the NBA has tapped the international player market grown by American basketball missionaries.
The international players aren't universally embraced. Some say they exemplify fundamentals young Americans have forgotten, but that's really on the offensive end. They generally don't bang or play tough defense, which makes them perfect not just for the Olympic style that seems to have passed by the U.S. but for David Stern's more open NBA.
Again, the NBA is never going to satisfy every basketball fan because, as has often been demonstrated, there are simply too many tastes for the game and too many versions of the game to be played all at once. But it's also being demonstrated that today's NBA parameters make possible a game of basketball that isn't simply well-played but, like all well-played basketball, is beautiful besides.
The San Antonio Spurs are a world apart, and it's not just because they live farther from the nearest pro sports franchise than any other. It's partially because they go further for their players than any other franchise. The Spurs bring the international game to the NBA with starters from the Virgin Islands, France, Argentina and Slovenia.
Necessity is the mother of this invention. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has so often brought his club in among the best that he's usually stuck with one of the last draft picks. Duncan is an exception, a four-year player at Wake Forest who was available as the top overall pick in 1997 after the Spurs fell to the bottom with an injury to David Robinson.
But Duncan also is the Spurs' heartbeat, the basketball superstar who calls attention to himself by no other means than consistent double-doubles. His game is nifty without being flashy, productive without being pompous. Like all the greats, he has a lot to do with making his teammates better.
The only two other Spurs averaging double figures in the points column are point guard Tony Parker, who played last summer with the French Olympic team, and swingman Manu Ginobili, who starred for the Olympic champions from Argentina. Both are extremely fast and active, especially Ginobili, who will be an absolute star when he harnesses his wondrous, free-wheeling game.
Popovich has augmented his stars with such a solid team of reserves that the Spurs don't need them all to win under adverse circumstances. And he's done it, as always and unlike so many NBA teams, without torturing his salary cap.
One night in January, when the Spurs visited a lightning-fast Phoenix team on Steve Nash's first night back from injury, Parker played erratically and Popovich benched him in favor of Slovenian rookie Beno Udrih. Down 17 entering the fourth period on the road against the team tied with them for the best record in the NBA, the Spurs came back for a 128-123 overtime win.
Almost everyone who follows the NBA sees the Spurs as nearly a prohibitive favorite to win this year's championship. Despite Detroit's championship last year, it's still not assumed that any of the Eastern Conference teams ought to win it. And the remaining Western Conference contenders have fallen to their own afflictions.
With the trade deadline recently passed, two of the league's middling teams have transformed themselves through one deal that sent forwards Chris Webber, Matt Barnes and Michael Bradley to Philadelphia from Sacramento for forwards Corliss Williamson, Kenny Thomas and Brian Skinner. With Philadelphia star Allen Iverson said to be ecstatic about having Webber around the share the load, the 76ers now are supposed to be an instant contender for Eastern honors while the Kings are said to have merely dumped salary. But ridding themselves of Webber in exchange for bangers like Williamson and Thomas makes the Kings a much more physical team, though without a star.
No team in the NBA can match the Spurs right now in defense, depth and beauty. It seems no team will become good enough to do so, but that shouldn't be held against the Spurs.
They're shaping up as a team for the ages, even if this age isn't especially revered.