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How Michael Jordan Ruined Basketball, and Why It's Your Problem
By Kent Lewis

With congressional hearings on steroid use among professional athletes, players' strikes, team gambling and sex scandals, it's a wonder there is any time left for actual sports. No athlete seems to be immune to the narcosis generated by fame and bling, which too often causes them to do terribly stupid things. Meanwhile, the governing bodies overseeing sports appear to be cutting breaks to and making excuses for the very athletes they are responsible for policing. It's too easy to blame athletes, coaches, team owners and the media for the problems facing professional sports today. We must face the fact that we, as fans, are the only true cure.

All professional sports face a myriad of challenges today, but none more than basketball. America's favorite pastime, baseball, has been around since 1871, while the NFL was created at an auto dealership in 1920. Neither sport has changed much in terms of rules and structure over the years. The youngest of the big three sports, basketball was created in 1949 with the establishment of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Even though I'm not what you would call a sports nut, enthusiast or connoisseur, I don't need to be an expert to notice the significant changes the NBA has experienced over the years.

Looking back at old footage of some of basketball's greats like Abdul-Jabbar, Byrd, Chamberlain or Johnson, it's clear that the focus of the sport was on the game itself. Players were part of a team, and wins and losses were the product of commitment and teamwork. While there have always been stars in the sport, fans typically rooted for a team, and not as much for the individual. In addition, players tended to stay with a team, sometimes for their entire career, whereas they now tend to follow the green.

Indeed, the NBA was very different, even 20 years ago. An athlete was judged on his individual skills, teamwork, personality, demeanor and respect for others. On and off the court, a vast majority of the league was reasonably well educated and well, mannered and respectful of their team, coach and fans. While they were far from underpaid, salaries and endorsement contracts were grounded in a semblance of reality.

That was, until Michael Jordan stepped into the limelight as the third pick in the 1984 NBA draft. Identified as unusually talented early in his college career, Jordan was earmarked for greatness, but little did the NBA know what lay in store. Almost single-handedly, MJ transformed the sport, for better and for worse, over his lengthy career.

Jordan did many good things for the NBA over the years. He energized the sport of basketball and empowered a modest shoe company to become a world power. Ironically, one of the most visible and lasting changes to the sport ushered in by MJ was the uniform. Ultra-tight "nut hugger" shorts were a key component of the standard basketball uniform since the overhand shot was first perfected. During MJ's 13-year stint with Chicago, there was a relatively speedy, if consistent, lengthening of the shorts to their current below-the-kneecap length. Soon, the entire league followed, even the white point guards.

MJ was also a trailblazer when it came to salaries and endorsements. His contract with Nike was significant in its time, and a relatively risky bet by Nike that resulted in staggering dividends. Over the years, MJ's compensation packages reached stratospheric levels, paving the way for a new breed of younger, aggressive street athlete.

But mostly, we know MJ for his basketball skills. He's arguably the best to ever play the game. He was a threat in every way: ball control, improvisation, shooting and, most importantly, leading a team. Unfortunately, his rise to fame created a domino effect: MJ equals wins, wins equal ticket sales, ticket sales equal profits and profits equal pressure for more MJ playing time. The pressure to keep MJ on camera meant the team suffered as a unit, which became a growing trend with showboat athletes like Shaq, Bryant and others.

Unlike many of today's basketball stars, MJ is educated, intelligent, well-spoken, respectful and modest. While he also demonstrated less-than-desirable traits that generated controversy late in his career, his skills on and off the court set a high standard for those around him. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have made a lasting impression with today's athletes.

In recent years, corporate America has turned the NBA from a sport into a ruthless business. Team owners focus on bringing in star talent straight out of high school if necessary, regardless of the player's education, maturation or demeanor. The promise of fame and fortune is far more compelling to these players than the opportunity for an education and further maturation as an athlete. The result is that "street" ballers are taking over the game: individual stars that showboat and hog the ball, instead of playing traditional team ball.

The fans have followed the trend eagerly, supporting and following individual athletes over teams. Athletes that behave badly on and off the court are given headlines and slaps on the wrist, even making light of their foibles. Tattoos, foul language and fights are standard fare. Basketball is no longer about team, it's about the individual. When the infamous fight broke out at the Pacers/Pistons game and players went into the stands after fans, the sport changed forever.

As I've stated earlier, it's too easy to blame the athletes, coaches or owners for the sea change in athlete attitudes and behaviors. The real problem is that consumers continue to fuel the problem by purchasing tickets and related apparel. In order to change an industry, you have to start with the consumer. If you agree that basketball (if not all professional sports) is at a crossroads, make your voice heard and vote with your wallet.

Beyond boycotting, there are other things we can do to correct the downward spiral of professional sports. Here are a few ideas:

  • Set a minimum age requirement for all new athletes entering the sport. Let them have time to mature as athletes and people.
  • Set a minimum educational requirement. Require an AA minimum degree, so those that don't make the cut or receive career-ending injuries have something to fall back on.
  • Set uniform guidelines off the court. I agree with the current movement to get athletes to clean up their act and start looking more like role models and less like gangster punks.
  • Set realistic team and individual pay scales and more restrictions on product endorsements. Athletes need to be in it for the love of the game, not the money.
  • Increase the size and scope of penalties for bad behavior and general rule breaking. No more slaps on the wrist for disrespect of other athletes, coaches or fans. If we treat the athletes like children, that's what we'll get.

Many of my recommendations have been considered, and are under varying levels of debate or implementation. It's never too late to get involved. Drop a line to your local team franchise owner/manager and let them know how you feel.



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