Rebounding the airball?

I used to be a fan of the NBA, starting in the late 1980s. I didn’t watch much basketball before then, but the rivalry between Magic and Bird was so big that it allowed me to develop an appreciation for the game. My developing enjoyment for the game grew around the point guard position and made me a fan of Rod Strickland, a point guard for the New York Knicks at the time. I thought I’d become a fan of the Knicks, but I was really just a fan of Strickland. When the Knicks traded him to San Antonio, I stuck with him and followed the Spurs. The same happened when he went to Portland and then to Washington. I enjoyed the shifting around because it led to Washington, which was the local market for me after I finished grad school in ’98. Shortly after Strickland left Washington, he played fewer and fewer minutes with each successive team. I’ve followed him, but more sporadically as his career winds down. I’ve entered the phase where the game and the emerging players have to hold me as a fan, but that’s not happening. I haven’t watched a full NBA game for several years. Worse, I no longer care that I’ve become this apathetic about the game.

NBA Commissioner David Stern seems to understand why. He’s proposing a simple change to the NBA that could improve the game, if in no other way than image. Consider:

“We are seeking to raise that to 20 or two years out of high school. The NFL’s minimum age is 3 years after high school. I’m optimistic the union will agree to some raise in the minimum age in the current collective bargaining,” Stern said in a recent chat.

That’s about right. An age requirement is definitely a blunt-edged tool where something with more flexibility might be better, but it’s a start. The level of play has fallen over the years (in my opinion) and one reason I have that perception is the increasing abundance of straight-from-high-school players. That doesn’t help the league. For every LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, there are the players who don’t develop or develop slower in the league than normal players. The increasing numbers of high school players impact the overall competition level, as well. This isn’t good for the league.

Lest we ignore the players, consider this quote from Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O’Neal:

“In the last two or three years, the rookie of the year has been a high school player. There were seven high school players in the All-Star Game, so why we even talking an age limit?” O’Neal said.

Are high school players in the All-Star game an indication that it’s not a bad idea? Again, the high school players will look better when facing high school level competition. There is something to be said for the maturation and development that any player undergoes in college. Mr. O’Neal also made the point that Major League Baseball doesn’t require anything beyond a high school diploma and that’s true enough. However, he conveniently ignores that the majority of high school players take longer to get to The Show than college players. The college players experience a de facto minor league system. It’s not a perfect substitute, of course, because of aluminum bats and the professional life, but it’s close. The same maturation occurs. And that’s what the NBA is lacking.

For a true understanding of this, Mr. O’Neal’s need look no further than his own career. Consider:

O’Neal went to the NBA straight out of high school in 1996 and was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers, who made him the 17th overall selection.

O’Neal didn’t blossom into the star he is today until he was dealt to the Pacers during the 2000 offseason. He has made the past three Eastern Conference All-Star teams.

By my calculation, graduating in 1996 and blossoming into a star in 2000 is a four year span of maturation and learning. What other experience can we think of that takes approximately four years to complete? Admittedly he played more games and experienced the professional life during those years, but should the teams pay for that maturation with the millions of dollars spent on rookies, whether high school or college? Remember, when the teams pay those millions, that money has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is the pockets of fans. In the ’80s and ’90s, I could pay for Magic and Bird and Jordan and Barkley, guys who were flashy and showmen, but were also team-oriented first. If they shined but the team lost, they weren’t happy. I don’t get that feeling with today’s NBA. That is why I don’t watch the NBA any more. Sometimes the “good old days” really were better.