By Bob Liss
I. The Game...What Game?
Everyone agrees basketball has changed dramatically over the decades since the NBA began in the 1940’s, but just how do we measure, mark, and comprehend the shock of the new game? Some markers are intrinsic (size, shape of court, basket height, rules to prevent outright domination by the tallest and most athletic), others extrinsic (length of shorts, salary, philosophy, place in American and world culture) to the game itself.
But what game? The one James Naismith invented to bridge the football and baseball seasons and help restless adherents of “Muscular Christianity” endure frozen New England winters? The one that philosopher-king Bill Russell called a simple game played by grown men in short pants? The high-wire carnival circus on display at NBA’s All-Star Weekend, played on Michael Jordan’s fiftieth birthday? .
Since Russell’s simpler time, there have been tidal waves of extrinsic changes, with salaries escalating astronomically, and players ever-more-quickly achieving iconic status, marketing themselves as both comedic super heroes and arbiters of taste. The pants aren’t short any more either.
A quantum increase in marketing was ushered in by events of the mid-80’s, presided over by – and of course reflecting – a Ronald Reagan ethos: the corrupt – or at least suspect – 1985 lottery in which the faltering Knick franchise was rewarded with Patrick Ewing, ESPN’s meteoric rise, and Nike’s seemingly made-in-heaven marriage to the instantly iconic and insanely popular Michael Jordan. Ewing was introduced nationally as a player who could impact immediately markets. Never mind games! The desire to “Be Like Mike” became universal.
In the new deal, players were rated and judged as much by their salaries as their on-court efforts and achievements. Come 1992, the soil was fertilized for the outsize winning personality of man-child Shaquille O’Neal to ramp up marketing even more. So by the time Lebron James was drafted in 2003 – barely out of high school, yet entering the league with enough fanfare to command nearly an eight figure sneaker contract – he could, credibly, – and before ever stepping on an NBA floor – publically aspire to become the game’s first billionaire.
III. Lebron's Journey
While James was toiling seven years in Cleveland without a championship ring, on an individual level, the real issue became whether, or when, he would supplant Jordan as the game’s recognized greatest player.
Being one of the few that held out for Oscar Robertson’s right to retain that position, I saw James as offering a unique resume in his bid for that distinction. I based my opinion not only upon James’ overall greatness, but also upon his combining attributes of the best all-court players (Robertson, Jordan, Magic Johnson) with the physical strength and overpowering brute force of the most dominant centers: Wilt Chamberlain and Shaq.
Seeming to be ideally positioned to obliterate this time-honored Best Big Man-Best player distinction, James suddently detoured into public censure and virulent hatred with his nationally televised image-suicide gaffe known as “The Decision. ” Before that time, James had managed his image with the utmost care, making it doubly difficult to understand his opacity  in commanding a national audience to watch him callously announce that Ohio’s native son was deserting Cleveland for the glitter of Miami.
That was less than two years ago. Now playing his tenth year in the NBA at the age of twenty-eight, James has added an NBA title and an Olympic Gold Medal to his resume, and has come through the firestorm of negative sentiment that he generated with his decision to take his talents – and reputation – South, to the beach – and then worsened with a still- inexplicable confused disappearance in his first Finals with his new Miami team. King James has in effect become the game. He is now basketball’s public face.
We hardly stopped to ask the question that Jordan answered so
disappointingly: how will he spend his social capital?
Then, on All-Star weekend (which interrupted a Miami Heat win streak that was surging toward – and would eventually reach – double figures), after a succession of six unbelievable games in Oscar’s high triple-double mode (scoring over 30 points, and shooting over 60%), a sub-plot emerged that established a continuity between Oscar’s lineage and Lebron’s, as distinct from that of Jordan and Shaq. In a player’s meeting resulting in the firing of NBA players union executive director Billy Hunter (whose business practices are being investigated by several government agencies), James became a key participant. James’ role was reminiscent of Oscar’s before the 1964 All-Star game. Oscar forwarded the players struggle for union recognition and a retirement pension by organizing the game’s newly emergent brightest stars to threaten not to play in the 1964 All-Star game.
Unlike Jordan, who never leveraged his popularity into support for social and political justice issues, James the super-capitalist was doing his righteous duty, if at the same time enhancing his image. He was, it could be said, forging own unique integration of marketing, public relations, textbook high IQ basketball, and overwhelming physical talent. The contrast with Jordan’s post-retirement career could not be more glaring! 
IV. All-Star Weekend
All the game’s changes were on showcase review during All-Star Weekend, a meaningless but symbolic pageant, with multiple circus tents for a range of stars to showcase their talents, beginning with the newest iteration of the rookie-sophomore game, re-named the Rising Stars Challenge, which was a chance for me to get a look at the younger players on teams that I rarely watch; it’s a game in which the young bucks get to display the superb athletic skills that – unless coming in hyped as the next Lebron James – they must submerge, as young players, to get playing time. Undisturbed by defense, they ran up a 90-66 half-time score (on its way to 163-135), thereby underlining Weekend’s extreme orchestration – thrown into another gear a decade ago, when Turner TV took over, and rapidly escalated the already steadily increasing corporatization of the festivities.
The cozy bond between media and participant has progressively tightened. Chuck and Shaq themselves constitute the show. They chose up to form teams, changing the format from Rookie-Sophomore. The media completely surrounds, and seamlessly interpenetrates with, the experience of watching games, with announcers shilling “apps,” as if we had inadvertently clicked on a link.
Fully enveloped in a hip-hop sound production enterprise, with music that failed miserably to link the game with its historic past. In glaring contrast was Bill Russell’s interview before the game, in which Russ talked of his meeting with Nelson Mandela. It is a further irony that James forsook wearing #23 in stated deference to Michael Jordan, but, without even a nod, blithely switched to Russell’s #6.
For the occasion, a jovial Karl Malone was brought into the studio to join Shaq, Charles, and Kenny Smith, taking the raucous hip racially-tinged humor swirling around the unflappable Ernie Johnson to yet another level.
V. Then, Now, Always
How different a world the NBA now presents from the one in which I grew up: In 1954, I was at Madison Square Garden for the fourth All-Star Game (5)! A hand ballot in the fourth quarter gave the MVP to Jim Pollard, George Mikan’s Minneapolis Laker team-mate on the seemingly victorious West. But a combination of Bob Cousy’s last quarter heroics put the East ahead, until Mikan’s two free throws put the game into overtime. The East won, and a re-vote was taken, giving Cousy the MVP. Somehow, in the crowd, we (including me, at age ten) knew all this, by quickly-circulating rumor, as it was transpiring.
Perhaps the best way to think of the changes in those fifty-nine years is to look at the contrasting figures of James and Mikan, who was about Ryan Anderson’s size, and considerably less athletic. The 6’10” 240 pound Anderson’s participation in the Weekend was limited to the three-point shooting contest, which he had a real shot at winning. A similarly sized white giant – Kevin Love – won it last year. If only there were a YouTube clip of Mikan trying to launch a three-pointer!
What worlds remain to be conquered for the recognized (by all but Kobe Bryant, from his increased James-directed mano-mano competitiveness toward the game’s end, when he actually blocked one of the King’s shots, after playing him increasingly physically) King? He’s had All-Star game MVPs, and that’s the weekend to chill and be politic. He might try the dunk contest. Just once, Lebron. Please.
But the man is focused on titles, as well he should be. A string of rings is all some people will value, in making ultimate comparisons. He knows he needs to convince them too. Getting into Lebron’s mind, though, is something he will now allow only to those he wants in. Don’t forget the big reason he went South: to play with his friends. And we hated him for that!
1 As if to underline the marriage of showmanship and content, it was just the following day that the basketball world was saddened by the death of Jerry Buss, the Los Angeles Laker owner whose flamboyantly spent dollars were so closely associated with the Laker ascension to dominance, with its Showtime offense orchestrated by Magic Johnson, under Pat Riley. Buss assembled great teams by both spending money and by hiring the best basketball minds (Phil Jackson, Jerry West, in addition to Riley).
2The ungainly fashion in which Lebron presented himself reminded one of the bumbling presentations of pompous blacks in “Amos n’ Andy.” “The Recission” the Kingfish might have called it.
3 This Big Data generated “streak” was “broken” by an at least equivalently marvelous game in which James tallied 39 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists, and only dipped under the requisite 60% from the floor by taking and missing a late 28 footer (after the game’s outcome was clearly settled).
4 See Dave Zirin’s “Citizen Mike.”
5 I had already been to an NBA Finals game, a completely unheralded event that took place not in Madison Square, but in the 69th Regiment Amory, a building into which the Knicks were shunted when playoff games turned out to conflict with the Circus, which had booked prime time in March, when the Finals arrived in those days. Getting booking time in the winter in the Garden was a coup of a kind not previously associated with the NBA of the leaner-than-David Stern years.
From March, 2013
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