The easy part is over for David Stern. He has sent the necessary message that the NBA won't tolerate the chaos that erupted in Auburn Hills last Friday night. If we learned anything from the Pistons-Pacers brawl, it's that this was only the latest embarrassing black mark for a league with a serious image problem. Now comes the hard part. What is Stern going to do to get his league pointed in the right direction?
The NBA has danced around its declining image for years, with Stern always grinning smugly and talking about how fantastic his game is. But there was no confident gleam in his eyes as he handed down a record number of suspensions on Sunday night. Stern must see what the public has been telling us for a long time -- that NBA product is so flawed that tighter security measures and a lot of tough talk about curtailing future misconduct isn't going to cure what's wrong.
Aside from the success of LeBron James, the NBA hasn't had many positive moments over the last year. There was the murder trial of former New Jersey Nets center and NBA broadcaster Jayson Williams. The long-running feud between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, which overshadowed what should've been an inspiring story about the champion Pistons, a selfless, blue-collar team. Kobe's rape trial. The underachieving U.S. Olympic team. Latrell Sprewell's comments earlier this month, when he justified his pursuit of a contract extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves by saying he has "a family to feed," a suggestion that his $14.6 million salary only stretches so far at his local grocery store. The recent tarnish to blossoming young star Carmelo Anthony, who complained loudly about his lack of playing time during the 2004 Athens Games and then had his own brush with the law. And, of course, Ron Artest's pre-brawl difficulties, including telling his coach that he needed time off from basketball after cutting an album.
I bring these incidents up because it's sad. I like the NBA and I used to defend it to people who complained that it was going downhill. I can't do that anymore. I can't listen to Stern and NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter talking about how Friday night's events were symbolic of simply a larger problem in society. Yes, that's part of the story. But the more substantial and troubling factor is the reluctance of both men to address the growing issues that coalesced in the Auburn Hills Palace.
They're selling a city game to a suburban audience and they act is if that's an easy thing to do. People are concerned about the quality of play, the lack of skill in the game. They're worried about those high school players who keep declaring for the draft. They're wondering why superstars such as Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter look selfish and spoiled after making people initially think they might be the next Michael Jordan.
When Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ruled the landscape there were plenty of players who had their share of problems. In fact, Charles Barkley spit on a fan during a game and also threw a man through a plate-glass window in a bar fight. The big difference then was that the fans believed in the overall product -- the teams, the players and everything else involved. That bond is long gone.
It vanished when the league started promoting individuals rather than teams, selling the notion that one man was the key to winning over an entire audience. That strategy has spawned a powerful generation of players who realize there's no reason to worry about how they're perceived. They're guaranteed millions and they're often surrounded by a gaggle of yes-men who are unwilling to tell them when they're making bad decisions. In fact, I doubt that many of these guys care about the NBA's problems.
I seldom hear today's players discussing the future of the game. It's as if they can't see how much the general public has soured on their league. But if Stern and Hunter have any foresight, they'll try to reach these guys any way possible and get them focused on the goal of selling their sport. They can reinvent the league. They did it before, escaping the dark ages of the 1970s and blossoming in the 1980s and early '90s. They need to realize that Friday night's fight was only a symptom of a larger, more complicated problem, one that will only worsen until the league stops ignoring it.