Preposterous Universe

Friday, June 11, 2004

The NBA Finals are underway, and like many expatriate Philadelphians I am watching with mixed feelings. On the one hand you have the Lakers, one of those dominant teams overflowing with arrogant superstars who are impossible to like, not to mention the frequency with which the franchise has beaten up on my beloved Sixers in NBA finals past (2001, 1982, 1980, 1954, and 1950 -- the last two in the Sixers earlier incarnation as the Syracuse Nationals, and the Lakers earlier home in Minneapolis). So under ordinary circumstances it would be easy to root for the Detroit Pistons, plucky underdogs with hard-working overachievers like Rip Hamilton and Ben Wallace. The complicating factor is coach Larry Brown, who for the previous six years had been coaching the Sixers. Brown resurrected the franchise from the doldrums, leading us to the Finals in 2001, only to jump ship after realizing that a series of bad deals he himself had made had left the team stuck in mediocrity. Adding everything up, I still have to root for the Pistons, who are now up two games to one after completely dismantling the Lakers last night. Announcer Al Michaels, assuming like the rest of the media that the Pistons have no real chance to win the series, was trying to be complimentary halfway through the second half when he started to say that the Pistons had at least guaranteed that the series would go six games -- before catching himself as he realized 1) how condescending that sounded and 2) that the series is by no means guaranteed to go six games, the Pistons could very well win it in five.

The playoffs have been very entertaining thus far, but ESPN decided to spice things up by having a round-table discussion with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and rookies Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. James and Anthony are both only 19 years old, but it was the wise old heads Bird and Magic that said the stupid things that discussions like this always seem to generate. In particular, Bird thinks that the NBA needs more white superstars to get people interested in the league. (And Magic immediately agreed with him.) He's going to get in trouble for that, obviously. Hopefully the criticism will point out that Bird is being clueless, not racist -- although in the context of sports it's not always a useful distinction to draw. The NBA is about 77% African-American, and has been for a while. As people will quickly point out, race hasn't been an obstacle to popularity for Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson, and countless others. But while Bird emphasizes that blacks are the best athletes in the world etc etc, by claiming the you need white stars to interest a white audience he injects the race issue where it just isn't as important as he supposes. What the NBA really needs is a minor-league system, so that youngsters who skip college can get trained in how to play the game, including occasionally making a fifteen-footer and executing a pick and roll (or even a simple entry pass). If the quality of the product is there, the fans will follow.

Note added in proof: As this article was being prepared, we became aware of similar work by Uncertain Principles.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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