Every so often some sportscaster will ask, "What is wrong with basketball?"
This question is usually followed by some harangue about fundamentals not being taught or the lack of respect coaches get. Inevitably some ex-basketball player from the "good old days" will tell a story about how this or that coach abused his players and that somehow the ability to be abused and like it created better players.
Back in those early years, and really right up to the beginning of the 1980s, basketball was still a sport struggling well behind baseball, football, and in many places hockey for recognition. Many of basketball’s legendary players were hardly well known in their times, and by the '70s basketball was struggling with the perception that, as Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford put it, it was a “game perceived...for blacks on drugs."
The NBA’s biggest marketing coup early on was accidental, fending off the ABA. It was the ABA with its wide-open style of play and flashy stars who really began to draw attention to professional basketball. After the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, the NBA adopted ABA innovations like the three-point line and the slam dunk contest, but the initial rush of interest began to die down. Within a year the NBA was floundering again.
In 1979, something wonderful happened in college basketball that would change everything. Two great college players on two great college teams played against each other for the first time. The big star for Indiana was Larry Bird, and for Michigan State it was Magic Johnson. That meeting is still one of the most watched NCAA finals games in history.
The two great college rivals ended up with the two teams who constituted the NBA’s greatest rivalry: Bird went to the Celtics and Magic to the Lakers.
The two players would renew that rivalry in the NBA, meeting in the Finals three times in 1984, 1985, and 1987, with Magic’s Lakers winning two of those meetings. In all, the two players' teams won eight of the NBA finals in the decade of the '80s, with the Lakers earning five of those titles.
In 1976, the US had lost for the first time in the Olympic basketball finals under somewhat controversial circumstances. The US boycotted the 1980 Olympics, so by 1984 there was a lot of pressure on the US to field a great team.
At the time Olympic basketball was still restricted to amateur players. The 1984 team would yield several future NBA stars. The one that shone the most that year was a young Michael Jordan, who led the team in scoring.
David Stern became commissioner of basketball in 1984, and with the renewed Lakers-Celtics rivalry and an influx of NBA players that included the star of the 1984 Olympic team, Stern found a very effective marketing strategy.
For the first time games were not billed as team versus team, but player versus player. The 1987 Finals weren’t the Lakers versus the Celtics, but Magic versus Larry. Every team had its star, and every matchup was a matchup of the stars, not the teams.
The NBA was promoting grudge matches; players that would never actually cover each other in a game were billed as rivals. Patrick Ewing versus Magic, Charles Barkley versus John Stockton, Jordan versus Hakeem Olajuwon. In this star versus star world, people began to think of teams as extensions of their star players.
At the beginning of the 1980s, fans could name all the players on their favorite teams. By the end of the '80s, there were many more fans, but fewer could name more than a couple of players in their favorite teams. This marketing scheme worked beautifully from the mid '80s until the late '90s.
Unlike the '80s, the '90s featured no great rivalries. The Chicago Bulls dominated the '90s by winning six championships in the decade, only missing out on the first couple of years in the decade and a couple of years during Jordan’s first retirement. The NBA’s push of its stars became a push of one star, the star of its dominant team.
Michael Jordan’s endorsements had always been very successful. His athleticism was a fantastic advertisement for Nike, and it didn’t hurt that Spike Lee was producing the ads for that campaign. That success prompted Gatorade to offer MJ $10 million to advertise their product in 1991.
A clever adman had realized after hearing the Monkey Song from Disney’s classic The Jungle Book that a lot of people wanted to be like Mike. Disney wouldn’t let him use their song, so he wrote his own, and the "be like Mike" campaign was born.
By the middle of 1993, Jordan had won three NBA Championships in a row and been a part of the first Dream Team in the Olympics. More importantly, he was the most recognized athlete in the world, as Gatorade told everyone they wanted to “be like Mike,” and McDonald's advertising had him beating Larry Bird in superhuman games of HORSE.
The NBA was flourishing, and Michael Jordan was at the center of it all. Then Michael dropped a bomb. Michael’s father James had been murdered in July of 1993, and Michael, being close to his father, needed a break. For the first time, David Stern realized that with Michael Jordan gone, he had no advertising centerpiece.
The NBA’s ratings plummeted in 1994 from 17.9 in 1993 to 12.4 the next year. Every good player, from Jerry Stackhouse to Grant Hill, was being billed as "the next Michael Jordan." When Jordan came back, they rose again briefly but plummeted once he left.
The NBA had invested so much in building Michael Jordan as the greatest player that now the fans could care less about any other player. They had done such a good job of building around one great player that young players began trying so hard to imitate Michael’s game that they neglected their own strengths. Guys like Harold Miner and Isaiah Rider came and went.
The quality of play was better than ever, but without an exact duplicate of Michael, the perception was that players were not as good. It’s no wonder fans are disappointed; they’ve been told for over decade that they want to be like Mike and how great Mike was. You could literally have the second coming of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, etc., and people’s conditioning will have them saying things like, "Yeah, but Michael did it this way."
Russell, when asked what he said when his grandchild asked him if he was as good as Jordan, answered, “I told him, that’s the wrong question. The question is, was Michael Jordan as good as me.”
Ask yourself: "Could Michael have guarded Wilt in the post? Could Michael have given out as many assists as Magic or played in the post as well as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?" The answer is no; they were different players playing different positions in different circumstances playing in different eras with different rules.
The best player in basketball is not a title, but a curse, an albatross that the NBA hung around its own neck. There is nothing wrong with basketball—it's just bad marketing.