Politics & Policy

Gangstaball

Whither basketball.

Talk about good timing. Just when everybody was getting bored with the Terrell Owens/Desperate Housewives teaser, the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers put on a nice little riot for television to run and rerun. The world of television sports, it seems, is less and less about the games. Sex and violence make for more dependably good television. Also, of course, money. Games, on the other hand, are not so reliable. They are not always close or well-played and viewers, you know, get bored.

There may be people who believe that ABC didn’t really understand that the little seduction scene between Owens and the blonde who dropped her towel might strike some people as inappropriate–to use contemporary, nonjudgmental jargon. These folks no doubt remain convinced that Janet Jackson experienced a “wardrobe malfunction,” during her Superbowl halftime skit. They also believe in the tooth fairy and the integrity of the United Nations.

The Monday Night Football teaser may have been short on sophistication and humor but it was brilliant business. ABC got a twofer. Football fans who weren’t aware of a show called Desperate Housewives (the wit of these television people) certainly were now. Some might even tune in to see what it is all about. (Answer: About what you’d expect…which is true of just about all television.) And people who were not inclined to watch football games in primetime might be checking to see what ABC will do as a lead-in to the game this week.

All this for the price of an apology that was probably written and in the can before shooting started on the Owens teaser. Which, it turns out, is the only thing anyone will remember from last week’s broadcast. The game between the Eagles and the Cowboys was a stinker that went on forever.

The fracas in Detroit was not scripted but it was, nevertheless, inevitable. The NBA sells a product that might as well be called “gangstaball.” The players are world-class dunkers, exhibitionists, and malcontents. But, as last year’s Olympics demonstrated, when they are required to play actual team basketball, they can’t handle a squad from Puerto Rico. As the quality of play has declined in the NBA over the last several years, so have fan interest and television ratings.

The worse the games gets, it seems, the harder the players work to make themselves unlikable. Kobe Bryant may have beaten the rape charge against him but he did not emerge from the ordeal untarnished. Latrell Sprewell, who famously choked his coach, has recently rejected a contract offer of some $9 million as “insulting.” Sprewell talked about how he had a “family to feed,” but somehow failed to fire a lot of compassion. Then there was the recent trial of Jayson Williams, former New Jersey Nets star turned broadcaster, who shot a limo driver. He persuaded a jury that he didn’t mean to do it. But it came out during the trial that he’d once shot a dog and done it very much intentionally.

Nice guy.

The first of the basketball players to head into the stands in Detroit, seeking a fan to hit, was Ron Artest, who had earlier asked his team for a little time off to concentrate on his rap album. Artest is one of the NBA’s “troubled” stars. When he is “dissed,” he fights. So when some fan threw a drink on him, he charged.

The fan and Artest deserved each other. Mayhem followed Artest’s charge. Other players joined him, looking for fans to punch out. Fans did their part, throwing fists, drinks, and at least one chair. By the time order–of a sort–was restored, the game could not be resumed. But, then, the game was never that important to begin with.

NBA Commissioner, David Stern, said and did all the predictable things. Artest was given the rest of the season to work on his music. Other players were also sent off for a little quiet time. Fans who were punched–even though they may have provoked it–will sue. How tough, after all, would it be to find a jury willing to find against one of those NBA prima donnas and reach deep into his wallet? The best response would probably be some criminal prosecutions–and why not? What you see on the endlessly replayed video of the riot sure looks like assault and battery.

However, suspensions, fines, and even jail terms will not turn the NBA around. No viewers will tune in to watch because Ron Artest is not playing basketball but off somewhere, instead, working on the lyrics to his next rap. They will watch, however, on Christmas Day when the Pistons and the Pacers meet again and it won’t be in the hope of catching a well-executed pick and roll. They’ll be hoping for action and a crisp, fast break won’t cut it.

Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.

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