A disconnect between NBA players, fans

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 25, 2004

By Steve Wilstein, AP Sports Columnist

The NBA’s problems cut deeper than image, go further than the fighting in Detroit, and can’t be solved simply by suspensions.

Commissioner David Stern made a start by swiftly dishing out strong punishment to all the players involved in the worst brawl with fans in league history.

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Those suspensions were right on target, even if the players’ association and Indiana Pacers disagree and succeed in shortening them.

It would be easy to dismiss this incident as an aberration, to point to the thousands of other games that have been played without similar problems. But to do that would be to ignore the steady ratcheting up of player-fan hostility in all sports and the underlying issues that are particular to the NBA.

The NBA can trot out figures that would dispute any notion of its decline: solid attendance, steady TV ratings, lucrative sponsorships and advertising deals, strong licensing revenues, broader interest worldwide.

Yet it would be a mistake for Stern to take smug satisfaction in that and try to patch over the current flare-up with the suspensions and some beefed-up security.

There is a growing disconnect between many fans and the NBA, whose American players, perhaps more than those in any other sport, are perceived as arrogant, selfish and overpaid. Those images were reinforced this summer by the U.S. team at the Athens Olympics.

Though there are surely many players, perhaps the majority, who don’t fit that characterization, the attention drawn by the likes of Latrell Sprewell, Allen Iverson, Ron Artest and, during the past year, Kobe Bryant, have weighed heavily on the league.

The subject no one wants to talk about, the one that makes everyone edgy, is race and its relevance to the NBA’s problem.

In the past decade, the NBA has fallen sharply in popularity among white fans and surged among black fans, according to research by the Sports Marketing Group in Atlanta.

In a nationwide study of Americans in 1993, 62 percent of whites said they loved or liked the NBA. By 2003, that dropped to 50 percent. Viewed a different way, whites who said they hated or disliked the NBA rose from 21 percent in 1993 to 30 percent in 2003.

By contrast, the percentage of black Americans who loved or liked the NBA rose from 62 percent in 1993 to 92 percent a decade later. Blacks who hated or disliked the league hardly changed, going from 4.3 percent to 2.9 percent.

The NBA should study those figures without drawing the wrong conclusions. They don’t suggest any resentment by whites against the league simply because the majority of players are black. Nor do they suggest that the league would have fewer problems if more players were white.

Larry Bird took some heat last season when he said that a few more white superstars would be &uot;good for a fan base because … the majority of the fans are white America.&uot; He was probably right, though Stern disagreed.

In 1993, the NBA was coming off the success of the original Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics. Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were as popular among whites as blacks. Charles Barkley, for all the controversy he stirred and the elbows he threw, was a likable player with a sense of humor. Race wasn’t a big issue then.

What the numbers suggest is that many white fans have been turned off by some high-profile players. There’s a sense that too many are jumping straight from high school, tattooed and bejeweled, and that they have an attitude of entitlement along with huge egos. As salaries, ticket prices and cable/satellite charges rise, the resentment is growing.

That, in part, is why so many Americans were glad to see the U.S. basketball team get its comeuppance in Athens. It is also, in part, what drives fans to scream epithets at players at games.

When players break the rules or the law, fans react with repugnance. When Sprewell chokes a coach or complains that he needs more millions to feed his family, he doesn’t just turn off fans, he infuriates them. When Artest and the other Pacers went into the stands throwing punches wildly, no matter the provocation from a few idiotic fans, they reinforce a sense of players out of control.

Stern needs to make all the players understand what’s at stake &045; the league’s integrity. The issue now is no less critical to the NBA than the cocaine problems of the 1980s.

If NBA teams can’t restrain themselves from drafting players out of high school, they should at least make an effort to give them extra counseling and encourage them to continue their education in the offseason.

The NBA also ought to consider changing the way it plays the game by adopting international rules. That alone would encourage more of a team game, improve outside shooting skills, cut down on endless dunks, and help U.S. players compete better in the Olympics.

Stern can’t afford to ignore any idea that will take the NBA off its self-destructive path.

(Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein(at)ap.org)