Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Lighter Side of the NBA Lockout

 As everybody knows, the NBA is now under a restrictive lockout that doesn't look like it will be resolved before the start of the NBA's 2011-2012 season. Most fans are panicked or depressed, and all are becoming less and less hopefull that the NBA owners and players will be able to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement any time soon. David Stern seems content to watch the players union squirm while he sports a cheap grin and digs in his heels. If both sides seriously wanted an NBA season next year, this debate should be able to be settled in a week at most by the two sides working together rather than acting standoffish and awkward. But both sides are too proud and too stubborn to relent with the stonefaced and short-sighted demands for respect. This means the season is cancelled.

Still, today the potential 2011-12 schedule was released as a tease by the NBA. Don't let this get under your skin, this is a tactic of the NBA owners to make people pine for the season and excite the players and make them want to fold. But the players won't back down from the owners and are settling into life without NBA contracts. And it's not all bad.

Players like Brandon Jennings and Kevin Durant have been hitting open runs. Players like Josh Howard and Mike Beasley are free from NBA drug testing. Players are free to perform stunts and feats of dangerous athletic manliness like Tony Parker's jetpack training. Players like Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Deron Williams, and Dwyane Wade have said they are open to playing overseas and traveling the world to make use of their freedom. Pure chaos and pure freedom.

Raptors guard Sonny Weems represents the opinions of many players who are pessimistic that there will be any NBA season at all and has moved towards signing a one-year contract with a foreign team that would keep him overseas regardless of wether the players and owners can salvage at least part of an NBA season. The Raptors basically told him not to worry about the upcoming season after they opted to draft Jonas Valanciunas in the 2011 NBA draft, a player who was still under contract in Lithuania for the upcoming season. The Raps are probably banking on there not being a season anyways, with an eye on the bigger picture.

During the last lockout and economic debate in 1998-1999 the two sides managed to carve out a 50-game season after the players gave some concessions. The owners risk losing a growing fanbase and turning fans off by what is seen as greedy millionaires.

But it's not all bad. Players are free from their NBA contract restrictions and this means freedom unseen in the NBA in a long time. Players can travel and play wherever they want, worldwide. Kobe Bryant said, "One thing about basketball is that it is a global sport now, so you can play anywhere you want to." Foreign leagues have grown in the past decade since the last lockout and now constitute a legitimate training ground for NBA-level talent. If the NBA wants to expand overseas and be the first truly "global" game of the big American team/ ball sports, this may be the best thing that could have happened.

New leagues are trying to attract NBA players to grow the game in their own country, such as the NBL of Canada which has targeted locked-out NBA players to help fill its rosters.

With players travelling overseas and spreading the love of the game and the excitement of the NBA to all corners of the globe, it can only be good for the game. Foreign stars in the NBA like Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Andrei Kirilenko have a chance to grow the game in their native countries. Maybe the NBA will have an influx of big point-guards from Turkey in a few years who were inspired by Deron Williams' play during this lockout season. Maybe the next Kobe will be some young kid from China who is touched by Kobe's brilliance during a Chinese league one-year tour. The lockout may stimulate worldwide markets for the globalization of the game and create legitimate fanbases across the world who are ready to support an overseas NBA team to play inter-league, regular-season games with NBA teams. Yes, if the NBA wants to expand into foreign countries, no season may be as important as the season that never will be; 2011-2012 will be remembered as the year the NBA truly went global.

And how about the Olympics? By next summer, after players have had a season to mature, grow, lead, train, travel, find themselves, become involved in foreign charities, be ambassadors for the NBA to a growing global audience, and wisen to the different styles of play across the world. The players will all return to their roots and travel home from afar to share their experiences and lessons in the international sphere for the support of their home nations (unless ongoing contract complications ruin that too). Nationalism will peak and fans will clamor for high-level basketball after a long, NBA-induced longing. The NBA should have their broken financial model solved and excitement will be back about the upcoming NBA season of 2012-13. The American fan audience will embrace their wayward sons as if they were a long-distance girlfriend they haven't seen in six weeks and hold them with both love and a strangely-detached reverence.

When the players return to the NBA, it will be a different game. Players will be in new places, stars will have aged and youngsters will have matured. Some players will have gracefully left the game and taken the lockout as an opportunity to hang up their kicks peacefully while the NBA was sleeping. Yao and Shaq have begun the trend and many veterans are sure to follow in their path as little-used veterans make room for new and exciting talent that will arrive both domestically and from abroad. Skill levels will have developed at strangely different increments for different players; their progress during the off-year depending on their individual experiences.

Basketball will still be happening across the world during the lockout on many levels and bringing excitement to communities that have never been so close to NBA-level play. Basketball goes on with or without an NBA season in 2011-12, and when it finally comes back it will be more multi-cultural, globally influenced and pointed in a new and exciting international direction.

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