When the National Basketball Association released its new advertising campaign with the theme “Where Amazing Happens,” at the beginning of the 2007-2008 season, the urge to mock the marketing effort spread faster among basketball fans than a wildfire. The NBA’s attempt to distance itself from negative events that had plagued its reputation over the past decade proved to futile, as video-sharing web sites such as YouTube were flooded with hilarious fan-created videos parodying the dysfunctional league.
And who could blame the fans? After all, it was only a season ago that the league’s commissioner, David Stern, appeared on the verge of an early retirement. Taking the job in 1984, Stern’s initial years at the helm accompanied the arrival of superstars such as Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwan and, of course, Michael Jordan. These players helped prolong the Golden Age of the NBA that had emerged in the 1970s with the awe-inspiring play of greats like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and facilitated the growth and influence of the league.
However, somewhere along the way, Commissioner Stern’s luck ran dry. The 1996 NBA draft ushered in the likes of Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Marcus Camby. These players, and many others like them, were heavily criticized for not respecting the NBA and its history, for their selfish playing style and, what league officials referred to as “their hip hop based personas.” These individuals, heavily clad in tattoos and devaluing the importance of team basketball, led many NBA observers look down on professional basketball players and, as a result, many NBA fans from the 70s and 80s became disenchanted with professional basketball in the 90s and heading into the 21st century.
To add insult to injury, one of the league’s most prolific scorers, Kobe Bryant, was charged with sexual assault in 2003. While this incident tarnished the league’s already tainted reputation, it paled in comparison to the infamous melee at The Palace of Auburn Hills, in which nine players were suspended for a combined total of 156 games as a result of charging into the stands and engaging in fights with the fans at the game. Bill Walton, the ESPN commentator at the game, referred to the events as “a low moment in NBA history.” Little did he know that the NBA would hit rock bottom only a few years later.
In a press conference on July 24, 2007, David Stern announced that the NBA had learned about the gambling allegations surrounding referee Tim Donaghy. The commissioner looked all but defeated as he said that the scandal had been “the most serious situation and worst situation” that he had ever experienced in his 40 years with the NBA. Added to the fact that the NBA 2007 finals finished with a record low 6.2 television rating, it was clear that there would be no quick return to the Golden Age of NBA basketball—or would there?
At the start of the 2007-2008 season, the NBA’s only hope for salvation was its young and exciting batch of players, a group of genuinely likeable and charismatic players who, David Stern was hoping, would help the NBA rise from the ashes that had formed over the past decade. Young athletes such as Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade seemed primed for superstar seasons, and other youthful stars like Chris Paul and Brandon Roy prepared to lead their lamentable franchises into the playoffs. The Commissioner had simply run out of carrots and sticks to discipline his players and the respectability of the NBA rested in the hands of its players.
What David Stern, or anybody involved with the league, did not anticipate was the flurry of player transactions that have taken place in the past three weeks, changing the composition of the league. After a 2006-2007 season in which player movement had reached a stalemate because of the league’s headstrong general managers and what ESPN writer Bill Simmons attributed to a “lack of testicular fortitude” among league GMs, the NBA remained as unremarkable as ever.
However, as history shows, every revolution begins with a spark, and the revolutionary events that have taken place within the past few weeks of this season were sparked by the trade conducted between the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 1, in which Pau Gasol was traded to the Lakers for effectively nothing. This transaction struck fear in the hearts of GMs around the league and, ever since the Feb. 1, general managers have had a number of knee-jerk reactions to the suddenly superior Los Angeles Lakers.
The Phoenix Suns responded first. Wanting to keep pace with their division foes, the fast-pace, high-octane offensive team traded the 30-year-old athletic swingman Shawn Marion, the prototype Suns player, to the Miami Heat for the oft-injured and over-the-hill 35-year-old Shaquille O’Neal. Although this trade gives Phoenix a big man who can defend the post and provides them with an additional post presence on offense, the Suns have essentially limited their window of opportunity from 3-4 years to 1-2 years. And while Shaq might be on the Suns bench with an oxygen tank next season, this transaction certainly provides a new level of competition in the Western Conference and revives the rivalry between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal this year.
With the Suns and Lakers retooled, it was only natural that the Dallas Mavericks were next in line to make a move. In a trade that was clearly done out of desperation to infuse the Mavericks with some leadership and toughness, something which Dirk Nowitzki had failed to provide his team in recent years, Dallas brought in Jason Kidd at the expense of a large part of their future. Again, while the 35-year-old Jason Kidd might only have two years of play left in the tank, this move will certainly elevate the intensity level between the elite teams of the NBA for the remainder of the season. Finally, after a number of minor deals made by just about every team within the eastern and western playoff races, this whirlwind of player transactions consummated on Feb. 21, the day of the NBA official trade deadline, with a colossal 11-player swap involving the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and Seattle Supersonics. An unprecedented 11 trades have gone down within the past our weeks.
This mass player movement has helped the NBA make a 360-degree turn from the much maligned and scandal-ridden league of the 2006-2007 season to the rejuvenated and competitive state of the league now. This turn of events is unprecedented in the history of American professional sports. While most leagues would have folded under the pressures that the NBA has been subjected to for the last decade, the league has persevered and now looks to benefit from its unwavering persistence in what is lining up to be an exciting second half of the season. For NBA fans, the next four months of action will exhibit some of the most exhilarating and competitive basketball that has been on display in more than a decade. And who knows: We may be returning to the Golden Age of the NBA sooner than expected.