Posted Jan 12 2010 10:05AM
The late-night comedians, bloggers and knee-jerkers all had their turn poking fun at an incident that shouldn't reflect the true image of the NBA. But they did anyway.
The one-liners and punch-liners came hard, totally forgetting or ignoring the seriousness of the situation involving Gilbert Arenas and the Wizards and weapons being stored inside a locker room. And it didn't help when Arenas and some of the Wizards played along and thought it was funny, too, at least until David Stern came down with the hammer, knocking some sense into the heads of those who needed it.
It left the NBA digging out of the rubble caused by an isolated incident that reverberated well beyond the league, and left many scratching their heads and wondering how it ever came to this. Among those was Doc Rivers.
The Celtics coach perhaps spoke for many in the NBA by expressing disappointment on two levels: One for the gun incident itself, and two for folks who jumped the gun when it came to jumping on the NBA.
"We're singled out more," Rivers said. "That's just the way it is. We don't have a baseball cap on, and we don't wear a helmet. So whenever something happens in the NBA, you instantly know who it is and how they look."
Rivers is a good source because, as a former player and now a coach, he spans generations. He was part of the league during the boom years of the 1980s, when the NBA broke down cultural barriers and began being accepted in homes that traditionally didn't welcome the sport for a variety of reasons. He saw Michael Jordan, the great unifier, turn folks colorblind. He played at a time when the only "heat" he ever saw in a locker room was the kind you applied to a sore leg. He played when teen-aged players spent their teen-aged years in high school or college for the most part. It was a another day and age.
"I try not to stress how things are different now, even though they are," Rivers said. "I mean, I made $65,000 my rookie year. Guys get more in one day than I made in a whole year. That puts it in perspective right there."
It's not exclusively about the money, although that does play a major part. The money, depending on the amount, empowers certain players and gives them tremendous weight within an organization. In some cases, because of the money, a player's voice is stronger than the coach's. Again, a healthy amount of players are professional about it and conduct themselves accordingly. Some do not. But the news cycle doesn't attach itself to the professionals who make up the vast majority of the league, only to the non-conformers and rebels. The more shocking the incident, the more heads that are turned.
"When I played, I was a star ath-lete," Rivers said, emphasizing the second syllable. "Now they're just stars, doing commercials and everything else. There's just so much more. We didn't have talk radio most of our careers, for example. There was no all-sports TV. It's just more attention paid to us, period, and sometimes for the wrong reasons."
Rivers isn't placing the blame on the media. He's just stating a fact about the landscape. And he saves plenty of scorn for those who do something to draw negative attention to themselves and the game.
"When players go around saying how tough it is on them, well, we're getting paid a ton of money doing something we enjoy, and our image is key," he said. "We've got to learn how to protect the image. David Stern and the league have done an amazing job of marketing us. That's part of the responsibility we bear. And we've got to understand that."
Rivers said he won't push for a ban on card-playing on the Celtics' team flights, unlike the Wizards and Nets. It's an overreaction, Rivers said, to someone who went too far. The Celtics are a more veteran team anyway. Besides, their in-flight activities are part of the lifestyle and "people who don't spend much of their time flying don't know what goes into traveling."
The NBA is understandably sensitive about image, as any business would be, mainly because stereotypes that may be attached to the league are far from the reality.
It's a battle first waged by Stern when he became commissioner, when he immediately dealt with drug and race stereotypes that contributed to the league's image problems of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Helped by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and then Jordan, the NBA enjoyed immense success both at the gate and in pop culture. The NBA was accepted and its appeal spread worldwide.
The players today are younger and the media is larger and so the chances of an isolated incident mushrooming into something bigger is greater now than ever. Based on the last week, the impression was the league needed metal detectors and security screeners outside every locker room.
Actually, Arenas simply needed to keep his guns at home. It's really that simple. At least to a coach who is keeping it all in perspective.
"This was about one person," he said, "not one league."
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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