Once upon a time, the heart of the summer was reserved for baseball and baseball only. The NBA and NHL had already crowned champions, football was sleeping until camps opened, and the heartbeat of our American sports scene pumped at ballparks and on diamonds. No more.
The NBA has built an offseason machine that may have now overtaken even the NFL for year-round intrigue. It is remarkable how quickly this happened, almost silently to many sports fans. Basketball’s former dead time has exploded seemingly overnight into a blockbuster bonanza, like a summer superhero crossover film.
This summer has continued the trend, and we’re not even halfway through July. Since the NBA Finals ended, we’ve had the top pick in the draft traded, LaVar Ball shirtless on Monday Night Raw, Chris Paul swapped to the Rockets, Paul George stunningly grabbed by the Thunder, Phil Jackson given his walking papers, and Jimmy Butler sent to Minnesota. We’ve watched Gordon Hayward pick Boston (and have his jersey burned), and Kevin Durant battle trolls on social media (while being burned by Peyton Manning at the ESPYs). Dan Gilbert is running GMs out of town, speculation about where LeBron ends up in ’18 has already hit its next gear, and De’Aaron Fox vs. Lonzo Ball was the matchup everyone wanted (but no one got) in Summer League.
Summer League? Yes, if you told an NBA fan from 2007 that the formerly ignored round-robin tournaments for rookies and roster wannabes would be all the rage, they would’ve dropped their Blackberries. Every game is televised. ESPN has made these double-headers its tentpole broadcasting in primetime. Highlights are shared incessantly over Twitter and Instagram (like Jayson Tatum’s drives and slams). The world picked apart Lonzo’s first Summer League game (a disaster) with his second (a triple-double), discussing it like they were playoff performances.
How did all this happen? How did the NBA become so popular we’re spending time dissecting exhibition displays at gyms closed off to fans? Celebrity and youth. That’s how.
No sport has done the celebrity part better than the NBA. It began in the early ’80s when the league was so desperate for relevance it pushed Magic and Bird harder than a rental car agent hawks insurance. As America embraced the two icons and the league found financial stability, it realized this was their meal ticket. David Stern began selling the faces, the stars, instead of the teams. Jordan, Barkley, Wilkins, and Ewing were far more important than their team’s success.
Glorifying the players, allowing them the creative freedom to become solo acts, applauding their individuality, is now part of the NBA’s DNA for 35 years. It has also hurt the league. In the era of Iverson, critics lamented the deterioration of team basketball. When Kobe went to trial, Gilbert Arenas brought a gun to the locker room, and Ron Artest went into the stands, the media howled about the lack of morality in the NBA. These guys had become drunk on money, power, fame. They were spoiled and arrogant and though they were untouchable.
But the current crop of superstars, savvy in personal branding and social media posturing, learned from all those missteps. LeBron, Durant, Curry, Melo, Paul, Westbrook, Wade and more have been nearly spotless off the court. In doing so, they’ve become household names and widely beloved. And given the freedom to wear crazy clothes to press conferences, and hold one-hour specials to choose free agent destinations, and promoted incessantly through mainstream advertising, the NBA has grown a more accessible generation of players than any other league.
Few football players outside of quarterbacks have much crossover appeal in the NFL, covered up by helmets and shoehorned into team mentality anonymity. Baseball has dropped the ball for 15 years on marketing its stars. Hockey will forever be a niche sport to many Americans. Basketball has rocketed past them all in building player’s popularity.
The kids have then pushed this dynamic into the next stratosphere. Basketball is fast, it’s up-tempo, with constant scoring, and a steady stream of highlights to watch on their phones and laptops the next day. Basketball is played in every school yard, safe enough to be encouraged by parents in an era of concussion awareness, cheap enough to play during a time where travel baseball pushes so many away. Basketball jerseys are cool to wear, the colors and logos are bright and modern. And a new generation of fans are now able to watch Steph Curry from their bedrooms in Birmingham, as easy as his supporters in the Bay Area.
You don’t need League Pass or even cable TV to watch your favorite stars. You can see Anthony Davis and John Wall do their thing from a thousand miles away with a cell phone or WiFi. With an increased emphasis on star power (the DNA) as the Cavs and Warriors battle every June, the league has become a fireworks display of power moves. GMs are trying to draft new stars and collect existing ones. The arms race has been ratcheted up. Their is very little patience with roster building. So the offseason, draft and free agency have become a daily soap opera of big name wheelings and dealings.
The NBA’s offseason’s melodrama is watercooler talk daily, completely ripping the spotlight from baseball’s ebb and flow, and football’s countdown to camps. It’s been astounding to watch, and we have not yet hit the ceiling. The NBA has built a monster, and right now feeding that beast is priority number one.
D.A. hosts 9am-12 pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.