The images we saw last week in the media were shocking. Some were downright obscene. But we needed to see them. They illuminate what is at stake for us. No, not those images. The images of Shaq and Tim Duncan laying enough dog-poot-pitiful bricks at the free-throw line to add a new wing to the Staples Center. The images of Kobe mugging for the camera in a one-man celebration of Kobe. The images of Gary Payton getting used by Tony Parker like a disposable glove.
That's what I'm talkin' 'bout.
All of the images came from the first three games of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs. It's not just a basketball playoff series. In many ways, it's a series of battles in a war over the future of the league.
The war is being fought in the West. And there are other models for the league's direction besides San Antonio and L.A. It's just that the Spurs and Lakers offer the most dramatic confrontationa match between the franchises that, between them, have won the past five NBA titles.
The Lakers more than anyone represent the ancien regime. NBA Poobah David Stern has to feel a little conflicted about that. On the one hand, the Lakers have the league's best known coach, the two biggest stars and at least three, probably four, locks for the Hall of Fame. They have more glitz than all the other franchises combined. They're the NBA's TV ratings hogs.
On the other hand, have you checked the NBA's TV ratings lately?
The status quo in the league ain't exactly what it was when Michael was flying, Bird was shooting and passing and Magic was orchestrating "Showtime" in L.A. A fast break on this Laker team mostly describes what the guys do once they reach the locker room after a game.
The Lakers are the poster children for today's NBA. Because they have in Shaq the league's one irresistible force/immovable object, they look to run about as often as the characters in Friends discussed Sartre in the coffee shop. Their two biggest stars get along only slightly better than the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. One of their new superstar acquisitions publicly feuds with the coach.
Meanwhile, the NBA's long search for an anointed successor to Michael Jordan seems to have ended with Kobe Bryantthe only player who can match Jordan's jaw-dropping moves and his knack for taking over a game at crunch time.
Unfortunately for the messiah-seekers within the league office and among the TV Network Geniuses, those are the only ways that Kobe is like Michael. MJ, unlike Kobe, made his teammates better rather than dividing them. And though he had his vices (golf among them), Jordan never would have put himself in a situation in which someone might have an opportunity to accuse him of rape. Kobe isn't like Mike; he's more like MJ's doppelganger from a parallel universe.
Everything that the Lakers are, San Antonio is not. The Spurs have about as much flash as Brylcreem. There's not a feud to be found. They have more warmth and cohesion than the Cleaver family.
The Spurs are so un-Lakerlike that, to most fans, they're about as entertaining as Lawrence Welk reruns. They have perhaps the most versatile post player, Duncan, in NBA history, but he doesn't provide the spectacular highlights the league's marketers crave (he shoots old-fashioned bank shots, for heaven's sake). To the "I love this game" crowd, Duncan's consistent production of 20 points and 10 rebounds per night is unremarkable unless it includes a couple of thunderdunks.
In contrast with the Lakers star-laden lineup, the Spurs have only Duncan. Instead of marquee players, they've mostly remained content to pick up guys from the bargain and salvage lot, like Manu Genobli and Hedo Turkoglu and Robert Horry (lured from the Lakers) and the vastly underappreciated Parker, who accelerates from zero to 60 so quickly you could almost swear you hear him say "Meep, meep!" as he blows past defenders. Overall, the Spurs are such an underpriced bunch that the team is one of the few in the league with plenty of room under the salary cap.
Win or lose, the Lakers most likely are headed their separate ways. If Kobe's not in prison wearing day-glo orange this time next year, he's already indicated that he'll probably be in another team's uniform. Payton and Karl Malone may retire.
But if L.A. wins, the status quo modelbig stars, big bucks, big flash and big clashwill remain validated. If the Spurs win, more teams are bound to begin pursuing the alternative model. That would be an improvement for the NBA, if only because it might stop the league from continuing to anoint some pretenderKobe, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and, now, His LeBron-nessto Jordan's throne in hopes of restoring its once lofty TV ratings.
There's yet another intriguing model to consider in Sacramento. The Kings follow a freewheeling style that's closer to the proto-funky ABA than anything in professional basketball today. When they go on one of their more sublime runs, if you could just add a few fros and a multicolored basketball, you could at least witness a crude but passable imitation of the game as played by the Iceman, Dr. J and World B. Free.
The Kings push the tempo at every opportunity. They get rid of the ball with a speed that suggests they're playing with a live hand grenade. Their first shot usually seems to go up somewhere during the final strains of the National Anthem.
In a league in which we're becoming accustomed to the sound of basketballs clanking off rims and scores in the 70s, a league in which baskets are becoming harder to score than touchdowns in Arena football, the Kings routinely break 100 like their forebears from the NBA's halcyon days. Nothing in the NBA is more fun these days than a Kings-Mavericks game.
Of course, that's a little like saying that no procedure at the dentist's office is more fun than a routine cleaning and polishing.
I read a story a couple of years ago based on an intriguing idea. Boston Globe columnist and National Media Genius Bob Ryan got Larry Bird to sit down and watch a videotape of the famous four-overtime game between Phoenix and Boston from the 1976 NBA Finals. Bird, who had never seen the tape before, was mesmerized by the way both teams, particularly the Celtics, filled the lanes and ran the fast break.
Bird thought that the teams of his erawhich included the famously running Lakerslooked almost plodding by comparison. If so, that would make witnessing most games these days like watching gears grind.
It should tell us something that we'd have to turn to ESPN Classic to be reminded of how entertaining professional basketball can be. That's why, deep down, I'm hoping the Spurs or Kings take home the big trophy. They won't bring back all the old fun, the fros and funky basketballs. But at least their victories might help jolt the league into change. Almost anything would be better than what we're getting now.