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The Future of the NBA

Pining for the Pistons

by DAVE ZIRIN

[Note: This column is 200 words shorter than usual because Billy Hunter lost 25% of it in the NBA's new Collective Bargaining Agreement.]

The world be an incrementally better place if the Detroit Pistons had won the NBA championship last week. I believe this even though their Game Seven loss to the Spurs meant that we’ve been spared a Mitch Albom column about his experience watching the game with Isiah Thomas, John Kennedy, James Naismith, and Morrie.

The world would be better. But not because the Pistons are a terribly appealing team. Center Ben Wallace shoots free throws like he is trying to smite errant pigeons. The Detroit bench is so shallow, Kelly Tripucka and Earl "The Twirl" Cureton played in game six. Their best player is named Chauncey.

No. A Pistons win would have been a delicious slap in the face to what was becoming a well-orchestrated Pistons Backlash. The Pistons had become a team that people hated, and seemed to enjoy hating, a little too much. The vibe was not dissimilar to how some people talk about the city of Detroit itself: a little too "street," a little too "hip-hop," a little too "urban," all of which are code words for a little too Black.

One nationally syndicated columnist, Michael Cunningham, called the spindly Tayshaun Prince a "Whining Pterodactyl" that "should be extinct." He then described Rip Hamilton as having "Tap-Dancing Tantrums;" Ben Wallace’s reactions to fouls were called the "Afro Pout" and Chauncey Billups had what Cunningham called a "Woof Whine." This kind of commentary boggles the mind. Was there no one to advise Cunningham that comparing NBA players to tap-dancing animals might be a bad idea? Who is Cunningham’s editor, Trent Lott? Jesse Helms? Bill Cosby?

Standing up to the Piston’s backlash meant standing up to this tide. It also meant standing with perhaps the most maligned player in the NBA not named Ron Artest: Rasheed Wallace.

A second Wallace championship would have been a sweet sight indeed. Last year, there was perhaps no greater moment in sports than seeing Rasheed Wallace stand triumphant next to seething NBA commissioner David Stern. Imagine George W. Bush’s face if he had to give the Congressional Medal of Honor to Moqtada Al-Sadr, or if Ariel Sharon was forced to host a tribute to Edward Said. That was Stern’s reaction to celebrating ‘Sheed. This is animus writ large – rife with reverberations that extend far beyond a clashing of personality and ego.

It was only 18 months ago when Wallace laid a verbal smackdown on Stern, saying, "I see behind the lines. I see behind the false screens. I know what this business is all about. I know the commissioner of this league makes more than three-quarters of the players in this league… They look at black athletes like we’re dumb-ass n——. It’s as if we’re just going to shut up, sign for the money and do what they tell us."

Stern, who is challenged about as often as Vito Corleone in an Olive Garden, shot back, "Mr. Wallace’s hateful diatribe was ignorant and offensive to all NBA players. I refuse to enhance his heightened sense of deprivation by publicly debating with him."

This year, it would have been even more fun to see an encore. Recently, Stern has been hard at work alongside Republican arch-strategist Matthew Dowd about how to "help the NBA’s appeal in the red states." Wallace, meanwhile, visited the White House last year along with the Championship Pistons, stopping just long enough to say, "I don’t have shit to say to [Bush]. I didn’t vote for him. It’s just something we have to do."

Herein lies the heart of the Stern/Wallace conflict. It is really about the future of the NBA, and whether the league will adapt to a right wing climate in the country by muzzling its players. It doesn’t matter that Wallace is a skilled big man willing to take big shots in the fourth quarter, play tough defense and be entirely unselfish with the ball. Stern wants him to go away because he represents a block against what NBA suits want the league to become.

The Stern Agenda of a sanitized, 21st century NBA loved and supported by alums of both Bob Jones University and the Belmont Street Projects alike, is a Park Avenue pipe dream, and something we should oppose. Journalist Scoop Jackson likes to say, "Basketball isn’t a metaphor for life, basketball is life." Life right now is polarized, racialized and divided. So is basketball. As long as that’s the case, I know whose side I’m on – and it ain’t David Stern’s.

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" will be in stores in June 2005. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at whatsmynamefool2005@yahoo.com.