A brief history of the rise and fall of the NBA.
The darkness drops again but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? - W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
We are living in what might be one of the last great NBA seasons we’ll see for a while. All the old dogs are going the way of the dodo; the dynasties are all but dead. The average age of any player you ever cared about in the last 17 years is 36, and the success of at least four well-titled teams now hinges on a handful of heroes who are well into the decline of their careers.
Ah yes, things do fall apart. The center cannot hold. We’re coming off a ten-year high, a decade-long cycle that will end with the retirement of Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd. Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady, Manu Ginóbili, Grant Hill, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. We’re talking 17 titles, 6 MVPs and 106 All-Star appearances between them. That’s a lot of talent to turn over, to replicate and replace; a lot of names to etch into the books and a lot of spaces to fill on the bench.
The last mass exodus of talent took its toll on the NBA: from 2003 to 2007, the league was caught in a vacuum. Ratings across the board hit rock bottom. You couldn’t sell a season ticket after MJ retired, after Barkley, Stockton, Ewing, Robinson and Hardaway all called it quits. Anyone who had casually followed the game to that point couldn’t handle having to reconfigure their entire ugly worldview just to accommodate an influx of new players and stats. They didn’t want to relearn the names. They didn’t care about the changing of the guard. They tuned out; basketball just wasn’t as interesting to them as it had once been.
And so began the long spiral down, the widening gyre that nearly pulled the NBA apart. The 2003 Finals hit an all-time low for viewership, only to be outdone in four short years by a four-game sweep of the Cavs by the Spurs. A 2006 game featuring Kobe and LeBron went completely unwatched, outranked by a rained-out NASCAR event, and when it happened again less than a month later during the playoffs, that was it: the death knell or rattle or whatever it was we heard. When more people tuned in to not watch a NASCAR race, we knew it was over. The falcon could no longer hear the falconer. Jordan’s league was all but over, dead and gone.
Flash forward and the tide turned again. The 2008 Finals reignited a long-dormant Lakers-Celtics rivalry with the big three, Garnett, Allen and Pierce, leading the Celts to their first title in 22 years. Kobe led the Lakers to two more after that, and last year Dirk helped the Mavs win their first. Basketball was reborn through the same tide of players that had turned it off ten years before. They had come full circle.
This brief history lesson is not without merit and it is aided and abetted by our good friend W. B. Yeats because he understood these kinds of things; he was a man of the world, which according to him worked in fixed cycles that always came round. He wasn’t a basketball man, but he held on to the karmic belief that all good things come to an end, giving way to a “blood-dimmed tide” and eventually to a second coming.
The NBA works the same way. We’re living now in a discernible peak, a high that will always come along with the passing of a generation. But the lull looms. Soon we will lay to rest the Lakers, the Celtics, and two teams from Texas and make room for the Clippers and the Bulls; the Heat, the Knicks, and the Thunder. We won’t immediately take to knowing their names; we won’t waste any time remembering which rough beast is which. But the growing pains will pass. Lob City and LeBron will grow on us. And then we’ll be sad to see them go, set for another twenty centuries of stony sleep.