The game of basketball has gone global and is now the world's fastest-growing sport. Talented players from Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa are literally crashing the borders as the level of their game now often equals that of the American pros, who no longer are sure winners in international competition and who must compete with foreign players for coveted spots on NBA rosters. Yet that refreshing world outlook stands in stark contrast to the game's troubled image here at home. The concept of team play in the NBA has declined as, in the aftermath of the Michael Jordan phenomenon, the league's marketers and television promoters have placed a premium on hyping individual stars instead of teams, and the players have come to see that big-buck contracts and endorsements come to those who selfishly demand the spotlight for themselves.
Even worse, relations between players and fans are at a low ebb. Players are perceived to be overpaid, ill-behaved, and arrogant. Fans, paying hundreds of dollars for tickets, often act boorishly and tauntingly. This tension boiled over on the night of November 19, 2004, at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan, during a Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers game, when players brawled with fans as much as each other in what was, in fact, a racial skirmish. When the Pacer players entered the stands throwing punches, they had truly smashed an altogether different kind of border.
In the aftermath of that sorry spectacle, regular-season television ratings declined for NBA games. Playoff-game ratings plummeted. Sales in NBA-licensing products sagged by a reported 30 percent. For the millions of Americans who cherish basketball, the love affair has reached a state of crisis.
Few people care as deeply and know as much about basketball as Harvey Araton, the highly literate and well-traveled sports columnist for The New York Times. For many a season, Araton has observed "the ballers," as the players call themselves, at college tournaments, the NBA, and the Olympics. He has enjoyed a pressbox seat while watching the great 1980s rivalries of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the transcendent career of Michael Jordan, and the slow unraveling of the game through the 1990s until the present season, as newly arrived players and league officials misunderstood and misapplied the mixed lessons of Jordan's legacy. Calling on his many years of watching games, of locker-room interviews, of world-hopping reportage, Araton takes us to scenes of vivid play on the court and to off-camera dramas as well.
In this taut, simmering book, the author points his finger at the greed and exploitation that has weakened the American game. And with uncommon journalistic courage, he opens a discussion on the volatile, undiscussed subject that lies at the heart of basketball's crisis: race. It begins, he argues, at the college level, where, too often, undereducated, inner-city talents are expected to perform for the benefit of affluent white crowds and to fill the coffers of their respective schools in what Araton calls a kind of "modern-day minstrel show." It continues at the pro level, where marketers have determined that "gangsta" imagery provides for a livelier entertainment package, never mind the effect it has on the quality of team play. And where, moreover, players themselves, often both street smart and immature, decide to live up to the thuggish stereotypes.
Harvey Araton knows the players well enough to see beyond the stereotypes. He knows that for every clownish Dennis Rodman there is also an admirable David Robinson. For every Ron Artest, there is a Tim Duncan. Combining passion and knowledge, he calls on the NBA to heal itself and, with a hopeful sense of the possible, he points the way to a better future.
Unflinching, timely, and authoritative, Crashing the Borders is the beginning of a much-needed conversation about sport and American culture. For those who care about both, this book will be the must-read work of the season.
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October 31, 2005
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Excerpt from Crashing the Borders by Harvey Araton
If you have ever loved basketball, then you had to hate November 19, 2004. If you have relished the sounds and smells of the gymnasium -- the sweet squeaking of sneaker soles, the rustling of nets, and, yes, even the chatter less euphemistically known as trash talk -- then your senses came under assault by what you saw that night at The Palace of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit. And the more times you watched the most frightening eruption of sustained violence ever in the American sports arena, the more you saw the replaying of a troubled young man named Ron Artest bolt from his reclining press-table position, across your television screen, and into everlasting infamy, the more angry you were and the more you hurt for the game that had brought so much joy into your life.
Since I was a young boy peering out my bedroom window at the netless rims of the basketball courts between Henderson Avenue buildings in the West Brighton Houses, a city project squeezed into a working-class neighborhood on Staten Island, I have loved the game. Loved it for its simplicity and accessibility, for the way it packed people of all shapes and sizes, races and ethnicities, into pressurized chambers of passion. Loved it for the freedom of individuality it promised within the framework of the collective. Loved it for the hours I could dribble my weathered ball down on the courts, even when they were empty in the dead of winter, and shoot and shoot until my fingers felt frostbit. Loved it to my five-foot-eight-inch playing limits, or for just being in the crowd when the kids with size and skills commanded the courts.
One of our blessed, Heyward Dotson, older than me by a few years, became a star at Stuyvesant High School and then all the way uptown at Columbia University. Occasionally, Dotson would bring Jim McMillian -- a college teammate who went on to shine in the NBA -- and other hotshot players from around the world's preeminent basketball city to New York's most isolated borough, to our unevenly paved oasis inside one of the Island's few pockets of relative poverty. We'd all gather round, watching in awe as these gods of the game communed at rim level.
One summer, when I was twelve or thirteen, my friends and I shuffled down to the courts for a clinic sponsored by the New York City Housing Authority. The main attraction was the impossibly tall and already famous UCLA underclassman, Lew Alcindor, along with a couple of Knicks backcourt reserves, Emmette Bryant and Fred Crawford. But it was another fellow, introduced as Mr. Bruce Spraggins from the New Jersey Americans of the brand-new American Basketball Association, who caught my attention, a six-five forward with a killer jump shot and no public profile.
When the Americans-cum-Nets prevailed after decades of misadventure to land in their first NBA Finals in June 2002, I wondered what had become of Spraggins and other franchise originals. I called Herb Turetzky, the only official scorer in the history of the franchise and a native of the same Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn that I had lived in until my family moved to Staten Island when I was ten. "Remember him?" Turetzky said. "Spraggins, Levern Tart, Tony Jackson -- those are my guys." He put me in touch, and Spraggins, answering the telephone at his apartment on 107th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan, said, of course he recalled the clinic for the kids in the Staten Island projects. "When we had that shootout we'd always do after the instruction part, I don't think I missed more than one shot," Spraggins bragged, affirming my belief that lifelong basketball memories could be made anywhere there was a ball, a basket, and the ability to stretch the truth.
As a sportswriter and columnist for four New York City dailies, I've been lucky enough to accumulate a few decades' worth. I have covered my share of games in the dowdiest high-school gyms and in the swankiest of luxury-box palaces. Years of following the Knicks with a suitcase and a laptop have taught me to navigate my way around most American downtowns and even a few intersections of Los Angeles freeways. Beginning with the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics and the original (and one authentic) Dream Team, basketball has helped me travel the world, to places I never dreamed of as a child whose family never ventured beyond the Catskills. From Europe to Australia, all the way to Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia, in what just a decade earlier was behind the Iron Curtain.
I visited with the family of a Denver Nuggets' 2002 first-round draft pick named Nikoloz Tskitishvili, for a project investigating the accelerating rate of foreign-born players coming from all corners of the globe.