The two edicts from the NBA's front office arrived in rapid succession in the mid-90s, each contradicting the other. The first was that the text on the back of Topps' NBA player cards should be somehow more street; presumably the word “urban,” deployed in its “you know, like black kids in those baggy jeans” definition, was used in memos. And so it was done, until the NBA changed its mind—text was to return to the non-urban (“rural”?) usual, and the images on the front would be similarly scrubbed, right down to airbrushing players' tattoos. (Yes, there are cards featuring an ink-free Allen Iverson.)
By the time I started working at Topps a decade later, the editorial guidelines for basketball were more or less what they were for every other sport—nothing off-brand or off-message, and as little profanity and sexual content as possible. But while the NBA eased up on the micromanagerial stuff where the style guide is concerned, its ongoing and ominous labor/management staring contest can be traced back to that same baffled, bipolar approach to its player-products. The NBA's great players are what elevate it above college hoops, but many owners and David Stern, the league's Commissioner for Life, have some serious issues re: those players and what they do in private. This is made clear in the owners' demand that players bail them out by agreeing to a whopping pay cut, and becomes clearer with every power-grabby missive launched from Stern's office.
Which is a drag for many reasons, but mostly because, as this summer's boom in star-studded streetball has proven, NBA players are both hugely fun to watch and hugely likable when they're playing basketball, no matter where they’re playing it.
Summer leagues in hoop capitals like New York, Washington DC, and Los Angeles have always attracted top players in the NBA’s off-season, but this year's summer leagues have been especially star-stacked—Kevin Durant scored 66 points at Rucker Park (and authored an epic YouTube highlight reel), and Kobe Bryant hit a very Kobe-ish game-winner in LA's Drew League. Just the list of players committed to Tuesday's game between Baltimore's Team Melo and DC's Goodman League All-Stars—Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Durant, Brandon Jennings, and recovering Butterfinger-addict Eddy Curry (who has apparently dropped 100 pounds off last year's non-playing weight)—make it more interesting than any NBA game in recent memory.
Most people won't see these games because they're held in small gyms and aren't on television or streamed anywhere (although highlights inevitably show up online). All of which is perversely fine, because even high-quality streetball is an acquired taste. The games are ragged, arrhythmic and isolation-heavy, and the non-negotiable presence of a middle-aged black dude screaming “Oh, shit!” and intermittent play-by-play over the P.A. is rough even for those weaned on Chris Berman's bellowing punsmanship.
Thankfully, basketball fans don't need to watch these games to benefit from them. They can catch the highlights on the internet, or just feel the sense of assurance that comes with knowing that basketball continues to be awesome even as lawyers and union reps bicker over money.
If you want to not like NBA players—for reasons Fox Nation-y or aesthetic or otherwise —you can of course find plenty of reasons to do that. The NBA, like any professional sports league, is loaded with preening, mis-prioritized jerks. If that's where you want to stop, chances are that no number of airbrushed basketball cards—or player dress codes, or more stringent technical foul rules, or salary reductions, or whatever Stern comes up with next—will change your mind. But if you like basketball, the summer league boom is a welcome reminder that while the NBA is well and truly self-fucked, the game itself is fine. Those YouTube videos from quasi-underground games in dim gyms aren't quite the real thing—and they're a long way from great basketball—but they are a potent rebuttal to the uncompromising, airbrush-wielding Stern, who seems to see all that goofy grace as just something that gets in the way of the brand.
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