Hide the Giant Shaking Bird
(Can someone please devise a FreeDarko style guide so I can stop fretting over title capitalization?)
So if you thought my new gig was keeping me from speaking truth on the subject of the two-skulled lawsuit, no way. I mostly didn't have any thoughts in order, which might be an indication of how slick Hunter has played this. I'm not the first person to suggest that these are qualitatively different kinds of debates, but to me it's obvious that eliding this was a shrewd manuever on Billy's part.
The Dress Code wars died on their own shores because they were, in essence, a cultural question. There's a fine line between "culture of this organization" and "cultural issues foisted upon the NBA," but both are losing prospects for the players. If its interpreted as a workplace squabble, the bosses can assert their right to govern those whom they reward handsomely. Cast it as a black/white thang, or even a generational clash, and the will of the American mainstream is eventually enacted. And while conservatism can work in tandem with the professionalism angle, being pro-hip-hop or pro-blacknusss doesn't necessarily mean you reject all that is fresh and clean.
With the Dress Code, the "disgruntled workers" spin became an easy way to avoid debate over whose sport it is, anyway. Obviously the league belongs to American dollars, but the groundswell of young black men claiming cultural repression was a definite attention-grabber. While playing the race card may be risky, it's damn near impossible to gloss over; if race gains traction in the discussion, even in defeat there are bold statements to be made. The easy way around this, then, is for the opposition to preempt the introduction of this country's most irresistible snare. Claiming professionalism and politely asking that difference be checked at the door makes the opposition seem like trigger-happy activists; this confirms many people's worst fears about identity politics, and in the process tramples the credibility of the outraged.
Here, the Players' Association has snuck culture in under the cover of functionality. Even before Chris Sheridan told us that the new ball slices up human palms, anyone could tell that the new ball was a disaster. It was implemented sloppily, suspiciously, and secretively, and Simmons's "it's rigged to bounce kindly" is the one back-handed compliment anyone's given it. Regardless of who plays the game, or why they play it the way they do, or whose culture it reflects and prioritizes, the new ball has emphatically stopped the flow. If the new ball had some clear cultural imperative—like it prevented dunking, or made it impossible to execute a crossover—it would be a loaded issue. But its defenders say only "change happens," and anyone watching can tell it's had an effect on the quality of the NBA product. That, of course, is the one thing both sides can agree on: regardless of what kind of product they favor, or what criteria they hold it to, it cannot and should not be comically flawed.
Early on, I remember a few players claiming the zero tolerance policy had some discriminatory overtones. By combining it with the ball problem, these same concerns take on a far less ominous connotation. Instead of there being a race or demographic that values emotion and expressiveness, now the sport of basketball needs them the same way it does friendly equipment. What's so brilliant about this is that it asserts ownership over the NBA without ever even posing the question. If the NBA knows what's good for it, it will give the players back the ball of tradition. And if they acknowledge that the players might know what's best for the game in this respect, it's then hard to argue that they don't also have some senes of when the court is being over-policed. When the institution is choking the life out of a game that will always, in some ways, be beyond its formalized systems of control.
Mind you, I'm not in favor of non-stop kvetching, and refs probably should feel like they're in control of the environment. Nor do I think it makes much sense to get caught up in a battle over how black the NBA is or isn't. Yet a game is more than its rules; athletes who are able to see past rote execution and synthesize possibility are what make sports worth watching. This is the part of basketball that starts outside of the NBA arena and, even when placed in the middle of it, remains its own sanctum. This doesn't just belong to the players; without them, it ceases to exist. And if the Commissioner's Office isn't willing to acknowledge their stewardship, to admit that THIS IS A LEAGUE OF PLAYERS, then everyday might as well be New Ball Day.