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Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Updated: February 15, 11:35 AM ET
CRISIS OF PERCEPTION

By Chris Palmer

What do you think of today's NBA? You don't watch it as much, because the game isn't what it used to be, right? But maybe the game isn't the issue at all. What do you think of today's NBA player? Is he a guy you can cheer for and identify with? Or do you loathe him and find it impossible to imagine you'd pay money to see him play? Maybe you're stuck pining for your favorite '80s superstar. Maybe you are an '80s superstar.
LeBron-Jay Z
Does LeBron's friendship with Jay-Z negatively impact fans' perception of the league?

Recent years' record All-Star voting and jersey sales notwithstanding, many sports fans have failed to embrace the current crop of NBA stars the way they did the legends of decades past. So, on the eve of this season's NBA All-Star Game, we decided to examine the state of the league. Specifically, we wanted to probe the apparent disconnect between fan perceptions of what the game has become (and who's playing) and the reality of what it is (and who they are). And, yeah, we know what you're thinking: Here they go again. But we don't have to play the race card ourselves because, well, some of you already have.

In a recent poll commissioned by The Mag, opinions of the casual fan regarding the NBA suggest significant—and troubling—racial stereotyping. Nearly 50% of those polled think "it's a shame what's happening to the league" versus 38% who feel the same about baseball (even in the wake of the daily steroids headlines) and 21% about the NFL (despite the recent doings of Michael Vick and Pacman Jones). The poll also reveals that you think the typical NBA player is less likely than his counterparts in the three other major leagues to respect the fans, remain loyal to his team or even love his wife—and more likely to carry a gun, use recreational drugs and have an entourage.

Of course, this issue isn't as simple as black and white. While one recent study says the NBA is 75% black, the NFL, America's preeminent sporting attraction, is at 67%. One big contributor to the difference in perception of the two leagues is the strong tinge of hip-hop culture in one of them. Quick, who's more likely to rock the bling and hang with 50 Cent, Antawn Jamison or Joseph Addai? Conventional wisdom says NBA stars are rap guys at heart, individuals seeking personal glory and all that goes with it. Football players are system guys, and the system subverts their hood qualities. In addition, the anonymity helmets provide makes it easier to cheer your team's blustery wideout while ignoring what you don't like about him. The NBA player is naked by comparison. Every glare, scowl or disinterested look comes through unfiltered.ONCE THERE WAS A DREAM TEAM. NOW 69% OF SPORTS FANS SAY THE GAME ISN'T AS PURE AS IT ONCE WAS.

But even without helmets, it is NBA players who have the misfortune of being lumped together in a blob. The troubles of the current and former Indiana Pacers are representative of the troubles of every NBA team—at least that's what a quick trip through the blogosphere would have you believe. Some of those broad strokes can be attributed to fans who refuse to get past old stereotypes, but the people whose job it is to bring these athletes to you aren't without blame either.

Much the way Hollywood churns out tales of sparkly do-gooders riding in to save inner-city youth—see Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank—journalists and TV analysts are always looking for a savior to reform these self-destructive, wayward millionaires. In 1995, a GQ cover story asked whether Grant Hill could be a savior. Less than 10 years later, multiple media outlets asked pretty much the same of LeBron James. Apparently, only black males need saving—and usually from themselves.

Despite having reached the pinnacle of their competitive set, hard work is never assumed of NBA players. In what other sport would teams feel compelled to trot out their most articulate players on opening night to promise the crowd that everything will be left on the floor? It's as if—in the NBA, at least—finding committed professionals is as difficult as spotting a white tiger in the wild.

Questioning heart is something Michael Jordan never had to face. In fact, part of today's problem is rooted in the fact that many fans long for the days of His Airness, when his unparalleled accomplishments were wrapped in a smile that could sell a Big Mac to a member of PETA. Jordan represents a different NBA, one before hip-hop colored many of the players' lives—and by association, the Association.

Sure, MJ hung with Mars Blackmon, but that's a far cry from the way today's NBA stars roll. LeBron is co-hosting an All-Star party with Jay-Z. Then again, even Jordan later trumpeted his friendship with Jay-Z to prove he was still relevant.

These are different times, but many fans seem not to have moved with them.