Why NBA Cares is more than a PR slogan
The NBA already has taken its share of arrows this season. Deservedly. Not satisfied with its game being faster and more offense-driven, thereby producing the most compelling and dramatic postseason in decades, the league said, "Wait, we can make it even better. Just a few more tweaks and then we'll reeeeeally have something!"
So, after referees were told at the start of last season to resist giving technicals, they were given license this season to hand them out like strip-club coupons on a Manhattan street corner. End result I: Every player except Sam Cassell is not going bananas over every call, which is good. End result II: The ever-lasting suspicion that the league can and will manipulate the officiating to serve whatever purpose it has in mind.
Then there's the composite ball. The smart move would've been to "retire" the leather ball with all the appropriate pomp and circumstance at the end of last season. Call the new ball the dawn of NBA 2.0. Equate it to Kobe or Dwyane taking the torch from Michael.
The other smart move would've been to get in front of what the new ball was bringing to the table. That is, to explain what it does and doesn't do like its predecessor.
My guess as to why the league didn't? It didn't know. Ask anyone about how, after thousands of hours of testing, the league could produce a ball that changes grip from tacky to spongy in a single practice -- as every team I visited in the preseason told me it does -- and the response is, as commissioner David Stern told me, "That wasn't our experience."
All of which is a very strange way to start a column about how the NBA is, in at least one respect, not given its due, but, hey, that's what the holidays do to me. You've got loved ones gathered round the fire, I've got Aunt Theda in danger of burning the back porch down with her cigarillos. You're envisioning the family plates of turkey and yams and stuffing circling the great table, I'm anticipating a catfight over who makes better gravy. The holidays might mean cheer and good tidings and all that, but there's also the shadow of potential mayhem lurking.
That's my point. Most of us, left to our own devices, focus on where life fails to meet our Hallmark expectations rather than our multitude of simple but profound blessings. The trick is finding ways to remind ourselves of that before we do something stupid -- like complain about the texture of a ball or whether or not we're permitted to chew gum at work.
NBA players have this trick down pretty well. If you're in the media, chances are you get three or four e-mails a day, all year long, announcing who is doing what for whom. Book readings, learning center dedications, food or blood or coat drives, charity auctions. It's drummed into most reporters early on to toss such announcements aside, the idea being that it's PR material and that's not part of our job.
There was also a prevailing notion among my early editors that readers didn't care about what a player did in the community, they only wanted to know what he did on the floor. Unless, of course, it was something egregious off the floor. That was different. It was the public's right to know, and all that.
Whatever the reason, the majority of the volunteer efforts that NBA players make never get much public play, at least not through independent media outlets.
Which is why Stern created the NBA Cares program and made it an omnipresent aspect of every league production. "Our teams were doing so much individually, but we weren't feeling the connection to each other," he said. "We wanted to show the collective impact that we're having."
Was it an attempt to sway public perception of the league after the brawl in Detroit? Absolutely.
Is it arguably over the top in its ubiquity? Absolutely.
Was it a fabrication of how much charity work NBA players do? Absolutely not.
I can vouch for that firsthand. I've been part of two Basketball Without Borders junkets, to Africa and China. I've gone to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina with the NBA Players Association and worked on a Habitat for Humanity house with the NBA Legends in New Orleans. I've seen Rasheed Wallace at a mall collecting canned goods. In the pursuit of interviews over the years, I've had to navigate the multitude of commitments players have to foundations and learning centers and non-profit organizations.
Or put it this way: Unless you spend some time serving food to the homeless or collecting goods for the needy this week, you will be coming up short compared to every player in the NBA. A year ago, Stern set a five-year goal for the program of collecting $100 million in donations, providing 1 million hours in service and constructing 100 places for families to learn or play. Let's put aside the logistical nightmare of tracking the hours, but the league says it already has gathered $32 million in charitable funds and built 108 gyms/learning centers/libraries.
Now, the cynic out there will argue, one, that because NBA players have been blessed with a relatively open work schedule and tons of disposable income, they damn well should be out there giving back. Which sounds good but really doesn't pass the smell test.
Truth is, if you were a 20-something millionaire with lots of free time, would you be spending it in a homeless shelter or a hospital?
The other canard is that I don't hear that question being raised about musicians or actors or CEOs. Not to get all preachy, but the bottom line is we all have a duty to give back or pay it forward.
As for the PR aspect -- the idea that players do good things just so the media or public perceives them to be good guys -- all I can vouch for are the players, coaches and administrators I worked with, a sampling of about 100 people. It's pretty easy to recognize someone motivated by the pub. They gravitate toward the guy holding the pen or the camera or the tape recorder. They steer clear of the people they're actually there to help once the lights are off. I've seen it elsewhere, but I never saw it in this case.
If the league is making a mistake, it's in not making participation mandatory. If I'm the commissioner, that's the first deal I strike with every union associated with my league. Not just for the 420-some players, but for everybody. For this reason: Nothing creates a stronger bond and deeper appreciation between humans than working together to create something for someone less fortunate.
I understand that that technically takes it out of the voluntary category, but having seen the dividends for each and every participant, that's a label I'll sacrifice. When the Blazers' Zach Randolph gets fat and mopey and ambivalent about his God-given talent and then goes to Africa, realizes that his childhood poverty was six levels above Soweto and a year later he's lost the weight, regained his focus and showing signs of leadership, I'd make sure every player got a taste of that.
There are also the relationships created among people who normally wouldn't mix -- coaches, GMs, players from other teams, referees. Just an example: I guarantee if Bennett Salvatore or Joey Crawford and Rasheed Wallace or Stephen Jackson went overseas together, their working relationship would be vastly improved.
"I don't want to make it mandatory, but they're all going, I promise you," said Stern. "We had 200 players traveling the world this summer, and all of them did some kind of community service as part of each trip. We're going to get to every single NBA player in our own way."
I believe him, because it's in his own best interest to do so. Not that I question Stern's motives. No sir. No matter how much his explanation of the composite ball smacks of a politician dodging an inconvenient truth, I refuse to do that. It is, after all, Thanksgiving and I believe that's Aunt Theda at the door now.
ESPN The Magazine senior writer Ric Bucher is co-author (with Yao Ming) of "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds."