Throughout its rich 70-year history, it’s no secret that the NBA has gone through eras that have defined how the world interacts with the game of basketball.
While many fans cling to the greatness that the 1980's and 1990’s brought to the league because of players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, it is really in today’s era that we are seeing an optimal performance in countless facets of the NBA.
In order to appreciate the all-around growth the league has experienced to this day, it’s best to understand where the league was at during the late 1970’s, a time many consider being a low point in NBA history.
The low points
The NBA suffered from a bad public image at the time partially due to drug abuse among a significant portion of players, including Bernard King and John Lucas II. King would go on to be a four-time All-Star, but like other players dealing with a cocaine addiction at the time, he arguably did not reach his potential, which contributed to the reduced amount of stars in the league following the rise of Willie Reed and Bill Walton.
Unfortunately, this coincided with the racial tensions of the era, which were so bad that Larry Bird was even nicknamed the “Great White Hope” when he came into an increasingly diverse NBA in 1979. At this point in history, league popularity was alarmingly low. Bird and Magic Johnson’s rivalry provided for a thrilling competitive storyline that basically revitalized the league. This marked the beginning of the influence that athletes would eventually exert, especially in the form of product endorsements and increased TV ratings.
Even while the 1980’s and 1990’s ushered in unseen excellence for the NBA, a number of issues were left unresolved for quite some time. Media bias was in place when large markets like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles consistently received primetime slots with NBC while cities like Houston (home of the Rockets, league champions in 1994 and 1995) were not nearly featured as often.
On top of that, on-court violence, gambling, and substance abuse continued to plague the NBA during the NBA’s supposed “Golden Era”. Since these issues were not well-addressed by league leadership at the time, this arguably paved the way for incidents like the 2004 Pacers-Pistons brawl and the 2007 NBA betting scandal to occur.
A new dawn
Fast-forwarding to 2017, the NBA has done more than just merely correct these issues. The league has also built itself into an organization that has set itself up for future success by doing what it did when Magic, Bird, and Jordan took it by storm – prioritize the impact that players have in the industry.
In essence, there has not been a more lucrative time to be an NBA player. While Johnson’s 25-year, $25 million contract from 1981 still equates to roughly $69 million in today’s economy, James Harden just earned a six-year, $228 million contract. Even after adjusted inflation, Magic’s $2.76 million per year is nowhere close to Harden’s $38 million per annum.
We are also in an age where league talent is better than it has ever been. While aggressive fan-boys of the late-20th century would claim otherwise, the league has a young generation of stars that are expected to play even longer than some of the greats from the past.
Even Golden State head coach and former Michael Jordan teammate Steve Kerr, when speaking of greats from the past, sarcastically stated: “They’re all right. They would all kill us. The game gets worse as time goes on. The players are less talented than they used to be.” While the game has become less physical in certain respects, it becomes difficult to deny the impact that evolution has had on athletic development; athletes have not been as dynamic as they are today.
Strong on social issues
Aside from an abundance of talent and max contracts, the NBA has been well in tune with its player’s views on social issues relating to diversity. When the Miami Heat had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on their team during the murder of Trayvon Martin in the middle of the 2012 season, the team symbolically stood behind Martin with a Twitter photo of team players in hoodies looking down.Countless league fans and personnel supported the position of players.
Likewise, when former Clippers owner Donald Sterling was exposed for his racist comments, a sale of the team was forced in what turned out to be one of Adam Silver’s biggest decisions during his first year as NBA commissioner.
The league also has scored above all other North American professional sports leagues in diversity hiring in recent years while managing to move the league’s 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte after the state’s anti-LGBT legislation was announced. The NBA has realized that it succeeds the most when its players reach their potential both on and off the court.
Thriving in the digital world
More than ever, players have more opportunities to portray a healthy public image through social media. Even more importantly, agents and league administration have pushed players in this direction to increase player popularity, in turn encouraging more fans to engage with the league’s talent, possibility increasing the longevity of success for players after their careers end.
The league’s social media is best described by the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore:
The NBA has catered to younger fans with an emphasis on social media. It promotes its players, the most famous of whom are the most popular athletes in the country. On Twitter, 25.3 million people follow the NBA’s official account, compared to 23.5 million for the NFL. By the NBA’s measures, which it declined to share, the league’s social media accounts also have the youngest average age for any U.S. sports league."
Because the NBA understands the importance of creating a community element through an increasingly digital landscape, it shouldn’t appear a surprise when people who weren’t fans of the league before now find reasons to become Cavaliers or Warriors fans.
Similar to how the league once grew its fan base through marketing a story of rivalry behind Bird and Johnson, it still relies on something bigger than physical aspects of the game. Instead of such a story being told through an NBC commercial, it can be narrated by millions of social media users that give the game of basketball a greater purpose.
It may be tempting to suggest that the NBA is at its peak, but the reality is that its rise seems to know no bounds.
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