Earning Your Earnings: Why Some NBA Teams Should Lose Money

In the history of the NBA, has it ever been customary to expect every franchise to hoist a profit in any given year? With discussions of team profits dominating headlines this off-season, I am struck by the feeling that the ever-present threat of low earnings is integral not only to the business of basketball, but to the sport’s more significant value as high drama.

Perhaps owners’ anxiety over losing money should be a crucial factor in the organic life of the league. Is it not the divine struggle of an NBA team to keep itself afloat financially, in the changing climate of each season, postseason and off-season? Should owners be deliberately casting the right characters to earn for their teams, eventually, a longstanding image, market, and identity? Or should owners be spending their money on lawyers to lobby for the correct set of circumstances to allow them to make a profit on their mediocre teams?

In regards to the biggest NBA market teams, to the Celtics and Lakers, the illusion of grace lingers in the eyes of basketball fans around the world. These teams have made it happen, we think, and they will try to make it happen again next year. The improbability of one team’s unique success transforms an NBA team into an iconic cast in a world of heroes. To create and to maintain a successful franchise is a demanding endeavor. Few markets are truly dependable, sustaining their teams with rewarding profits built on high demand. This kind of demand is earned. It is not easy. Many teams fail. Many teams have never realized championship glory. Fame is not apportioned to all equally. It must be earned. And that fact is one that testifies to the challenge of the task. This is no walk in the park. This is it. It is this fact upon which the high scale drama of NBA basketball is founded.

Consider the Grizzlies. Memphis earned themselves a spot in our collective conscious during the playoffs. I do not doubt that they will sell more tickets and more jerseys come next season. The draft picks, player development, coaching — it all added up into something more. An event such as this intrigues and surprises fans. The Oklahoma City Thunder have steadily been gathering momentum in sales and future prospects, to the point that they are well-acknowledged as a buzz team. They are another instance of management showing a certain urgency, a willingness to compete. These two teams seem to have built something. They have realized a success. They are, perhaps, over the hump — for the near future, at least. The Oklahoma City Thunder are now a potential investment in the eyes of basketball fans. I very well may buy a James Harden jersey. I like watching the Thunder compete. And that is the way the NBA appears to us. Who is doing well? Who has been fostering something special? Who is building a beautiful sort of organism, a real team. This is what captures the imagination. Teams are not bastions of corporate profits. They should not make money by virtue of being in the league. They have to earn it. They have to earn our attention.

It seems to me that losing money in basketball is one more incentive to be great. A team can get burned out there, and it can get burned quickly. One must always reach for the gold. At the very least, it has to popularize a star. They have to make us want it. They have to try to make it big. They can not just subsist. Fans don’t want NBA teams to subsist. Take the Knicks. The media created a situation in which the New York Knicks either could make a move to prove to the world that they were bent on winning, or they could choose not to. The Knicks made the decision they were supposed to — for next year. For the hubbub to be aroused by Carmelo’s jersey.

The Lakers will always be profiting by the names of Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal, just as the images of Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal will always be selling the image of the Lakers. The Lakers profit from their history.

If a team is not doing well and an owner gives up on the project, then the team should be left to expire. Just like any other corporation. Teams should be natural, and yes, maybe there might be less of them at times. We need worry less about the future and worry more about the present. The lockout propagates the fear of failure, which, in the end, is unacceptable to everyone. The clearest issue is surely profit.

Although the Chicago Bulls have struggled at times, Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson built a longstanding market that could not easily subside. And this feat of domination, of unquestionable supremacy, is remembered by the fans who were amazed, and the fans who believed. It wasn’t just that it was Jordan. It was the brand: in Chicago, with that red bull painted on the floor, and those beautiful letters upon his chest: B-U-L-L-S. Timeless images were created that do not go away. The Bulls remain a profitable powerhouse, and their history, embodied in their brand, is their qualification.

In Memphis, in OKC, we have seen the beginnings of history. We have seen what it will take for a team to earn itself recognition and, in due time, a year of substantial profits. Frankly, I don’t care if the Kings make money, or the Suns, or the Bobcats. What did those teams care about last season? What did those teams do to ensure their success? Did they think I wanted to see their halftime shows? Or, did they think I wanted to see them compete? And why should they be entitled to a bailout?

O Captain! My Captain!: a David Stern joint

Our coffee-addled Commish - clearly a mug only a mother could trust.

This week, The Nation magazine is running a special double issue about sports. It contains this pretty good piece by author of the classic What’s My Name, Fool?, Dave Zirin, an all-time great of lefty sportswriting and one of the broader field’s few big shots who know/care much about good old-fashioned political economy. A representative passage:

It’s obvious to me that what stands in the way of a logical financial agreement is Stern himself. His intransigence is the logical extension of a decade of dress-code dictates, bullying officials, and even changing the material on the basketball [...] He has created a logic that no one dares stand up to and say, “This guy has to go.” He has become like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s dictator in the novel Autumn of the Patriarch.

You might want to just go buy the whole issue, since those good people are losing about as much money every year as the NJ/bk/USSR Nets pretend to.

D-$tern in a publicity photo from the last lockout

While I’m at it, I may as well make this a full-on Required Reading entry, since we’ve been going all derelict on ya lately. Check out this dutiful – if not quite beautiful – overview of the coming FIBA/Olympic men’s basketball qualifying season from the seriously considerate, wonky yet nourishing blog The Painted Area. It’s the post from July 29th, fyi; I couldn’t find a permalink. Writes blogger jay aych:

It’s past due that this [Oceania] “zone” should just be absorbed into the Asian zone. And ideally an Olympic berth would be transferred over to Europe to give them three auto bids. Australia would arguably be the top team in this reformed Asian zone, but at least they would have to go through a full tournament to earn their title.

In EuroBasket for example, a team has to go through a gauntlet of quality teams and has to slog through a brutal schedule of 11 games in 19 days to win the title. By contrast, giving an Olympic bid to a zone with two teams is laughable.

That’s what I’m sayin’!

Our good friends over at Negative Dunkalectics – your Other home for theoretically-informed b-ball vignettes – recently had this to say about another of our good friends, Metta World Peace.  Truly a tour de force of athletic realism. David Hill bequeaths to us this lapidary anecdote:

Some drunk fan standing behind him was going at him. “You suck Ron. I’m glad we didn’t draft you. You sucked at St. Johns and you suck now.”

Ron held the ball. He turned around and stood face to face with the heckler, staring him down with the meanest of mugs. Hypnotized, the fan slowly sat down in his chair. Everyone erupted in laughter. My friend and I were incredulous. We stood up and screamed. “Don’t let him punk you! He can’t do shit! He can’t do shit!” Ron looked over at us with that same icy stare. Slowly he curled up the edges of his mouth in a wry little grin. He turned and inbounded the ball.

Perhaps even in his rookie season Ron Artest knew that one day he was going to have to whip a fan’s ass.

That’s all for now I think. Peace be upon you, Metta!

Getting High

This lovely new piece from ESPN’s Page 2 examines the origins of the modern-day high five and its surprising roots in sports history. The most surprising revelation perhaps is that the celebratory hand slap is dated so recently: the late 1970s. But many other revelations abound as the writer weaves us through the genealogy of the now-ubiquitous gesture – a path that winds through the dugout of the Los Angeles Dodgers, West Hollywood’s gay scene, the ’77-’78 Louisville basketball team, and one unfortunate practical joke.

The best line naturally comes right at the end, from the five’s purported inventor, and underscores the cultural impact of this one simple hand motion:

“You think about the feeling you get when you give someone the high five. I had that feeling before everybody else.”

-Glenn Burke, former Los Angeles Dodger, first openly gay MLB player, and possible inventor of the high five

Pete Maravich on the NBA lockout

The all-time NCAA scoring champ (44.2 ppg!) and five-time All-Star starting guard recently took some time out from dunking on Jesus to weigh in on the League’s present contractual difficulties:

“It’s going to continually get worse because America is built on one basic principle: greed.”*

This kindly old man man also averaged 27-5-and-5 (81% from the line)

This kindly old man once dropped 68 points on Clyde Frazier's Knicks.

“Pistol Pete,” always colorful, went on to offer up some more specific insights into pro basketball’s labor policies.

Asked about parity and revenue-sharing, Pete replied, “They don’t particularly care about balance. Just the TV markets. Everyone says we got [All-Star forward and free agent] Sidney Wicks but I don’t see him here … the reason all those teams like Chicago, New York, and Boston get the good players is because they are in the major TV markets.”** Wicks was ultimately sent to the Celtics after league arbitration despite signing with Maravich’s fledgling New Orleans Jazz.

In light of some spirited discussion regarding the integrity and openness of the NBA’s owners and front offices, Maravich, who once averaged 27-7-and-4, had this to say: “I dealt honestly with these people. I can’t tolerate any more deceit and deception on the part of the coach and the present administration. [GM] Pat Williams and [Coach] Cotton Fitzsimmons have lied to me.”*** Harsh words to be sure, issued after secret negotiations led to a trade from the playoff contending Atlanta Hawks to the brand-new New Orleans expansion team despite assurances to the contrary. After that, Pete says he “realized what a cold, flesh-peddling business basketball could be.” Ouch!

Everyone has a bad day at the office, but did the first-ballot Hall of Famer have any more general opinions on the NBA writ large?

“It’s difficult to be happy in this business… I’m completely frustrated with basketball. I’m sorry I ever came into this league.”****

Lockout with your socks out, Pistol Pete!

* 1976 interview with George White of the Houston Chronicle
**
Excerpt from Maravich’s autobiography, Heir to a Dream (1987)
*** 1974 interview with Darrel Simmons in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
**** Ibid.

(Note: this may or may not be a teaser to an upcoming article which may or may not be a book review of a recent biography on the life and times of Pete Maravich.)