Monday, June 27, 2011

"The Lockout Beard," Revisited.

It has been argued that the quintessential image of the NBA's last lockout was David Stern's so-called "lockout beard." On October 28, 1998, after months of bickering between players and owners, an unexpectedly bearded NBA Commisioner David Stern held an emotional press conference at NBA headquarters, where he dejectedly informed the world that the owners, represented by the NBA's lawyers, and the players, represented by their union, the National Basketball Player's Association (NBPA), had failed to draw up a collective bargaining agreement that both sides could agree upon, and that the regular season, scheduled to begin the next day, would be indefinitely postponed. Though the two warring factions would come to an agreement in early January--enough time to scrap together a 50 game season--undeniable damage had been done. Viewership and ticket sales dropped roughly 2 percent, and nearly 500 regular season games had been lost, as well as many millions of dollars in revenue, and purportedly, countless fans.

I have no memory of David Stern's lockout beard. I have no memory of the acrimony between the NBPA's Billy Hunter and Commisioner Stern, which reportedly included "profanity-laced tirades" and "excessive name calling" at times. In 1998, I was thirteen years old, and preparing for my Bar Mitzvah, so my life was filled with Torah study and my excessively cracking voice. At that age, when God was about to make me a "man," (as well as make me write hundreds of thank you cards to people I had never heard of, nor ever heard from again) I had neither the time, nor the inclination to read the news, which at the time, lambasted both players and owners as greedy, out of touch millionaires. As a young fan, this was not information I was particularly interested in, and at that age, I certainly had other things on my hormone-wrought mind (mostly Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager--resistance was truly futile.). In all honesty, I remember very little about the 1998 Lockout -- just like most things that happened to me when I was thirteen years old.

What I do remember, however, is the sense of happiness I felt when games returned. It was a sense of euphoria that I had not felt before; a sense of passion in an institution that I was in no way connected to, and an undeniable feeling of regret that something so entertaining and meaningful had been taken away from me for what seemed to be petty, insignificant reasons. At age thirteen, what did I know, conceptually, politically, and economically, about labor rights? What did I know about revenue sharing? About non-guaranteed contracts and retaining a player's Larry Bird Rights? At that point, my NBA fanhood was more rooted in watching the Chicago Bulls second dynasty with my mother, who was born and raised on the West side of Chicago, and famously cried when both Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan prematurely retired. Surprisingly, for me, it took the work stoppage for me to (retrospectively) realize that my fanhood not only in the NBA, but in the sport of basketball itself, had become something that I owned; that I now had all to myself, to cultivate how I saw fit. In other words: absence had made the heart grow fonder.

Though I cannot reasonably assert that this realization--that the Lockout had in fact increased my love of the NBA, rather than diminished it--was uniform among my peers, I do feel that could not have been the only one. I refuse to believe that there were individuals who, having grown up watching, attending, and loving NBA games, turned their backs on their fanhoods after 1998, and never returned. Fanhood seems to be more than something that is simply found and lost, like a wallet, or a significant other. Fanhood in anything, if done correctly, and fully, becomes a part of your identity, a fundamental way to describe yourself, and locate your place in society. For me, after 1998, I was no longer just Jacob the Jew, or Jacob the 8th grader. I was Jacob the NBA fan. For me, that was a distinctly new development, which only happened after the Lockout catalyzed that reaction. I feel I can safely assert there are others like me out there, as well. Perhaps not even with the NBA.

With this in mind, I question recent comments made by Lakers forward Luke Walton about the presumably negative effects the Lockout will have on the NBA's fanbase. Walton, alongside players and coaches, openly worries that the seemingly inevitable work stoppage will undo the progress the NBA has made in terms of building its fan base, and marketing its product. Walton is quoted as saying that, "the idea of the lockout and losing fans is probably the scariest thing of all...even moreso than missing games or losing out on your salary for however long you lose those games, it's losing the fan support because it's at an all-time high right now." Troublingly, recent numbers seem to support Walton's fears. All three networks that televise NBA games reported huge increases in viewership, arena capacity was at 90.3%, and record jersey sales for a number of NBA stars. This contrasts menacingly with statistics from the first lockout. The NBA lost 2% of its viewership, as well as about 2% of its ticket sales. Furthermore, based upon results from a New York Times - CBS Poll, roughly 29% of former NBA fans had a "negative view" of the League after the lockout ended. So yes, perhaps there is reason to worry.

But this is my question: Does having a negative view of something necessarily mean you are not a fan of it? Indeed, it's hard to fully support either side of this labor dispute, featuring millionaires and billionaires who are seeking to codify some very irresponsible fiscal practices in the form of a collective bargaining agreement. Neither the players nor the owners seem like relatable parties; it is hard for us, as "everyday fans" to identify with the issues up for debate. But with all that in mind, my fanhood in 1998 remained intact, and remains intact to this day. That didn't mean I wasn't annoyed with the entire situation--I'm sure I was--but at the same time, it didn't mean that I stopped caring about the NBA. Additionally, it didn't mean that I forgot about the NBA while it was gone. In fact, I was more excited to see it come back when it finally returned.

For me, this raises a number of interesting questions to consider as the new lockout looms ominously on the horizon, growing closer by the hour. While there are many unknowns to be resolved in the coming days and weeks, and it is hard to predict the outcome of this dispute, we know this: the lockout of 2011 will be nothing like the lockout of 1998. The abbreviated 1998-1999 season featured 50 games, while both the League and its fanbase processed Michael Jordan's (second) retirement from basketball (and there'd be a third, too), as well as the dismantling of the Phil Jackson-Jerry Krause led Chicago Bulls. A 2011 season, even if abbreviated, will still feature the great young players who have helped to make the League as popular as its ever been. People will still wonder if the Heat and Knicks can make Superteams work, or whether the Mavs can repeat, or whether teams like OKC or Memphis can unseat the big boys and reach the Finals. And as any basketball fan knows: momentum is important. The League has great momentum now with TV ratings, ticket sales and jersey purchases. It seems reasonable to assume those trends will continue even after the lockout concludes.

So, could the Lockout provide an unexpected boost for the League in terms of popularity and fanhood? Or, will it be like the last lockout in 1998-1999, and simply arrest the development of the NBA? Of course, no one knows. But we do know that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Not just for basketball, but for everything. For old jobs, old relationships, old memories. We miss what we don’t have anymore. The NBA will be no different for me. I’ll miss the Association when it’s gone. And I won’t be the only one. I am angry. We are angry. We don't want this to end.

But I also know that I'll be back. I am a sucker for punishment, after all. And you know what? You’ll be back too. We’re weaklings like that. And perhaps Stern will grow a lockout mustache this time around, as a consolation prize. That'd be a start, I guess.

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