Golden State Warriors the net result of a squeaky-clean NBA
Days of mass brawls and dark defending long gone as ‘brand’ carefully protects its image
Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry in action against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game 3 of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Photograph: Kyle Terada/Getty Images
‘Whatever happened to wilding out and being violent?” complained Eminem at the start of the century, pining for the lost art of the street brawl.
If the little guy happened to be watching his Pistons basketball team playing Indiana on the night of November 19th, 2004, he would have been best pleased. What started as an innocuous foul by Indiana’s Ron Artest quickly became an out-and-out riot.
Ben Wallace, the offended party, shoved back. Both men brawled, exchanging truer punches than most heavyweight title fights. The other players on the court became involved. The bench players, attendant officials and security guards raced into view. Wild, indiscriminate punches filled the screen. The commentators tried their best to, well, commentate. “Ron Artest has a look in his eye that is really scary.”
The crowd became excited. Boos rung out. Flung beers rained through the bright lights. One fan raced down to courtside and fired a bottle of beer straight at Artest. Nobody could accuse the era’s superstars of being above crowd-engagement. Artest clambered over the bench, vaulted into the stands and started going at it with the fan, who probably hadn’t bargained on going toe-to-toe with an NBA star that night.
His Indiana team-mates stuck with him, tumbling into the audience. While this was going on, a separate fight broke out on the other side of the floor. The Auburn Palace crowd was at once incensed and ecstatic: it took ten minutes just to escort the visiting players out of the arena and as they left, they were showered with beer, furniture and whatever the fans could get their hands on.
“What a disgraceful showing by the Pistons fans,” said the commentator. And it was a disgrace all round. But nobody could accuse the people in the building that night of not caring.
The footage from that night is a perfect example of just how alien and different the NBA has become in the decade and a half since that infamous event.
This morning, the Golden State Warriors are odds-on to be the new NBA champions having swept LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-0 with their ethereal, flawless brand of quick-passing, fast shooting and dazzling attacking mastery.
Unless LeBron somehow managed to stand defiant, then the Warriors will have won the championship without dropping a single game in their play-off march. On Wednesday evening, NBA commissioner Adam Silver made a brief television appearance at half-time to give his view on the current state of his basketball league.
Choosing his words carefully, he described what fans in over 200 countries have been watching as “a radically beautiful version of the game – fast-paced, highly skilled; shooting that is out of this world.”
You can imagine Michael Jordan’s luscious sneer or Larry Bird giving a disdainful head-shake at hearing this appreciation of the game as a kind of a cold art-form.
This year’s NBA season was ominously predictable. LeBron’s Cleveland team were comfortably the best in the Eastern Conference while the Golden State Warriors were untouchable out west. The two teams met in the finals for the third consecutive season and in the first two games the Warriors simply crushed the Cavaliers with an ease that bears no comparison.
The addition of Kevin Durant, who made the career-changing decision to abandon his Oklahoma team for the Warriors – a decision likened by former Celtics player Paul Pierce as “the guy who goes into the neighbourhood, gets beaten up by the bully’s team and now wants to join that gang” –tipped the scales.
Durant is like nothing else in sport: seven feet of spindly, sublimely quick grace with a complete repertoire of big and small man ball skills who drifts through games as if in a trance. And Adam Silver is right: the Warriors are beautiful to watch.
But on Marshall Mathers’ point of order: whatever happened to wilding out?
This summer’s NBA finals might well be the end-result of the league’s determination to cut all ties with its occasionally raucous history. Silver is the protégé of David Stern, whose 30-year stint as league Commish transformed the NBA into a global financial power/entertainment.
When he took over, the 23 teams combined were worth an estimated $400 million. Now, there are 30 teams worth, according to a recent Forbes study, about $400 million each in a league worth $12 billion and with a growing global reach.
Imposing a strict sense of discipline and propriety was one of the crucial elements of Stern’s vision.
By 2004, that was well under way; the punishments meted out to Ron Artest and the other primary causes of the Palace brawl were season-long and financially punitive and made a deep impression on owners, coaches and players alike.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, sporadic mass brawls were just part of the NBA culture. It was why you could hear commentators make observations like “PJ Brown picked Charlie Ward up and just threw him into the photographers section” or “And now Larry and J. are going at it”.
Jeff van Gundy is now best known as a courtside television analyst. In a previous life, he was head coach of the New York Knicks where one of his most memorable acts was to hurl himself into a fight involving his player, Charles Oakley and Larry Johnson of Indiana.
He ended up clinging to Johnson’s lower leg, wrapping himself around the limb like a suited koala bear while the fight raged on. Since then, the NBA has adopted a strict dress code for players and, in a bid to try and emphasise attacking skills, radically changed the way teams can play defence.
Hand checking, forearm checking, compressed defences and hard fouls have steadily been eradicated and even the slightest insinuation of players squaring up is enough to warrant automatic dismissals.
That 2004 riot was a strange time for the NBA: Jordan had retired (again) and LeBron James was still too young to fully assert his role as heir apparent. But in the decade since, the attitude and atmosphere on the court has changed and the NBA has almost entirely shed its reputation for lawlessness.
It is incredibly slick and the front rows (formerly reserved for media) of all big games are heavy with celebrity presence and each game in the league’s absurdly long season is sold to the public as an “experience” in which the actual game is really just a backdrop. The owners have become richer and the player’s salaries have increased dramatically and the NBA has never been bigger.
So why, then, has this year’s championship felt kind of hollow?
Why does the actual game look at times eerily close to the NBA 2k Playstation version which is constantly plugged during the advertising breaks for the (far too many) time outs?
Even if the Cavaliers can eke a win against the Warriors, stopping what is an attacking phenomenon has become a major problem for the NBA. The threat of an uncompetitive league looms large.
You can bet that it physically pains Michael Jordan to watch Steph Curry, the ephemeral shooting-and-dribbling technician, whose game really is a marvel, driving time and time again to the basket and left unmolested by defenders.
From 1980-2005, a player of Curry’s stature and height simply wouldn’t have been permitted to do that without being physically broken down by defensive specialists who would have regarded his drives to the basket as a personal insult.
The NBA has magically erased that tradition of dark defending. The Warriors are both net result and logical conclusion. Little wonder that Adam Silver sounded slightly unsure and uneasy when he sat there at half-time in a non-event NBA finals and was asked: ‘what now’?