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On the evening of Nov. 4, as the Washington Bullets were tipping off against the Orlando Magic in their first game of the 1994-95 season, I was flying south along the Eastern seaboard, heading toward the magic of Orlando. In the Orlando airport, a well-vacuumed place with a monorail and a cavernous Hyatt, this is what I saw: a boy crying.
The boy—he must have been 4 or 5—started sniffling while waiting in line with his mother and older brother for shuttle-bus tickets to the Disney entertainment complex. When the doors of the Disney-bound van shut behind him, the boy’s sniffles grew into an air-raid-caliber whine: The entire ride—I was strapped into the front seat—the child cried. “I want to get out,” was the phrase I managed to pick up. That, and “I want to go home.” He cried when we left the airport. He cried as we drove along the highway. He cried when we first observed Epcot’s light pollution glowing over the horizon.
But the boy saved his best for last. When the driver, having bypassed all previous designated hotel stops in order to get the kid out of the vehicle, pulled up to the child’s destination—the Disney All-Star Sports Resort—the boy let out a rasping wail that must have scraped raw his already stressed-out esophageal walls. If there was a howl to capture the horror we feel when we discover that we’re trapped in a world of meaningless artifice, this was it.
Which is how I feel about a fresh season of professional basketball. I don’t want to go. I want to stay home. I used to look forward to the NBA’s annual rebirth, believe me. But even with the absence of baseball, even with hockey’s current cryogenesis, I’m reluctant to hand my heart and soul over to 82 games. After all, what will I get in return? Being trapped in an NBA season and being trapped in Orlando both bestow a similar sense of emptiness. The NBA feels as soulless and contrived as Disney’s new Wilderness Lodge, located smack in the middle of Disney’s imagineered universe.
This is not idle comparison. I have proof of the convergence: During my stay in Orlando, I ventured into the wilderness bar and there, amid the mountaineering bric-a-brac and bison murals, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, was none other than former Detroit Pistons center Bill Laimbeer. You have a career in the NBA and you spend your post-gladiatorial years at Disney. It was the most natural sight in that whole unnatural place.
I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. I loved watching Laimbeer play. Remember how he neutralized the Portland Trailblazers in the 1990 NBA Finals with a lethal combination of trash-talk, hard fouls, no-look passes, and three-pointers?
My gripe with the NBA has little to do with the players, though there are an increasing number of stars—most notably the badly sideburned Shaq—who prompt dyspepsia. (It could get worse. A few days ago, Seattle Supersonics Coach George Karl told the Associated Press, “I’m out of here in a few years….The players are like businessmen now.” These are not words one wants to hear from Karl, whose scarred, Rust Belt features embody for me the ancient soul of the NBA. If he goes, his face, like that of the late Earl Strom, will hover over the dishonest league like a Roman death mask.) No, the players at least have something to offer: superhuman ability, skill for which many of us would trade just about anything. I, for one, would happily give up a Democrat-controlled Congress, window seats on airplanes for life, and coffee if I could just go to my left like the very worst NBA guard. I shudder to think what I’d sacrifice for real talent.
My distaste lies with the NBA’s imagineers, whose only talent is marketing and who have done their best to see to it that every league game offers the same, canned experience. Most of the arenas are filled to the brim with distractions, so much so that there’s not much room left for the game. There are corporate-sponsored hustle boards, which feed us mind-numbing statistics: assists, turnovers, assists off turnovers, turnovers after turnovers, etc. There’s too much music and too many clocks. There are cheerleaders to fill any moment something might not be happening on the court. And, as everyone knows, the league has altered the rules and moved in the three-point line to guarantee more offense. Thus, when something is happening on the court, we can be assured now that more of it is happening than ever before. Like the Kodak photo spots that dot the Disney theme parks, nothing in a modern NBA arena is left to the imagination.
At some point, of course, the disingenuousness unravels. For me, it came after hearing PA announcers around the league, doubtless on orders from NBA HQ in New York (how many blocks from the Disney command center? are there underground tunnels?), shout out: “And now, here are YOUR [team name here]!” Your Washington Bullets? Your Indiana Pacers? (My Timberwolves….Please, take them!) The thought that the five physical specimens on the court, none of whom had anything in common with me, were somehow my private property, drove me through the greasy arena doors, past the pretzel stand and the Buick display, and out of the building.
And yet there is hope. And it is hope that springs, believe it or not, close to home. The hope, dear friends, the sunny promise that might urge us to jump in for one more season, comes in the form of the Washington Bullets. Try as it might, there is no way the NBA can turn the Bullets into a tightly marketed basketball experience. They’re too weird. They play in a dingy arena. Their uniforms are hideous. Listen to what Magic Coach Brian Hill had to say to the Orlando Sentinel after the unpredictable Bullets beat the glitzy, multimillion-dollar Magic in the season opener: “[The Bullets] have a lot of guys who are difficult to match up against because they’re sort of in-between positions.”
That’s right, Brian. The Bullets don’t fit in. Refreshingly, they are everything the league is not. My happy vibrations were confirmed when the Bullets knocked off the Nike-hyped Chicago Bulls the next night. The team that plays in an arena sponsored by tinny, accident-prone USAir (stock price: 4 3/8) beat the team that plays in the arena sponsored by fat, jolly United Airlines (stock price: 95 3/4). What joy. What fun. The new season, thank god, is upon us at last.