Monday, October 3, 2011

The forgotten lockout

No season means no Kyrie and Tristan.
A person's enjoyment for a thing is truly tested when faced with the possibility of its absence. Sports fans this year were presented with double-barreled lockouts from the NFL and NBA. While the NFL managed to come to an agreement, the NBA powers-that-be are still stalemated in their labor negotiations with players.

What's missing from the NBA "drama" is the furor and outrage that permeated the NFL lockout saga. It seems like nobody outside of hardcore NBA fans are concerned about the possibility of a shortened regular season or by tactical threats from commissioner David Stern regarding the loss of the entire campaign should talks continue to falter.

Even the national sports' media could not be accused of over-reporting the league's current strife, at least compared to the deluge of stories that marked the NFL's potential work stoppage. A simple content search on ESPN's website revealed 261 NFL lockout stories to 76 for the NBA.

Not exactly the scientific method, but open your ears, sports fans, and you'll hear a deafening silence when it comes to the potential loss of that late-January Clippers-Bucks matchup, along with a slew of other early-season tilts. Meanwhile, local sports media currently catering to fans in full-on Browns and Buckeyes panic mode cannot be bothered to talk about the NBA these days outside the odd LeBron sighting at a Cleveland-area high school football game.

Has the NBA fallen that far from the sightlines of the everyday fan, even after an exciting, ratings-busting NBA Finals that saw the association's most despised team lose in such sweetly satisfying fashion? How has this lockout become the Oates of the professional sports labor dispute landscape? Where's the trollish anger that Internet chat boards thrive upon?

The current apathy is not new to the NBA. Attendance was down in 2009-2010 and dropped slightly again last season. The league has several other factors going against it during this time of the year, including pro and college football and the start of the MLB playoffs. However, even in normal years there's really never much hoopla surrounding the opening of NBA training camp, as it lacks the first-crocus caché of MLB spring training and the big-ticket vibe of NFL summer camps.

From where I stand, the NBA also has a serious image problem, a growing "have" and "have-not" dichotomy similar to that of MLB. Look at the Eastern Conference and tell me how many teams have a whisper of a chance outside of Boston, Chicago and Miami. The West holds a bit more promise with small market hellcat Oklahoma City, but there are already rumblings on whether the Thunder will be able to keep their core together.

Perhaps the larger image issue is the buddy system the average fan perceives forming among the league's top players. For every Nowitski and Durant, there are less loyal stars wanting to "me too" Miami's 2010 off-season template. Joe Sports Guy will hear scuttlebutt about franchise guys like Chris Paul and Dwight Howard leaving for glittering fun-time cities, and instead of staying glued to his TV screen to watch these super-teams, he will simply stop caring.

Even before the current labor trouble, there have been plenty of people who have turned away from the interminable slog that is the NBA regular season. The thought of a strike-shortened year is meaningless when so many fans don't start paying attention to the NBA until after the Super Bowl, if then.

I don't care much about the NBA myself these days outside the Cavaliers embarking upon their first real season of rebuilding. I want to watch Kyrie Irving and find out why the Cavs took Tristan Thompson with the fourth overall pick. But the prospect of a long-haul retooling in a competitively unbalanced league doesn't have me checking ESPN's crawl to see if players and owners have reached an agreement.

If the lack of overall chatter is any indication, then this kind of indifference is spreading in NBA cities throughout the country. Even when the current strike inevitably ends, that's a problem the league is going to have to confront.