Forgive Or Forget: Will You Still Care About The NBA?

When baseball players went on strike back in 1994, suffice it to say I didn’t take it very well. I had just turned 15, baseball was my first sports love, and I couldn’t process that the two sides couldn’t come together to make absolutely sure there was a World Series that year. Heartbroken, I steadfastly vowed I would never go to another game.

In what shouldn’t be a surprise, I didn’t stick to that. I begrudgingly resumed attending Mets games four years later, and McGwire and Sosa‘s laser show during the Summer of ’98 again got me watching baseball highlights every night. Even then, it didn’t feel quite the way it did before the strike, though you can obviously chalk at least some of that up to getting older – I don’t feel the same way about GI Joe figures as I did when I was a kid, either.

The silver lining from the ’94 strike – besides abruptly sending Michael Jordan back to his rightful sport – was that after a series of demoralizing work stoppages, baseball finally learned from its mistakes. An 11th-hour agreement sidestepped another strike in 2002, and as revenue sharing improved competitive balance and sent profits skyrocketing, the relationship between the union and owners became as harmonious as it’s ever been.

The NBA obviously has not followed suit. As MLB announces a new collective bargaining agreement that extends through 2016, the NBA continues to hemorrhage regular-season games while slogging through a dreary mess of lawsuits and a decertified union, and all of it seems like it might have been avoided if everyone had been more proactive a few months ago.

The problem the NBA will face is though it’s not impossible to rehabilitate a league’s image after a work stoppage, it’s hard to say how much time it will take. MLB lucked out with the Cal Ripken PR machine in 1995 and then hit gold with the Summer of McGwire and Sosa, but the NBA only this past year seemed to truly regain its stride after the 1998-99 lockout, a daunting notion to consider during this lockout.

And it’s not as if the only recourse is to sit around and pine for NBA basketball. Feeling scorned by baseball in ’94, I became more a fan of basketball and football than I ever had been. College basketball, in particular, currently has a unique opportunity, as NBA fans that perhaps viewed themselves as above it from a quality perspective might actually watch before March to get their hoops fix.

For its part, the NCAA has opportunistically presented buzzworthy early-season events like UNC-Michigan State on a carrier ship and last week’s inaugural Champions Classic doubleheader in the Garden, which had its profile boosted further by Mike Krzyzewski breaking the coaching wins record. Elton Brand put it best that night: “It’s a bittersweet moment not being able to play my game. But to see him do this, it’s a special feeling.”

Though college ball’s general level of play has no doubt slipped in recent years, the decision of stars like Harrison Barnes, Terrence Jones, Perry Jones and Jared Sullinger to eschew the NBA Draft Lottery (and lockout) to work on their game can only help with that. And if the speculation is true about the new CBA having an age limit, an improved college game may be able to keep a decent share of its current spotlight.

And the NBA would actually get the side benefit of getting more polished and well-known rookies – when there are actually games for them to play in.

At 32, I’m somewhat more jaded than I was at 15; Back then, I couldn’t fully come to grips that money was more important to all sides than the clichéd sanctity of the sport. But there’s still that part of me deep down that can’t believe how dumb they were to let this happen, making me want to wash my hands of the whole thing for a while.

That said, I’m finding November isn’t the same without checking the nightly box scores to see how many blocks Marcin Gortat had for my fantasy team. I miss the comfort of staying up late with the tail end of a TNT doubleheader, Golden State-Portland or something like that. I miss all the stuff Metta World Peace misses. And it was admittedly cool watching KD play flag football with a bunch of fraternity dudes, but I’d far rather watch him duel Kobe in a seven-game series.

The league now possesses that lockout stigma that will be tough to shake for blue-collar casual fans that weren’t crazy about a post-Decision LeBron to begin with, and most certainly don’t give a damn about BRIs or hard salary caps. Baseball attendance dropped 20 percent in 1995, and that wasn’t during a recession.

So yeah, I’ll watch the NBA when games start up again, whenever that is. I like basketball too much, it’s too much a part of my fabric, and I see no need to deprive myself more than I already have been. But I’m not really who they have to win back.

And even for me, much as I’ll always wonder whether Tony Gwynn would have hit .400 in 1994 or just how good that Expos team would have ended up, I can’t help but shake my head thinking what could have been if the NBA – coming off an incredible postseason – could have simply gotten out of its own way.

Will you have the same passion for the NBA as you did before the lockout?

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