The NBA’s ongoing (and rather unfounded) image problem

“I am… whatever you say I am”

-Eminem, The Way I Am


I had an interesting conversation about sports the other day with a complete stranger.  Actually, I had met this gentleman once or twice before but our previous conversations were limited to meaningless things guys who don’t know each other generally talk about.

I can’t say the same for our latest interaction.

We began talking about sports briefly, just to break the ice.  A television in the background was tuned to highlights of Steph Curry raining jumpers from pretty much anywhere on the court he wanted.  That’s just what he does these days.

Steph CurryMr. Curry is very close to becoming a household name, his bright, piercing eyes, his personable yet cutthroat demeanor, his devastating jump shot that seems to find the bottom of the net no matter from where he shoots it, Curry is on the verge of winning back-to-back MVP awards.  The product of an NBA family, Curry has far exceeded expectations.  In his seventh year in the league, he has already led his Golden State Warriors to one championship and wrestled away NBA HNOC status from LeBron James.

And like the majority of the NBA, Steph Curry is black.

After seeing a highlight reel of Curry canning jumper after jumper from here to Timbuktu, I threw out a Curry feeler, mentioning that the guy was playing out of his mind these days.

The gentleman replied that he didn’t watch the NBA.

Understanding that the Association doesn’t appeal to everyone, I retorted that if there were ever a time or a team to watch, the Warriors would be that team and now would be the time.  After all, they’re on the verge of having the best regular season ever.  For the basketball purist, they are a joy to watch, a spectacular blend of old school and new.

That’s when the gentleman replied with a single word that stopped me in my tracks. He said he didn’t watch the NBA anymore because it was too “thuggy.”

I think we all know what he meant by that comment but let’s dig into this a little further, shall we?

BogutFirst of all, if you’ve seen these Warriors play, you’d know there’s absolutely nothing thuggy about them.  In fact, the biggest thug on the team, Andrew Bogut, is white.

My conversational counterpart then went on with the same hackneyed rant about how the league hasn’t been the same since Michael Jordan and Larry Bird retired… which was a long fucking time ago.

And while the NBA did struggle with an image issue when Allen Iverson and company brought hip-hop, cornrows and tattoos to the forefront, that was also a long time ago.  Today’s NBA is far from thuggy.   Have you seen how Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook dress?  Thugs generally don’t grace the cover of GQ and Esquire.

Opting for better judgment, I wasn’t about to compare the NBA’s thuggery rates to other sports but I did ask him how he felt about the NFL, a sport whose thuggery one would think far outweighs most others.  (FYI, the NHL’s pretty thuggy but I wasn’t about to go there.)  He replied that he didn’t watch the NFL either.  So exactly what sport does this guy watch in his spare time?

You guessed it: golf.

I left the conversation at that, deciding not to delve any further into this man’s predisposed notions, having already compiled a pretty good assessment where he stood on race relations.  He’s probably the kind of guy who tells you he has a lot of black friends.

Look, I’m no ambassador for the NBA and that’s not only because they wouldn’t hire me back when I applied.  But to openly suggest that the NBA is “full of thugs” and “isn’t the same as back when so-and-so played” is inaccurate at best and inherently racist at worst.

McHale RambisYou want thug life?  Pop your cassette tape into your VHS machine and watch how many times the 1980s Celtics led by Larry Bird and Kevin McHale threw players to the ground, Bill Laimbeer too for that matter.  They just didn’t have tattoos while they did it.

If anything, the NBA is as thug-less now as it’s ever been.  I can’t even recall the last time I saw a fight in an NBA game.  After the Malice at the Palace, David Stern cleaned up the league quicker than Giuliani did Times Square.  Hall of Famer Gary Payton called today’s NBA squeaky clean and he’s not the only old-timer to do so.

The NBA is so far from thuggy, you see more fights on the baseball diamond.  Bronson Arroyo (white) sported dreads for years and have you seen the tattoos on AJ Burnett (also white)?  No one’s calling those guys thugs.  I wonder why.

Twenty years later, the NBA still struggles with an image problem which only exists because people still think it does which is fine, I guess.  The league doesn’t want those fans anyway.  And you know what?  It’s their loss because they’re missing out on some pretty damn good basketball.

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11 Replies to “The NBA’s ongoing (and rather unfounded) image problem”

  1. I have heard that comment as well and as soon as I hear someone make reference to the NBA being “thuggy” I have the same response…

    “Oh, so I guess you are just a bigoted fucking racist.”

    And then I walk away, saying nothing else.

    Arguing with closed-minded racists and bigots is pointless. Like arguing with a child, or a Republican. It will ultimately get you nowhere but frustration.

    Solid take and EXCELLENT read as always brother!

  2. Geez, I think the seventies were actually the last time anyone could even legitimately take the shot at the NBA being “thuggy.” At that time the NBA had a not-so-hidden culture of drugs and bad actors that didn’t even speak towards any acting out on the court. It sounds like you summed up your conversational participant nicely. People are entitled to their own opinions. We’re entitled to ignore them.

  3. He’s not the only guy to turn his back on the NBA over the last two decades. Whether it can automatically be construed as racist is another matter.

    While I’ll agree that the NBA is far more popular among black viewers on a whole, there are 40+ year old white guys like me that still believe basketball is the most beautiful of sports, regardless of the skin color, ink or hairdos of the players.

    The aforementioned incidents like the Malice at the Palace and hip-hop culture appearance of the Iverson-era soured some…By the way, incidents such as Latrell Spreewell choking his coach, the locker room gun incident between Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton and Kobe’s rape allegations certainly didn’t help either, but true fans of the game can see past those negative events and as you point out, recognize that the game itself is actually much cleaner as far as dirty physicality of years past.

    Funny that despite much of the same type of crap that makes the NBA “thuggish” also plagues the NFL, yet the majority of the same guys who have sworn off the NBA are still rabid NFL fans and are perfectly willing to accept or overlook Ray Rice / Adrian Peterson / Ben Rolisberger / Ray Carruth type incidents and remain fans of the NFL, but the NBA gets shunned as a whole.

    Person preference I suppose.

    Close-mindedness and preconceived notions come in all shapes, sizes, colors and topics as the comment above by Frank Irizarry proves. We’re all guilty of prejudice in some form or another and we’re all entitled to that opinion in my opinion.

    In the end, I agree that those missing out on today’s NBA are doing just that…Missing out.

  4. The NBA’s image problem can’t be as bad as the NFL’s . Have you read the news about the latest judgement against the league hierarchy and the fact found them guilty of seeking to hide over $120 million from the NFLPA (union) ?

    If you think the basketball has an image problem, by comparison, what would you make of the idiocy now ongoing with the National Football League (No Fun League) ?

    NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith is chomping at the bit like a rabid pit-bull wanting to bite Roger Goodell’s testes and male member of then force feed them down his throat.

    Check out the two latest pieces on my site and then let me know what you think.

  5. He he, priceless, sir.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Big Poppa.

    “Arguing with closed-minded racists and bigots is pointless. Like arguing with a child, or a Republican. It will ultimately get you nowhere but frustration.”

  6. Fair point, Burnsy.

    But just look at the Curry piece and the one you e-mailed me from the USA Today.

    Why exactly are we calling these guys thugs?

    If anything, that’s a pretty uneducated and blanket statement, not surprising from the mouths of many.

    Like I said, their loss.

  7. Here’s the thing, Al.

    People still watch the NFL regardless of the fact that there are “thugs” in the league. People are NOT watching the NBA because they think there are “thugs” in the league.

    Big difference.

  8. SC, do you really feel the NBA is under watched right now? Setting that asinine comment aside about thugs…I think the NBA ratings have been OK. You know, one thing that has always been a great point for discussion is dominant, dynasty-type teams. Good for TV ratings in a sport or not? Do people tune in more to see the great team be great…or to be upset…or do they simply tune out because of the domination? The NFL is bullet proof ratings-wise. People watch all the games/teams and think they would tune in even if the Patriots won ten years straight. If the Warriors run the table this year and start out next year the same…do you think casual NBA viewers tune in or tune out?

  9. Here’s how I’ve felt about dynasties, Burnsy.

    When we have ’em, people are tired of ’em. They’ll say things like “Oh, the sport is boring. I’m tired of Team X winning all the time.”

    Then, when there are no dynasties, fans minimize the single-season championship as if it wasn’t an accomplishment or at least as great of one from a team who won back to back to whatever. They long for the days when teams would dominate.

    I guess you can’t please all the people all the time. Go figure.

    I do think people will tune into these Finals to see Steph play whomever. I’m guessing the league wants LeBron back in there for what would be his sixth straight Finals.

    Steph’s a draw. He’s exactly what the league needed.

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