Exchanging Blood for Profits

I think the first time I ever came across the word “fatigue” was playing some sports video game. I don’t know if it was from the Lakers vs. Celtics franchise, NBA Live or Coach K, but there it was: fatigue. Over the years it alternated with stamina, energy, or even health, but whatever the name it meant the same thing: how much gas a player or character has left in the tank. Now after years of video game-playing conditioning, I’ve occasionally found myself fantasizing about real life energy bars with easy-to-understand green/yellow/red coding that indicates if Dwyane Wade is running on empty or experiencing a burst of fourth quarter energy. After reading this piece from Pablo S. Torre and Tom Haberstroh in ESPN the Magazine, I’m starting to think some form of this childhood fantasy could become a reality.

The title of the piece is New biometric tests invade the NBA and its subject is how the NBA is at the forefront of a “biometric revolution,” but simultaneously how bioethics and technoethics need to be of equal concerns as the boundaries between employee and private citizen become more blurred.

So what’re we talking about here? How about everything from sleep habits and dieting to drawing blood and eventually “sequencing and understanding the genome … and how that relates to pro athletes on an injury basis” as Sacramento Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro put it. The range of invasiveness is as simple as wearing something on your wrist like a FitBit to monitor your sleep quality and track your physical activity throughout the day to something “Injectable (that) stays in the body for a year or two. No fuss.” as described by Dr. Leslie Saxon, executive director of the Center for Body Computing at the University of Southern California.

The benefits to these types of testing is pretty damn significant and, not surprising, economically driven. The piece references a study from fantasy sports outlet, Rotowire that determined “the average NBA team hemorrhages about $10 million in guaranteed salary from games missed due to injury alone. This makes fatigue, which directly relates to the twin dangers of overexertion of soft-tissue damage, a chief threat to playoff chances and literal fortunes.”

Teams can turn to insurance to protect themselves against athlete injuries, but as the Economist wrote in January of 2013, “sports teams that offer guaranteed contracts face huge losses if stars are injured, even only temporarily.” Consider the Oklahoma City Thunder. In the span of a month, they have lost Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to foot and hand injuries. The next four to six weeks without either player promises to negatively impact ticket both at home and on the road in addition to reducing the number of viewers tuning in for national TV games. When the Thunder lost Westbrook to injury during the 2013 playoffs, there was a direct correlation to the price of tickets post-injury which has been established with other injuries as well. The NBA uses a “league-wide insurance plan” where each team assumes limited risk that, as of 2013, “costs a modest 4% of salaries” while only being required for “a club’s top five players.” But even insurance can be problematic as we saw with Darius Miles and Portland in 2009. Miles sustained an injury and if he retired due to medical reasons the Blazers would’ve been able to avoid his $18 million cap hit. It was in the team’s best interest for Miles to retire and they even went as far as threatening to sue any team that signed him with “the purpose of adversely impacting the … Blazers salary cap.” Miles came back and played 34 games for the Memphis Grizzlies. He wasn’t the same player, but he was more than capable of playing and Portland ate the $18 million.

Given the high cost of injuries and the potential challenges and costs of insurance, it’s easy to understand the concerns of owners who, as D’Alessandro says, “need to be able to have an impact on these players in their private time.” With the upcoming rise in salary cap and the likelihood of player salaries increasing alongside the cap, it’s no surprise that owners want more control over what they see as an asset or investment.

In various ways, this has already begun. We’ve long heard stories of players being put on diets and training programs to increase their on-court or on-field production. Just a few weeks ago Dallas Mavs coach Rick Carlisle got in hot water for referring to his lean, six-pack toting small forward and multi-million dollar investment Chandler Parsons as “a little heavier than he’s ever been.” As part of the Philadelphia 76ers’ reimagining, the team is putting a greater emphasis on player-specific nutrition and dieting plans. And curfews have been part of the team-control mechanism for years. Most of us are familiar with the myth that athletes should avoid sex before big games and most of us accept that teams are going to be partnering with their players to some degree to ensure their off-court lifestyle doesn’t negatively impact their on-court performance. The big question NBA teams and the Player’s Association will face is how much should the team be involved?

When we’re talking about players eating burgers and having beers the night before games, it’s easy to laugh off, but what about when something called “the patch” is used to measure how much booze a player has had “on account of alcohol’s observable effect on heartbeat?” Or how about the implants I referenced above? Random drug testing suddenly morphs into 24/7 internal surveillance. There are real questions that need to be addressed around the commodification of human beings. Just because a team pays an athlete wild amounts of money does not give them open access to the inner workings of their body or keys to the compass of their off-court existence – unless the players and their representatives allow that. While it appears some organizations already view players as more asset than person, the paradox comes when an organization gets to know its players even more intimately – their biorhythms, their genetic treats, their weaknesses – which results in potential forms of dehumanization because teams make decisions based exclusively on economics and profits.

The Mavs have already instituted a blood testing program that should be raising flags within the NBPA. Their athletic-performance director Jeremy Hosopple told Haberstroh and Torres, “I tell them that nobody sees the data (of sensitive testing) but me and the people directly on staff that work for me.” Meanwhile, Mavs guard Devin Harris says, “I don’t know what they do with it once they have it, but they definitely take it (blood).”

It’s somewhat surprising that agents and the NBPA aren’t stepping in to request Dallas clarify how it is using Harris’s blood or at least to explain to the player how it is and isn’t being used. Habestroh and Torres write:

No complaints have been filed to the National Basketball Players Association as of yet. But it is worth noting that these partnerships have developed so quietly that the union had not even developed a position on the concept until ESPN requested comment in August. “If the league and teams want to discuss potentially invasive testing procedures that relate to performance, they’re free to start that dialogue and we’ll be glad to weigh the benefits against the risks,” says longtime NBPA counsel Ron Klempner.

You have to wonder where the Dallas’s player rep is at during the testing and why they haven’t raised the issue to the union. This lack of oversight or awareness should not have been surfaced by the writers here, but rather internally by the players.

Meanwhile, teams like Dallas and the Spurs are moving forward with testing their players behind a cloak of secrecy. While watching ESPN’s season preview show, Tim Legler expressed serious concerns about biometric testing being used against players in contract negotiations and while Haberstroh countered on set, and in the ESPN the Magazine piece, that teams are pushing for more of a partnership to improve player performance (and team economics no doubt), it’s a very legitimate concern. Not to extrapolate what appears to a be well-intentioned program into the world of science fiction, but I can’t help but think of Philip K. Dick’s short story The Minority Report where he creates the idea of “precrime” where people are arrested for crimes they would have committed in the future. Not surprisingly, we find out it’s an inexact science with the potential for mistakes, but imagine a future where a player’s blood test reveals he has a high probability for knee injuries or arthritis and is offered less money, or no money, as a result. Or just look at a situation like Tyson Chandler where the Thunder traded for the big man, gave him a physical, saw the potential for a long-term injury to his big toe and decided the risk was too great, thus rejecting the trade. While experiencing niggling injuries after the OKC rejection, Chandler was a key component on the Mavs 2011 title team and was an all-star for the Knicks in 2012.

To be clear, what happened with Chandler is not the same as using genetics in hiring or signing decisions. Haberstroh and Torres expertly go deeper on the genetic aspect:

In 2005, Alan Milstein (a bioethics and sports attorney) represented Eddy Curry against the Bulls, whose management wanted the center to submit to genetic screening because of an irregular heartbeat. (Curry was eventually traded to the Knicks, bypassing the issue.) The core objection then, as now, was that genetic markers are not actual proof of alcoholism, or Alzheimer’s, or cancer; they just signal greater odds of developing those conditions. In fact, as of the 2008 passing of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, it is illegal for employers to discriminate based on genetic information for that very reason. Choosing to privilege reality over probability in that way, Milstein notes, “was one of the few situations where Congress was actually unanimous.”

[Alan+Milstein+Eddy+Curry.bmp]

It’s refreshing to see the presence of someone like Milstein involved in this issue and protecting NBA players, but I can’t overlook the NBPA’s inaction on this front. While the organization has had a full docket in replacing its executive director and spouting off sound bites concerning the league’s new TV deal, players like Harris have been giving blood without understanding why. Further, given the Miles situation referenced above, Curry’s situation in Chicago, and many owners’ penchant for greed (as evidenced by their attempts to break the union and continue taking a greater slice of the BRI pie), it’s understandable for people (Shane Battier and Legler) to be skeptical about how this information will potentially be used.

The treasure chest awaiting a franchise’s ability to optimize against health is great enough that this revolution will happen in some form, mostly likely gradual, but inevitable. There are too many ways to improve on how athletes maintain and finely tune their bodies to ignore this overwhelmingly big data, but the risks of data misuse are also great and frightening even without a wild imagination led astray by Philip K. Dick. While my dream of being able to analyze my own fatigue meter (really, how much do I have left?) is probably closer than I realize, hopefully someone out there is the banging drum of privacy for me, you and the NBA players, encouraging all of us to slow down and consider the risks before we willingly give our blood in ignorance.

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My Predictions.

I predict that, beginning this evening, once I drop my backpack on my desk chair, and heave a heavy sigh to an empty, chilly apartment, my life will be based around a ratty second hand couch that I got for free from a friend. My butt will slide easily into the grooves embedded deep within the behemoth’s plush, springy cushions, happy to be reunited with a partner that cradles and comforts with gentle, caring ease. From there, I will fall into autopilot, cranking up three different games on three different screens arrayed about my living room. I predict that, for an average of two hours a night — minimum — my head will slowly swivel between these three glowing planes of light, watching exceptionally gifted human beings hard-charge, like boulders rolling eternally down a hill. The sounds of squeaking sneakers will become a ubiquitous presence in my modest suburban shit-hole, and the discordant creaks of cries of League Pass music will provide my nightly aria. I predict that I will spend an average of 10 hours a week watching basketball; an average of 40 hours a month watching basketball; an average of 320 hours over eight months watching basketball. I predict my life will be distinctly average.

This season, I predict that I will be cut by both sides of the sword of inactivity. Some fall days will be perfect; tucked into a vaguely-ripe blanket as a low light creeps through the window, faceless announcers braying on about who is hitting their shots, and who needs to get their heads in the game. Some winter days — a term used loosely in California — will be magical in their own right; bright, cool Christmas days stuffed to the brim with sleeved jerseys in pastel colors an roll-your-eyes moments with the Turner crew. But I predict the dark side will be there too. I predict a waning in exercise; self-conscious poking at expanding bellies, chests heaving desperately as cardiovascular capabilities wane over time. I predict fantastic game time feasts — luscious lasagna, piping-hot pizza, endless iterations of cheesy, gooey, salty and sweet — will pass through my abode. I predict loud, inebriated nights, the sounds of clinking bottles intermingling with those squeaking sneakers as an herby haze settles about the room. Yet, when the revelry has ceased, I predict a wake of destruction: empty fast food bags, ash-covered tables, annual weight gain and artificially dark rooms; a disheartening headache on an otherwise brilliant Spring day. I predict I will feel both warm comfort, and sublime shame as I sit on the ratty second hand couch. As for which emotion I feel, I suppose it will depend on how my day went.

I predict that, despite my best efforts, the NBA will continue to stand as a non-functional replacement for real human interaction. When friends text about getting together after a hard day of work, I will find a way to watch basketball instead. When the opportunity to meet new people in my hometown arises, I will gravitate towards basketball instead. When people ask me if I’ve made any new friends lately, I will think about the faceless avatars chirping away on social media, equally frightened to stray too far away from the NBA, and talk about them instead. When the overtures for social interaction just end altogether, and my phone remains silent, I will swallow my hurt feelings, and just focus on the games instead. I will stare hard at the little players, my little men; squeaking in their sneakers, slapping hands and patting butts, all for me, on my three screens. This is what I have done forever. This is what I have done always. And though I predict I will continue to think about the opportunities I missed — boisterous happy hours, far-too infrequent family moments, late-afternoon hikes, competitive pick up games, or even just the opportunity to totally unplug from our fucked-up world — I also predict that the NBA season will smile warmly, smooth my hair, and tell me to just sit down, to watch my little men play basketball, and to try not to think about it.

I predict that, against all odds, my relationship will survive yet another NBA season. And what a prediction to make. After all, I’m the one who becomes incommunicado as soon as games start, once-wordy texts slimmed down to one-word dispatches like “yeah” and “okay”. I’m the one who becomes dark when the Warriors have lost three of five, or moody after Steph Curry turns an ankle. I’m the one who gets mad at the bar, who snaps and snarls in petulant anger when things don’t go his team’s way. She’s the one who will put me in my place; who will tell me that it’s just a game, and to lighten the fuck up. She’s the one who tells me “good job!” when the Warriors win, as if it was I who was moving brilliantly off of screens and splashing wide-open corner threes. She’s the one who named Jarrett Jack “LL Cool JJ”, has been to the last five Warriors games I’ve been to (including a playoff game) and has made an NBA “Boning Roster” with a depth-chart deeper than the Cavaliers. In a reversal of an age-old adage, it’s not me, it’s her. I predict I will feel very lucky. I predict there will be a moment after a big three from Steph that I will look into her face, and my feelings will get all mixed up.

I predict we will have the same arguments this year as we had the year before, and the year before, and the year before. I predict we will call Dwight Howard a child based on small personality snapshots, laughing like juveniles as we make up fart jokes about him, then remounting our high horses as gravely we call him immature. I predict we will wonder if Derrick Rose is really “back”, despite the fact that he will be in a uniform, playing basketball with our peers. I predict that there will be no pleasing us in the end, with each NBA event and activity couched in language of lacking; armchair analysts attempting to fix everything through heavy, haughty words, and motivated by the beguiling buzz of a social media notification. No voter will be right. No opinion will go unchallenged. I predict I will roll my eyes deeply, yet jump into the tired fray of antagonism, time and time again.

I cannot predict who will win tonight. I cannot predict who will win tomorrow. I cannot predict who will soar to new heights, finally unshackled, free from the chains of mediocrity, and no longer held to standards that others made for him. I cannot predict who will falter and fail; who will watch their averages drop precipitously, who will fail to see playing time by the time 2015 rolls around. I cannot predict who will prosper in good health, and who will crumple to the floor, clutching acutely damaged appendages, screaming at the top of their lungs. I cannot know what I have not seen yet. I cannot fathom what simply has not occurred yet. All of these are conjectures, stabs in the dark; deeply flawed exercises in understanding and projecting.

I cannot predict what I don’t know about them. All I can predict is what I know about myself. And I can predict that all I wrote about will come true.

(And I can predict the Warriors will win the West.)

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GAMES OF THE WEEK: OCTOBER 26TH-NOVEMBER 2ND

The NBA starts this week. What is going to happen? Only two ways to find out! A. Read play by play game summaries. B. Watch games. You will probably do B.

MONDAY: NO GAMES!

Try to do everything you said you were going to do tonight. I, for one, will be plowing right through “The Mill on the Floss” and growing some delicious heirloom tomatoes.

TUESDAY: MAVERICKS AT SPURS, 8PM EAST, 5PM WEST, TNT

You had a date? CANCEL IT. Boss said you need to stay late? LEAVE EARLY AND LIE ABOUT IT TOMORROW. Were thinking about curling up with a good book? COVER THAT BOOK IN PIG’S BLOOD AND FEED IT TO THE DOG. THE NBA, NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION, IS BACK BACK BACK with this showdown between two titans of MOTION BASKETBALL! Ball Movement! (POW!) Three point shooting! (SWISH!) Fundamental box outs! (BOX!)  And hey, if you’re feeling JUST A LITTLE freaky, you can zero in on Monta Ellis and try to project what he is going to be up to all year.

WEDNESDAY: HAWKS AT RAPTORS 7:30 PM EAST, 4:30 PM WEST, LEAGUE PASS

YOU, IN FIVE MONTHS, IF YOU DON’T WATCH THIS GAME: A SHORT PLAY BY CORBIN SMITH:

Cassie: If you ask me, the most interesting thing in the NBA right now is the race to claim the third, fourth and fifth seeds in the East. Who do you think is going to be destined for mid-conference glory come playoff time?

You: Uhh, I uhh… do you think Kobe will demand a trade? Oh, I am sorry, Cassie. I don’t know anything about the Hawks or the Raptors, because I didn’t watch their games early in the season, and I never felt like I needed to catch up. Now all I can talk about is Lakers gossip, that most vile of NBA topics. I should have done what Corbin said in his weekly column at thediss.com, and watched the Hawks and the Raptors back on October 29th.

Cassie: You’re right, you should have. I am going to go across the party now, and talk to someone else, someone with a balanced and comprehensive set of opinions about the NBA. You disgust me.

 

THURSDAY: KNICKS AT CAVALIERS 8PM EAST, 5PM WEST, TNT

The Cavs Offensive Ultracannon makes its regular season debut in this game against the New York Knicks, the perfect canvas for a young, upstart collective to try and paint their first masterpiece. Anything below 120 will be an outright disappointment. We ought to take to the street in protest if this is the case.

FRIDAY: 76ERS AT BUCKS, 8:30 EAST, 5:30 WEST, LEAGUE PASS

If you’re looking for a spoooooooky NBA game to take in on Friday’s celebration of the almighty power of evil ghosts, look no further than this Buck/76ers matchup. A group of attractive and ambitious young people will take up arms against an abomination of science and capitalism, designed to straddle the blasphemous line betwixt life and death as to supply it’s creator with more fresh, young bodies to absorb into his abomination.

 

SATURDAY: GRIZZLIES AT HORNETS, 7PM EAST, 4PM WEST, LEAGUE PASS

Look at you, you pig. One week of NBA action and you’re passed out on the floor, bloated with points. You need to get to Grizzlies at Hornets, a classic slugfest between two defensive squads seeking enlightenment through the power of post ups and hard shows. Stare into the abyss and try your damnedest to appreciate how good a man can be at covering a pick and roll.

 

SUNDAY: KINGS AT CLIPPERS: 12:30 WEST, 3:30 EAST LEAGUE PASS

The blood feud between Demarcus Cousins and the entire Los Angeles Clippers organization picks up on Sunday, at a time that is ideal for lounging and breakfast foods and other bourgeois activity. The ideal way to watch this game is to make a cook a crepe the size of a blanket on a gigantic hot stone you covered in butter and eat it all before the game ends. Then you slip into a crepe coma and replay the game in your dreams. Wake up and compose a poem about your new vision of the game. Submit it to a literary journal. When it is rejected, burn it in your fireplace while your drink a bottle of hard alcohol. No one understands your genius.

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The Hands of Melancholy

“The greatest madness a man can be guilty of in this life, is to let himself die outright, without being slain by any person whatever, or destroyed by any other weapon than the hands of melancholy.” 
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

***

Full discretion: while I’m not a Lakers fan, like all NBA fans, my relationship with the Lakers is semi-complicated. I hate them as a rival, but am somewhat envious of their success; secretly wishing my team could be so consistently competitive.   I’m old enough to admit this.  Sustained success was never the reason I supported a team, but it was always something to aspire to.  As a fan, all you really want is your team to be in contention, and the Lakers have delivered that to their fans more than any franchise over the last 30 years.

Whether you love or hate them, it’s always better when the Lakers are competitive. Like the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys or Real Madrid, we need that ‘evil empire’  not only to root against, but to draw interest to the sport in general.  Like it or not, the Lakers have the largest fan base globally.  It’s in the best interest of basketball if that fan base is engaged.  Even if you acknowledge many of those fans as fair-weather, they bring interest to basketball and thus indirect interest to your team.  The same way Superman needs Lex Luthor, Batman needs the Joker, we fans of the other 29 teams need the Lakers.  And we need them to be competitive.

The Lakers are currently dealing with an identity crisis.  Their iconic star is near his end, with no replacement in sight. Past history implies that even if the Lakers are struggling in Kobe’s final act, they’ll eventually re-tool.  Eras always end, and legends always eventually decline.  Transition periods happen.  The Lakers have seen down periods before, but always maintained a certain prestige, and that prestige guaranteed that sooner or later, they’d acquire the necessary talent to compete for titles again.

It feels different this time though.  Now that mystique seems to be slipping.  Starting with the passing of Dr. Buss, the catalyst for the entire Laker image, and then the departure of prized free agent, Dwight Howard, the Lakers have appeared vulnerable as the preeminent franchise of the NBA.  And that vulnerability seems to have led the Lakers to desperation; a willingness to do anything they can to recapture the magic of the past.

The Los Angeles Lakers don’t do well with failure.  A franchise, which has only had 3 losing seasons in 38 years, is predictably unclear how to proceed.  And while taking fliers on young players with potential or making a nostalgic coaching hire is one thing, waging an all-out war on specific shot locations is entirely different and somewhat puzzling. But that is precisely what the Lakers have done: they went and hired a coach synonymous with a glory period in an attempt to restore order.  But that wasn’t all.  The Lakers continue with what can only be described as a misplaced romantic pursuit of past glory through stylistic battles.

“If the Lakers never shoot another 3, I’ll be happy,” said Magic Johnson on August 3rd. Magic isn’t a Lakers employee or front office executive.  But Magic’s words do carry weight with many Laker fans.  He is perhaps their greatest player of all time, the catalyst of what is considered the most aesthetically pleasing Lakers’ team of all time.  Magic embodies the Lakers image that has been sold to fans for 3+ decades, not just a commitment to winning, but also a commitment to doing it with a certain style and showmanship.  Something Dr. Buss firmly believed in, and something his son, is desperately trying to recreate.  So when Magic, speaks employed or not, it does resonate among the Laker fans and organization.

Magic’s campaign against 3 pointers, is of course a direct shot at Mike D’Antoni and what he perceives as non-Laker basketball.  D’Antoni is the poster boy of modern basketball, with his emphasis on pick and rolls, 3 pointers, and small-ball attack.  All these things spit in the face of characteristics of classic Laker teams who were large, played inside out, and didn’t rely heavily on outside shooting.  Instead of acknowledging the Lakers heavily depleted roster, so depleted Swaggy P was their best player, the focus switched to blaming D’Antoni for ruining a tried and trued formula for success.  And with every loss, words from respected Laker greats like Magic resonated louder.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that when the Lakers struggled, the blame was shifted to the outsider: ousted head coach Mike D’Antoni.  D’Antoni isn’t from the Pat Riley or Phil Jackson school of winning.  He was never a Laker.  His seemingly prickly personality didn’t help either. He’s a stark contrast from the magnetism and charm Riley and Jackson displayed.  Maybe it’s the large southern California media market or the brand the Lakers have built, but their coach needs a certain image to resonate with the fans.  Phil Jackson and Pat Riley had an unwavering confidence, which manifested in every press conference.  They had a way of instilling self-assuredness, no matter what kind of locker room turmoil or on-court mess was going on.  They had that ability to smile at reporters, act calm in the face of adversity like it was just another day in the office. D’Antoni on the other hand, has never been one to care for the media.  He would often appear irritated with their questions or curt in response.  The only time he focused seemed to focus on defense was in postgame pressers, when the effectiveness of his coaching principles were often called into question.  He was the easiest person to blame for a poor season.

Enter Magic’s former teammate, friend and Laker old timer, Byron Scott.  Scott first spoke of returning to Lakers to their heyday.  But as camp rolled around, he gives us this gem,  “If we shoot between 10 and 15, I think that’s a good mixture of getting to that basket and shooting threes.”  Through 3 preseason games the Lakers have attempted only 8 threes.  That pace would have them attempt significantly fewer 3s than any team in the NBA over the last 10+ years.

In response to a disappointing season, the Lakers have instead decided to pursue past glories, by trying to play a brand of basketball that is semi-antiquated, and certainly doesn’t maximize it’s talent against modern defensive schemes.  And this begs the question: what exactly are the Lakers trying to do?  Their blind romanticization of the past is reaching Don Quixote levels.  Waving an imaginary sword at windmills, to restore order to the way things were.  Waging a war on the modern game, instead of trying to fit into it.  Of course, that’s not to say D’antoni’s approach was correct.  It had its flaws.  But the biggest flaw D’antoni’s Lakers had was a simple lack of talent.  And no hiring of ex-Laker legends or a pursuit of 1980s basketball is going to change that.

As the Lakers enter this season, to some it’s a tragedy, a once proud franchise, setting itself up for failure pursuing a plan doomed for failure.  To others it’s a comedy, for the exact same reasons, a misguided attempt to re-store an era of greatness.  As the Lakers go down their quixotic path, perhaps it’s best to remind them of the words of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: “It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

But until they realize this, please just continue tilting at windmills.  For the rest of NBA fans, whose teams haven’t been as fortunate as the Lakers the last 30 years, this opportunity to lean back and laugh heartily is welcomed.

Sam Esfandiari has written for Warriorsworld and LetsGoWarriors. This is his first submission to The Diss. 

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Hey baby, let’s talk about money

Pro sports have always been tied up in financials, but lately it seems like we’re all being knocked unconscious by the Million Dollar Dream, exhausted from money-talk, and eventually passed out in our living rooms while the pro sports monolith crams a wadded up hundred-dollar bill in our collective mouths, Ted DiBiase style. Just one more bit of proof that money moves all and we are but crispy leaves defenseless against its all mighty gusts.

But what the shit am I talking about? Stories about the NBA have become as much about the inner and outer financial dealings of the league as the on-court stories. Yeah, we still prefer to argue about where Kobe Bryant ranks in the league, but we’d just as quickly talk about how much money Kobe’s making at age 36, how that impacts the Lakers, and what Kobe’s true value is to the franchise. The on-court game is inextricably linked with the business side of the game like those fields of humans stretched out as far as the eye can see in The Matrix, the electricity of their brains and hearts propping up an entire robotic existence desperate for survival. We can’t have one without the other, but a sampling of recent NBA stories is fueled by dollar signs to the point that one almost wonders if we’re here for the basketball or the fiscal soap opera in which all is enveloped.

Earlier this week, the league’s intellectual do-gooder commissioner Adam Silver told the world that the league is still exploring potential European expansion. Of course, this is all dependent on whether or not it makes financial sense for the league. As Silver told Bloomberg News: “The NBA would have to weigh the benefits of increasing the size of the 30-team league against possible costs, such as spreading television revenue among more partners.”

Wrapped up in the same piece was a reference to what seems like the inevitability of a person from China owning a team: “I got plenty of calls over the years from wealthy Chinese people who said ’I’d be interested under certain circumstances.’” Further, just days ago, the league snuggled up a little closer to China when it announced a partnership with China’s Ministry of Education to deliver a stated goal to “provide enhanced basketball training to at least three million students by 2017.” Of course, this a win-win for everyone. The league can indoctrinate young Chinese with the best in basketball tutelage while at the same time planting its basketball-consumerist notions in what appears to be bountiful economic soil. Sure as shit, Yao Ming kicked the door off the hinges of NBA globalization and now the league can’t get enough.

This all follows the league’s recent $24-billion, nine-year TV deal with Turner Sports and ESPN which has created a cavalcade of handwringing and Nostradamus-ing about what happens next which is reflective of the sports/NBA finance analysis industry that’s sprung up in recent years, particularly flourishing in basketball since the 2011 lockout. (For further reading, see Larry Coon, the existence of “capology,” Darren Rovell, Forbes’ creation of SportsMoney, etc.) As part of that gigantic TV deal, the NBA will soon cross the threshold into the previously sanctified world of ads-on-jerseys at which time all of our eyes and faces will likely melt and drip down our skulls like that guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark because we can’t fathom perverting the sanctity of the jersey.

Then there’s 44-minute vs. 48-minute game, the 66-game vs. 82-game season discussions which has gotten all sorts of NBA characters lathered up and offering practical and prideful responses. All-time great and sneaker mogul Michael Jordan predictably challenged the players on the 82-game question saying he would play 82 games regardless – because he’s Michael Jordan of course – but more importantly cut through the nonsense and pointed out what everyone from Beijing to Brooklyn already knows:

But if that’s what they want to do, we as owners and players can evaluate it and talk about it. But we’d make less money as partners. Are they ready to give up money to play fewer games? That’s the question, because you can’t make the same amount of money playing fewer games.

All of the above has happened within the past few weeks. These are radical changes occurring in succession that will likely alter the on-court product that drew so many of us to the game in the first place, so what’s up? Why is this all happening now? The reasons are myriad and far from absolute, but there are a handful of moments that stand out as impossible-to-miss signposts on the NBA’s road paved in gold.

If the 2011 lockout revealed anything to observers, it was that the NBA Players Association was an un-unified clusterfuck. Its then-executive director, Billy Hunter was booted out of the organization soon after and had his activities as director closely reviewed for possible abuses. Hunter even went as far as suing the NBPA and its president, Derek Fisher. Not exactly the most harmonious bunch. The outcome of that 2011 CBA was like seeing early Mike Tyson destroy his overmatched, overpowered, and ineffective opponents. If you’re considering buying an NBA team, the prospect of eventually sitting across the bargaining table from a historically weak union beats the hell out of getting in the ring with an opponent that’s in lockstep agreement on their demands. New NBPA director Michele Williams could change things, but she has plenty of challenges ahead.

A few years ago when the Sacramento Kings were on the selling block, former Seattleite and prospective owner Chris Hansen was willing to throw a-then unheard of $600+ million at the Maloof brothers to buy the franchise and move it up I-5 to Seattle where a privately-funded arena was being conceptualized. Sacramento stepped up to the plate with an ownership group offering significantly less money, but presenting a public-private partnership to finance the arena. When me and you pay for arenas, that’s more money for the NBA and its owners which makes buying a franchise that much more appealing to the handful of billionaires around the world weighing the pros and cons of whether or not to invest in the NBA.

As Sacramento agreed to front some of the dough for a new arena and NBA owners patted themselves on the back for whomping the Players Union in the CBA, long-time Milwaukee Bucks owner and Senator Herb Kohl decided to sell a team that’s had about as much success these past five years as the Seattle Supersonics. When he finally found a couple of New York-based buyers, his Bucks, with the worst record in the league, went for an apparent $550-million – an unheard of amount for a team based in one of the league’s weakest markets with lukewarm future prospects. That Milwaukee went for half-a-billion dollars was revelatory for anyone with a financial stake in the league. That there was already a loosy-goosy public-private partnership on financing a new arena and an option for the league to purchase the team for $575-million if no progress on a new arena has been made by 2017 makes for a low-risk investment. All of a sudden it became clear that the NBA was one hell of a unique and likely profitable place to dump your hundreds of millions.

But the high water mark (to date) happened when billionaire and known honey guzzler Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers for $2-billion this past summer during the Donald Sterling scandal. Earlier in 2014 the franchise had been valued at $575-million by Forbes, but after that sale and over-valuation, Dallas Mavs owner Mark Cuban chimed in that he thought his team’s $765-million valuation by Forbes was too low, that, “I think we’re worth well over a billion.”

Christ this stuff is muddy, but if the Clippers were sold for more than three times their assumed value and the Bucks went for over 30% of their Forbes valuation, then we’re learning a couple things:

  1. Prospective NBA owners and Forbes are in disagreement about the real value of NBA teams.
  2. In the small world of prospective NBA team buyers, there’s a lot of upside to owning a team.

I don’t think this is the piece I set out to write, but rather given the inexhaustible information floating around these interwebs, I tumbled into the rabbit hole of NBA business with dollar signs and arena deals spinning like mini-tornadoes inside my mathematically-challenged mind. What is this business both shaping and being shaped by ten men on a basketball court? How is it that everything that ever brought us to the game is, at the game’s highest level, boiled down to the hardest of the hard core, the mighty dollar? My sentimentality about this entire notion feels like a grave, naïve weakness, but that’s not fair to myself nor do I think it’s true, it’s just something I feel. It’s more complex than that, that players and men and women stumble into this game with genuine intentions and the higher they rise, the more they’re sucked into the conveyor belt of the business of sports. It’s an assembly line that starts out targeting athletes at a young age when they’re still supposedly amateurs. It grabs these kids and their families, they’re used and hustled by runners and college coaches while learning to do the same using and hustling – of course, it’s against the rules for the kids to use the system the way it uses them. And fans are there at the star factory, evolving along with the machine, confusedly feeling their genuine fandoms pulverized by a manipulative force designed to exploit their allegiances for all that sweet money. No matter which view you choose to take, the business is still churning away in an insatiable appetite of greed revealed to us all in the stories and analyses and legalese of contractual language and labor constructs that exist in an alien stratosphere.

This isn’t sour grapes, or lamenting the loss of something, it’s an evolving inevitability. Or as Joe Garcia wrote (H/T to Men in Blazers podcast) after Gibraltar lost 0-7 to the Republic of Ireland, “Let us not feel dejected, let us be realistic.”

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GAMES OF THE WEEK: OCTOBER 20-26

It’s still preseason. I have been toying around with that word, preseason. For instance, I was ordering a whole pizza at my local ‘ria the other day, and I told the young woman where was taking my  money, “Yeah, I can’t wait to get this guy home so I can watch that preson (pre-son) basketball game!” She thought it was pretty cool,  think.

MONDAY: CHICAGO AT CLEVELAND 7 PM East/4 PM West, NBATV

Rose vs. Lebron is what America craves. These teams are going to be fighting it out in the East. Kevin Love, where IS the love? Joakim Noah is the real loving player in the Central Division. Coach Thibs is just out there trying to win, he does what it takes to win, why don’t you want teams to be winning teams? Jimmy Butler is the Lebron stopper, he held King Jamie to 15/8/5 tonight and the Bulls won 98-95. Derrick Rose doesn’t dance, but LeBron does, capitalism prevents me from living a life of joy so I want everyone to be as repressed as I am. The. Eastern. Conference. Finals. On. T. N. T. Or we hope, because Toronto doesn’t capture anyone’s imagination. Who takes the last shot before the Earth burns to a crisp?

TUESDAY: LA CLIPPERS AT GOLDEN STATE 10:30 East/7:30 West, TNT

Do you think it just eats away at Larry Ellison that wasn’t able to buy the Clippers? That guy is rich as hell and he LOVES boats, and the Clippers are, in a way, the most expensive non-military boat you can possibly buy. He would have attended every game in a captain’s uniform. He will watch this game on a boat, all dejected and shit, lounging on a chair recliner, tumbler of finest goat piss, the official drink of the megarich, while Steve Ballmer stands up and yells and shit in a knit polo shirt.

WEDNESDAY: CLEVELAND AT MEMPHIS, 8 PM East/5 PM West, ESPN

Can I be real for a second? I will probably watch the World Series on Wednesday. Here is a chart that tracks the likeliness of my watching something:

I would probably watch regular season basketball, a consistent basketball product, ABOUT as often as I would watch a playoff baseball game, that’s how much more I like watching basketball. But the weird hodgepodge of a preseason game vs. a masterclass in high leverage baseball tension? I am going with that sports-rush every time, even if I prefer the aesthetic experience of. But baseball if just viscerally offensive to you Memphis vs. Cleveland is the prefered finals matchup of the International Council of Recreational Dirtbags (Memphis wins in six and Kyrie gets his arm chopped off).

THURSDAY: DALLAS AT NEW ORLEANS, 8 PM EAST/5 PM WEST

I wish Anthony Davis had been drafted by one of the Texas teams, because I think he would have cut a striking figure in cowboy clothes. Cowboy hat, jeans, spurs, boots. Let the image invade your mind and take happiness and joy from it.

“A mysterious, thin, long limbed stranger, with an unibrow that crossed the desert.” Classic cowboy fiction stuff, straight out of Charles Portis. Watch AD’s eyes during this match up; he will take longing sideways glances at the Dallas bench, knowing it is where his cowboy’s spirit truly belongs.

FRIDAY: BLAZERS at CLIPPERS, 10:30 PM EAST/7:30 PM WEST, NBATV

I am hesitant to recommend any Portland Trail Blazers game. When you watch and write about nearly every game a team plays you begin to resent their very existence and assume that other people would be grated by everything that happens in the same way you are. How can people who don’t have emotional obligations to the Blazers say things like “wow they really move the ball,” when LILLARD KEEPS RUNNING INTO PICKS, CHRIST. But if I try to extract myself from the situation, I can see that this is an enjoyab… OH OLD LONG TWO LAMCRUS, BACK AGAIN TO PUT A DRAG ON THE BLAZERS’ OFFENSE. THRILLING STUFF, A LOST ART, ONLY WORTH TWO POINTS, CHRIST ALMIGHTY WHEN WILL THEY JUST SHUT THE TEAM DOWN.

SATURDAY:

Go play Laser Tag at your local TagHaus instead. Break a good sweat while dominating local youths, teach them who really runs this world.

SUNDAY:

Attend church instead and see if you connect with it at all. It’s good to check every five or so years.

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GAMES OF THE WEEK: OCTOBER 13-19

Hello! My name is Corbin. I am new Jacob. I write Biscutball and some of Portland Roundball Society and now this column.

MONDAY: PHOENIX AT HOUSTON 8:00 PM East/5:00 PM West, NBATV

Last year the Phoenix Suns were akin to the city they live and the mythical bird that city was named for. Rising from the desert of lottery expectations and playing with a beautiful, fiery and powerful spread out style, a spread pick and roll plumage that lit up the Arizona night sky, but burned out when it’s head got eaten by a bear. Did that all hang together? On the other side was Houston, who were contenders-by-talent who got their throats cut by adventurous Trail Blazers in the temple of the first round. This preseason matchup will give us an idea of where the teams are headed this year: is the Suns’ legendary spacing intact? Do reports of Dwight’s return to form seem true? Has James Harden added any cool new flails?

TUESDAY: MEMPHIS AT OKLAHOMA CITY 8:00 PM East/5:00 PM West, An Arena in Oklahoma

The NBA’s second finest rivalry returns*! Watch Kendrick Perkins run into ZBo and glare! See Marc Gasol set a hard screen and raise his hands and give the league’s finest “I would NEVER!” See Kevin Durant sitting on the bench, a the seeds of his growing frustration planted, taking root in his face so they can blossom into a gigantic sighflower over the next ten weeks. WATCH Tony Allen! Just doing whatever! That guy’s the best!

*Clippers/Grizzlies, even if it did take a year off.

WEDNESDAY: FLAMENGO AT ORLANDO 7:00 PM East/4:00 PM West, Fox Sports Florida

This is a yearly preseason exhibition between the Orlando Magic and local high school basketball players dressed up in ornate Flamingo costumes designed and manufactured by the nearby Walt Disney World Workshop. The high school players usually get crushed and need to deal with pictures of themselves dressed as pink, clumsy bird for the rest of their lives, but it’s all in good fun. It’s like my Grandma Judith always said: “If your sons aren’t complaining about you aggressively challenging their heteronormativity, you ain’t raising them right.”

THURSDAY: BOSTON AT PHILADELPHIA 7:00 PM East/4:00 PM West, NBATV

The first of many confrontations between Boston and Philly, who should both be terrible. A season of questions will be answered! “What did Noel do?” “HOW many shots did Avery Bradley take!?” “Did Rondo decide, on arbitrary whim, that he thought the game should go in as a win, and take over by himself?” “Carter-Williams: what’s that guy’s deal?” “Which of these young people has good body language, and how far out can you project that? Can you turn him into a hall of famer because of his head tilt?”

FRIDAY: MILWAUKEE AT MINNESOTA: 8:00 PM East/5:00 PM West, a Theatre in your Mind

I have been calling this matchup “Training Dogfight,” because you have a lot of young, hotshot wings all flying at each other for supremacy. NNNNEEEAAAOOOWWWWIGGINS ROOOOARLEVINE JAFLACI JAFLACI JAFLACI (That’s a Jabari Parker Helicopter) GIAAAAAAAAAHNNNNNNNNNNNNNNIS (A Giannis plane buzzing someone’s house.)

LEAVE THE EARTH AND TAKE TO THE AIR, WITH THIS MIDWESTERN SKYBATTLE!

ALSO WORTH MENTIONING: FLAMENGO AT MEMPHIS

Look, playing against the Magic is one thing. But sending those poor pink suited high schoolers to get mauled by ZBo? That seems like it could be trauma inducing. Someone should put a stop to this.

SATURDAY: MAIMI AT SAN ANTONIO: 8:30 PM East/5:30 PM West

San Antonio’s home opener is the Finals rematch we’ve all been waiting for. All you favorite matchups are back: Wade Vs. Ginobli. Duncan Vs. Bosh. Mario Vs. Parker. And some hot new action, too: What will Budding Superstar Kawahi Leonard do to keep Luol Deng and Danny Granger down on Earth? The low key special matchup here is Boris vs. Mcroberts: a pair of flex forwards, going at it. Who will do the most intangible things that just don’t show up in the box score!?THE NBA IS BACK!

MINNESOTA AT OKLAHOMA CITY, 7:00 PM East, 4:00 PM West, Not Available Anywhere

This game isn’t on TV, anywhere. You can’t watch it. It might not even really exist. What proof do you have? If something happens and no one filmed it, there is a pretty good chance it didn’t happen. Wilt’s 100 Pt. Game? Suspicious. Battle of Agincourt? More like the Battle of Agincouldn’t Have Happened because this is honestly the best visual confirmation? Jesus went to America healed the sick, taught them His gospel, blessed the children, and called twelve disciples to organize His Church in the Americas? Then where are the tapes, huh? We have tape of Brian Wilson getting stuck in a piano, but we don’t have any tape of Jesus Christ, one of the two or three most important people in history, going to America? Fishy fishy, man.

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