On the day the Boston Celtics' guard Tony Allen rejoined the team after spending two nights in prison for aggravated battery as well as involvement in a fight in which one man was shot, the hottest topic of discussion around the NBA was - gulp - commissioner David Stern's new dress code, and it really made me wonder: Would players who have been charged with crimes rather wear an orange (jump) suit or a black (Armani) one? Along with that, would Stern have even felt the need to issue a dress code if he was willing to take drastic measures to promote a positive image for his league such as, oh, I don't know, suspending players when they get, ya know, "arrested"?
So that's where we stand right now, and we haven't even gotten into the race question yet, which is quickly becoming the No. 1 angle on this story. Many NBA stars, including the Pacers' Stephen Jackson, have publicly come down on the league for what they view as a racially motivated initiative, one that specifically targets jewelry and throwback uniforms.
Certainly there is merit to this argument. Chains and throwbacks are part of the hip-hop culture, a culture synonymous with black America. And even though hip-hop is only a portion of black culture, it is the most visible one, and also the one with the most negative image. David Stern probably wouldn't flip if his players were showing up to arenas in dashikis.
So what does he have a problem with? And, more importantly, where does the NBA's so-called image problem stem from?
Well, the first answer is money, and like Biggie once said, "The more money you make, the more problems you get." You take a high school kid who is dominant without being disciplined, you tell him every day that he's the greatest baller ever born, and then you give him mad loot and an NBA jersey ... but guess what? He's still an undisciplined kid. Being professional doesn't just mean getting paid. It means conducting yourself in a professional manner. A dominant high schooler doesn't need to work hard to drop 20 and 10, because the talent gap between him and everybody else is enormous. But that kid gets to the League, and it's a different story.
There have been 18-year-olds who have come in and played at a consistent level as rookies - LeBron, KG and Dwight Howard stand out - but these guys weren't just freakish athletes. They were professionals driven to succeed, and willing to work hard to do so. The next level of high school rooks - Kobe, Jermaine, T-Mac, Rashard Lewis - were guys who had growing pains before becoming All-Stars. But there are countless others who failed because they couldn't be professional.
And why not? Part of it is their fault, but part is just the nature of hoops. You don't have to be a man to make the NBA. Not like football, where a skinny, cocky punk will get waxed in practice by veterans who can't wait to blast him. To even get a glimpse of the NFL, to last one day in training camp, you have to be a man. Want proof? Take a look at how Maurice Claurett's pro career has turned out. If he were a basketball player, he'd be sucking up space and money on an NBA roster right now.
Another big problem is that basketball is not a humbling sport. In baseball, even the greatest players fail seven out of 10 times. And if you don't produce, you don't just sit in the dugout collecting a check and bragging to your friends that you've made it. You get sent down to the minors. This is a huge problem with today's NBA: It desperately needs a legit farm system. Not a developmental league, and not college. A farm system.
But perhaps the biggest problem in today's NBA is that the star system cultivated by Stern in the '80s and '90s has turned against him. The superstars of that era were all incredibly talented basketball players, but they were also all team players, guys who were, above all, committed to winning. Magic, Larry, Michael, Isiah, Scottie, Charles, Malone, Stockton, Ewing, Robinson, Hakeem ... these guys were all dedicated to their teams, and were all locks for the Hall of Fame upon their retirements. The only guys playing now who are, in my mind, locks for the Hall are also team guys: Shaq, Iverson and Duncan.
When you get guys who are only dedicated to themselves, who feel like they've Made It just because they made it, who are given huge sums of money based on potential, who aren't forced to be professionals from Day One, of course some of them are going to act like knuckleheads. Their priorities are out of place. And when David Stern turns his attention away from criminal records and focuses on clothing, his priorities are pretty far gone, too.
Which brings us back to Tony Allen, who dropped the quote of the century after being released from prison. When asked about his situation, Allen announced that he would "let God and my lawyer take care of everything."
I wonder which one he called first?
Jack Silverstein is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis.