Monday, November 16, 2009

Apocalypse NBA: Redux...

At prompting from some of you (and thanks for the feedback and commentary on my Nov 13th Cavs-Heat post), I'll try to delve a little deeper into my issues with the NBA, and with professional sports in general...

Funny that this entire rant was not actually sparked by my attendance at last Thursday's Cavs-Heat game... Rather, I started to mull on this subconsciously weeks ago, after receiving an 11pm text from my Dad.  He asked me what was wrong with Yankee fans given the empty seats behind home plate during a 7th inning rout by the Yanks.  His comment/question was something like, "It's the World Series!  Even if your team is winning big, how can there ever be empty seats behind home plate?"  My reply was something pithy like, " expect people not to try to beat traffic and stay a full game?  When was this ever the norm?  Back when sports actually had a soul?"

That pretty much sums up my thinking on the topic, so if you are pressed for time, stop reading and consider this my conclusion:  Modern sport has no soul.  Really, the only thing worth considering - from my point of view - is the age old question about art:  Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?  In other words, does the lack of "soul" in sport reflect our own failings as people and as fans?  Or is life simply imitating sport in this regard?

I think the easy answer is, "both."  ...Which may actually be the right answer.  

The World Series "empty seats" exemplify what I think is a growing trend in our ability as humans to truly "experience," coupled with the movement of sport toward the economic and the corporate, and away from the "true" community (in "hearts and minds" more than geography) in which it is found.  I think of it like the perfect storm.  People are struggling to connect with anything - each other, sport, nature - just as sport is moving further and further from the "normal" human condition.  I just finished reading an interesting book - more of a lengthy essay, really - called "The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity" by Richard Todd.  The book meanders a bit, and reads "pretentious" at times, but it is beautifully written, and there were extraordinary passages throughout.  In one, the author describes how first-hand experience, one way or another, does not feel as "authentic" as it once did.  There are a variety of reasons for this, and I'm not going to engage them all, but he uses one particularly insightful vignette to shine a light on the idea that modern experience oftentimes feels more like a derivative of the experience itself.  He describes an event - dinner I think - with a group of people that includes a well-known celebrity.  At some point in the evening, he marks the point at which the experience of sharing time with this famous person tipped from the present tense to the future perfect tense.  (Stay with me here.)  What the author is brilliantly saying is that at some point in the night (and surprisingly early on), things shifted from "We are having dinner with X" to "We will have had dinner with X."  Think about this:  at some particular moment (because human beings - through the influence of technology, or our collective ADHD, or the pace of modern life, or even the ennui of modern life, etc. - have become incredibly efficient at discounting present events and projecting ahead) people started thinking of the next day's response to having dinner with this person, or how they would feel about it in hindsight...or how they would blog it...or what they would say...or how they would frame it.  Thus completely discounting the present moment!  Isn't that incredible?  And doesn't it resonate as - sadly - so very true?

So what does this have to do with sports?  Well, I would argue that the exact point at which you get up from your seat behind homeplate is the exact time you tip from "present experience" to the "future perfect" of that experience.  In other words, your present becomes a first derivative of your actual experience, as it no longer means as much to you, and you react accordingly.  You have satisfied the "experience" of going to the World Series, you qualify to comment on it, you are thinking of how to describe it to your friends and co-workers, and you are no longer invested in it enough to actually stay.  So you leave.  I'm sure this phenomenon exists in greater degree in New York, for example, than other cities.  And it goes without saying that the New York Yankees World Series crowd has more "fair weather" celebrity fans than most.  Or, maybe not, because this nicely describes the Miami Heat "LeBron's in town" crowd I saw last week as well.  But I think this phenomenon certainly exists.

Bringing this down from the theoretical and academic to the personal, I must admit it has specifically applied to me.  I sit down to watch Brett Favre's return to Green Bay because I am told it's a "must see" experience...but I am experiencing it so as not to miss it  - to be included - not because I have any vested interest in it.  This is the equivalent of playing "not to lose" versus playing to win.  So what happens?  Naturally, I flip around.  [Aside: I think there is a reason that TNT and TBS keep putting chick flicks on TV on Sunday afternoons, and I don't think it has anything to do with female viewership.  The males are controlling the remotes during this time, so it's not being offered as an alternative.  They are being offered because we actually tune in!  I mean, given the number of commercials during football, I have certainly been known to get caught up in a key moment of Notting Hill or Love, Actually and completely forget the game I was originally watching.]  Truly, where has my interest gone?  This is what I miss in sports - being "vested" in the game.  In 2000 or 2001 (of course, I don't remember), I walked out of Game 5 of the Knicks-Heat series just as Anthony Carter tossed in a shot over the backboard to tie it or win it because I did not want to spend 30 minutes getting out of the Garden and 30 minutes on the Subway stuck in the post-game rush.  (It took me ten minutes to get home).  In short, I assigned a higher risk to "stuck on a subway platform with an annoying mass of humanity" than to the reward of "seeing a great game" and my risk-reward decision-tree has been aligned that way for some time...  

How much of that is my fault, and how much of that falls on the sport itself?  Well, there is certainly something to the "future perfect" phenomenon, and I can accept blame for feeling that way much of the time.  But let's take a look at the NBA for any evidence as to whether or not they have helped push my "fandom" out the proverbial door:

First, the structure of the game is broken.  It revolves around money, and money only.  Well, maybe it always did, but the chain of causality is certainly a contributing factor to the loss of "soul" in the NBA.  At the apex of my vested interest in the NBA, for example, a player had to win before the recognition and reward of salary and endorsements came his way.  Magic, Isiah, and Bird fought for endorsement reward as much as victory on the court.  Causality held that first you win, then you get the payoff, be it a renegotiated contract or a Converse Weapon shoe deal.  In my memory, players killed each other for this recognition and this edge.  Today?  Vince Carter will get over $10M per year whether his team wins 1 game or 82 games.  He has a shoe deal and probably multiple other endorsements.  Thus is winning in his interest?  Hell no... All Vince needs to do is stay injury free and play over ten years.  Period.  Effort and heart are thereby no longer rewarded.  So it's hard to watch coddled, overpaid athletes going through the motions and just moving on to collect their paychecks.  Those that are competitive enough to want to win for the sake of winning, and for the sake of legacy, are truly rare indeed.  (Kobe?)  I think about this when I watch LeBron sometimes.  Don't get me wrong - I like the guy, and any failings he has are a result of this flawed system.  His competitiveness probably fires at 100% for today's game.  It's just that currently the competitiveness threshold is 50% lower than it used to be.  As a fan, I am tired of seeing LeBron barrel down the lane and watching the seas part.  I want to see a true test - I want to see what happens when Rick Mahorn knocks him on his ass for even thinking about driving to the hole... Or Charles Oakley knocks him into the basket suport...because Rick and Oak want to win too - they don't care about posters or getting dunked on or SportsCenter... they want to see how this young kid responds when someone actually "tests him" and gives him a literal gut check.  But those types of NBA moments are long gone, or they are over-dramatic and contrived by the league or the media (Kobe and Shaq Xmas Day game?? Was this sponsored by Us Weekly or In Touch?).  So where have you gone Bill Laimbeer?  Mychal Thompson?  Moses Malone?  Or tough-as-nails guards like Vinnie Johnson..? 

Second, the players' greed to maximize contracts at the cost of any loyalty, coupled with teams' greed in buying players and fielding winners at any cost, have created a toxic brew of illegitimacy.  Think about it:  there are no teams anymore, only logos.  The "die hard" fans are either blind to this, or just ignorant.  I've always hated the use of the word "we" coming from the mouth of a fan (Really...We? Did we lift weighs this morning at 6am together?  Were we up all night watching game film?  Did we spend the night in the ER for x-rays or the afternoon in the ice bath? Did we run sprints to the point of puking during the summer?), but I find it especially hypocritical when fans do it year-after-year as the roster of players turns over and over, and come even - in some cases - from hated rivals.  Johnny Damon hits a homer for the Yanks and "We did it!" yells a fan.  Really?  That's insane.  If I sat next to you at a bar and punched you in the face (i.e. played for the Red Sox, your rivals, you hate me) and then came back to the same bar the next day and shook your hand and wanted $5 from you too (i.e. accepted a contract from the Yanks, your team), would you accept this?  Are you crazy?  What is wrong with these fans?  Is "real life" that bad?  Do you need the distraction that much that you just blindly root for the logo and it wouldn't matter what player wears it?  Doesn't this sound juuuuust a tad phanatical, as in "religious zealot" or "brainwashed sycophant reporting to overbearing tyrant."  Have you ever heard fans trying to explain away "their" club signing a hated rival or an ex-con?  (And yes, both those things happened this season in the NFL.)  It's kind of pathetic.  (If Charles Manson had a nasty breaking ball, someone would sign him, and that same team's PR juggernaut would spin it all away...)  Yes, I agree that free agency reduced the ability of teams to exploit and underpay their players, just as unions reduced the ability of organizations to exploit and underpay their workers, but hasn't the pendulum swung a bit too far toward the extreme position?  Does every team have to outspend every other in search of free agents rather than "homegrowing" and developing internal talent?  I don't mean to keep picking on the Yankees, but I can't name more than 5 guys on that team - they change every year!  How can you be a fan of that?  This is not "your team" did not grow up with these guys and watch them develop.  They are hired guns, every one of them.  And that's a shame.  As a fan, it's hard to connect:  and we've all heard time and time again about new stadiums prices and their corporate box set-ups driving away the "common man" fan.  That kind of corporate behavior has implications.  And as players, it has to be hard to build chemistry.  It just doesn't come that easily...

Third, in the post-Championship world (and by that I mean, we are past the point - in my opinion - of championships actually mattering), SportsCenter highlights dominate, not wins or losses.  Did anyone catch the lead story on SportsCenter the day after the Yanks won?  It was - no joke - "Can New York win 28?"  Wow... how much value can be assigned to #27 when they were already asking about #28?  Embedded in that system, I really don't think today's players care that much about winning and losing, and as a result, I have no vested interest in them nor is my loyalty established.  Yes, they pay lip service to the concept of winning now and again, but it's right out of Crash Davis' favorite cliches list as delivered by Nuke LaLouche.  You think these guys really care?  Let me ask you this - what matters most to D-Wade:  the prospect of a win over the Cavs or that dunk over Varejao?  Ask yourself, what do you remember?  I'm willing to bet 50% of the people who left the arena that night would have to pause before answering the question "who just won that game?"  But they could all tell you about the dunk.  Players know that - they feed off that.  So what matters to D-Wade?  Are you sure he'd trade in that dunk for a "w?"  Doubt it.  I think players - again, probably not their fault, the highlight reel culture feeds it - play for vanity, not for wins.  It's the classic choice of "losing but looking good doing it" over "winning ugly."  Remember the old mantra "Champions are made when no one else is watching..."  In today's world, it should be replaced with "No matter what you do, draw attention to yourself, and make sure people are watching..."

Anyway, I've covered some general thoughts on why I struggle with being a sports fan, and in particular why last Thursday's Cavs-Heat game marked a key shift for me.  Or rather, I have felt that way for some time, but last Thursday crystallized it.  There are other - more personal reasons - why the experience bothered me, however.  As one of my friends pointed out, as an ex-basketball player, one tends to be harder on basketball than other sports.  More critical, for sure.  Just as you'd be harder on family you know and love but easier on a complete stranger.  That's a great point.  Another friend brought up the concept that once sport "peaks" in our hearts and minds, the rest is a complete blur and we just can't muster enough emotion to be as involved.  His grandfather, for example, was always stuck on Jim Brown or Wilt Chamberlain or Ali... For my part, I am stuck on mid-80's basketball...hell, I can even recite the 1985 NBA Draft, in order!  But I can't even tell you who won the NBA championship in 2002 or 2005 or 2007... There's a point after which the information just doesn't process.  And finally, basketball today hammers home a very difficult and personal truth for me.  As an "outsider" now, sitting in the nosebleeds, multiple degrees of separation from the games and its participants, no longer able to at least share a court with a few of these guys and not embarrass myself, I am reminded of the fact that - for the first time in a very long time - I am no longer truly great at anything.  (And don't snicker - I don't mean great versus other ballplayers with similar careers, I mean great versus your average person... Just like a violinist who is not quite good enough for Carnegie Hall but still has devoted 20+ years to it and played professionally for a time and was identified with it for - seemingly - ever is great in that field when compared to a guy like me, for example.)  That's a tough, tough pill to swallow.  That one thing, that uniqueness, that specialized skill that once distinguished me from the crowd and allowed me to hold my head a little bit higher, is no longer... Basketball is a constant reminder of that, and I recognize that is not the game's fault at all.  It's just a natural course of events...age and aging...but difficult nonetheless...

I guess that's why I am even more disappointed over the state of professional sports on the aggregate.  I wish I could just switch from basketball to something else, to ease my sting and to engage my interest.  But it's not there.  And again, I miss it - I miss the ability to enjoy the present moment of a sport, to root for these guys, to really care about the outcome and to appreciate their efforts.  Maybe having kids is the "next thing" or maybe it's a continual search....  In the near term I will probably stay with sports a bit longer just because of the pattern and the routine involved.  There is some comfort in that.  And every now and again there's an uplifting story or an amazing performance that wakes up a dormant emotion and keeps you coming back for more.  The saddest part is that we once tuned in for regular inspiration from our sporting heroes.  Alas, what was once the norm is now only the exception...

Morning Note...

Futures are higher this morning as Japan’s Q3 GDP was better-than-expected, nations at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum pledge to maintain stimulus spending, and the USD is weaker.  Seems like déjà vu all over again as the APEC forum comments suppress the dollar and prop up equities, just as the G20 summit did one week ago… Gold continues to achieve record highs, and mining and commodity stocks are bid up globally.  In economic news, Advance Retail Sales came in better, at +1.4% versus +0.9% expected.  September sales, however, were revised significantly lower, to -2.3% from the -1.5% reading.  As a result, this morning’s better-than-expected number is met with a tepid response.  Further, the Empire Manufacturing reading was worse-than-expected, at 23.51 versus 30.  While readings above zero generally indicate expansion in manufacturing, futures are slightly off their highs following this release.  In corporate news, LOW is slightly lower after reporting in-line.  TKA GY, Germany’s largest steelmaker, is up after announcing the sale of its US scaffolding business.  CSCO announces they will raise their bid for Tandberg ASA, the world’s second largest maker of video-conferencing equipment.  European car sales jumped 11% in October. 

Bernanke speaks at noon today, and his comments will be closely studied for further clarity on the Fed’s promise of “exceptionally low rates for an extended period of time.”   Also, will he mention the dollar, and in what capacity?  Business Inventories are due at 10am today, and the S&P500 technical level of 1100 will be closely monitored as well.  Evidence is mounting to support the claim that many funds are locking in gains and sitting idly into year-end.  Note that last week marked the lightest volume week of the year.  Expect to see more of the same, as funds lock in stellar 2009 performance and take risky bets off the table.  Blue chips, consumer staples, and other defensive plays will probably enjoy increased returns into December, as investors rotate into “safe haven” names. 

AKS added to JPHQ focus list.  AMSC upped at RAJA.  GSCO ups COH.  DELL resumed buy at GSCO.  HIT lower on capital raise.  MSCO ups ITW.  GSCO ups JWN, cuts JCP, TIBX.  CSFB ups S.  JPHQ adds X to focus list.  Barron’s positive on XOM.  YGE upped at Janney, cut at HSBC.  WSJ negative on NILE.  JPM may buy balance of Casenove it does not already own. 

Asia up overnight.  Europe up 1% on average.  Bonds tick higher and yields are this lower.  USD -45bps.  Oil +65bps.  Gold +115bps.

Brightpoint News

Brightpoint PreMarket (yest close/premkt/% change/volume):

S&P 500 PreMarket (last/% change prior close/volume): 
SPRINT NEXTEL CO        3.36      +8.39%             2768270
APOLLO GROUP-A           57.01    +5.85%             13103
LIZ CLAIBORNE               5.40      +4.85%             2250
CA INC                          23.01    +4.12%             200
TITANIUM METALS         9.70      +4.08%             6700
POLO RALPH LAURE        84.06    +3.98%             200
NEW YORK TIMES-A       9.29      +3.80%             100
CITIGROUP INC              4.20      +3.7 %              22590639
MGIC INVT CORP            4.54      +3.65%             200
BRISTOL-MYER SQB       24.00    +3.54%             116529
AK STEEL HLDG              18.00    +3.51%             31131
MASSEY ENERGY CO       37.28    +3.47%             1179
US STEEL CORP             40.83    +3.39%             45625
DEVON ENERGY CO         70.00    +3.26%             13806
COACH INC                    36.63    +3.01%             10503

Today’s Trivia:  The CDC released data that showed there was a higher percentage of US adult smokers in 2008 versus 2007.  So what percent of Americans smoke?

Yesterday's Answer:  It has been estimated that roughly 20M people are affected by “fear of Friday the 13th” (paraskevidekatriaphobia) and as a result, as much at $800M is lost in business on such days…

Best Quotes: “Good Morning - Asia up, the dollar down.  Commodities up, the dollar down.  The S&P up, the dollar down.   I guess no one is afraid that Bernanke is going to say anything today to rally the greenback.  Chairman Bernanke’s take on the economic outlook is expected to be delivered today at 12:15pm.   There is also a heavy slate of economic data to be released this week.   Starting today with Retail sales, Empire Manufacturing and Business Inventories.   Markets still feel like the upside hurts the most people.  I thought the article in the WSJ on Money Market Funds taking on more risk was a compelling signal.   The risk appetite, or greed as one guy puts it, is gaining momentum.”  --BofAMLCO trading

“Leaders of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum said in a statement yesterday the recovery isn’t on a “solid footing” yet and pledged to maintain stimulus measures until there is “durable” growth.”  --BBERG news