As befits a pastime that once featured World B. Free, over the last decade pro hoops has become a truly global sport. With its fan base and marketability pretty much tapped out in the United States, the NBA has promoted itself heavily in Asia and Europe, and those efforts have begun to bear some serious fruit on both continents -- particularly in China, where the game is now the country's No. 2 team sport after soccer. Africa and South America are the NBA's next frontiers. To his considerable credit, Commissioner David Stern has embraced Basketball Without Borders, a series of clinics in which emerging teenage players from all over the world train under NBA players and coaches and compete against their peers. To foster friendship and diversity, campers are divided into teams independent of race, religion or nationality. As John Lennon sang, "Imagine there's no countries..."
But while the NBA has evolved into a vibrant, must-see spectacle with worldwide cachet, its All-Star Game has devolved into a plodding exhibition that domestic TV audiences increasingly shun. At the most recent All-Star iteration in Dallas, players sprinted down court, tossing up alley-oops and dunking at will. Defense consisted of three teammates standing in the lane while posting updates to their Twitter accounts. The contest was as tired and predictable as a Harlem Globetrotters show. The only thing missing was the pregame Sweet Georgia Brown routine.
The TV broadcast was down 16 percent in ratings and nine percent in viewership from last year, and tied for the lowest-rated NBA All-Star Game ever. In contrast to the program's 6.9 million viewers, this year's equally moribund NFL Pro Bowl drew an audience of 12.3 million, and last summer's Major League All-Star Game attracted 14.6 million. The entire All-Star concept needs rejuvenation. The event should be a major marketing and PR showcase for the league. Instead, it's a showcase for bad basketball.
Big-league basketball is not like big-league baseball, in which the two leagues historically only faced each other in the World Series and only recently began limited inter-league play. Even MLB took steps to make its All-Star Game more relevant by giving the winning league home-field advantage in the World Series. I suggest that the NBA capitalize on the sport's universal appeal by modeling the All-Star Game on golf's Ryder and Presidents Cups, and turning it into a showdown between the finest homegrown and foreign players. Like the Ryder Cup, the game could be held alternately in the U.S. and in countries represented by the International Team.
OK, so that's sort of what the Olympics are about. But right now we only get to see our best team every four years, and in a series of mostly one-sided affairs against nations with nowhere near our level of talent. By embracing the nature of the beast, Europeans competing in the Ryder Cup have continually punched above their weight even without the great champions of the 1980s, '90s and 2000s.
No doubt some of you will call this proposal unfair. After all, of the NBA's 360 or so active players, less than 25 percent come from abroad. The talent is there: imagine a starting five of Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, and Tony Parker. And imagine a bench drawn from Al Horford, Yao Ming, Manu Ginóbili, Andrés Nocioni, Luis Scola, Andrew Bogut, Nenê Hilário, Leandro Barbosa, Anderson Varejão, Boris Diaw, Andrea Bargnani, Žydrūnas Ilgauskas and Hedo Türkoğlu. Sure, some deserving players wouldn't make the U.S. squad, but rosters could be expanded from 12 to 15. If this system were implemented five seasons ago, on average only three U.S.-born All-Stars would have been lopped off the teams. Not much of a sacrifice.
Here's how I'd change the rest of All-Star weekend:
I'm a fan of the three-point contest, but the rest of the events are about as scintillating as a New Jersey Nets 2009-'10 highlight reel. Forget the Skills Challenge, the Shooting Stars competition, the H-O-R-S-E shootout and the Celebrity Game. (I have -- after several months in a Viennese sleep disorder clinic).
The Slam Dunk Contest is only engaging if the marquee names participate. As much as I like Nate Robinson, is it really in the league's best interests that he be the centerpiece of its Saturday night telecast?
I'd love to see a One-On-One Tournament. Eight participants could be selected from pools chosen by players and fans. The winning player could be the first to 10 points, with each match-up limited to 10 minutes.
To induce the more reluctant premier players to compete in these two events, the league could contribute $1 million to a charity in the city of the winner's home team. Such a significant donation would put public pressure on stars to get involved. By allowing players to pick a local charity, the NBA would be giving them an ownership stake in an event's success. That component, I believe, would help ensure player participation. Of equal importance is putting a public face on these good works, perhaps by bringing people to All-Star events who would actually benefit from the NBA's philanthropy.
Using the Ryder Cup format, I'd open up the Rookie Challenge to all players who were 24-and-under at start of season. This year the U.S. team might have included Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Brook Lopez and Brandon Jennings. On the international side, the team could have featured Danilo Gallinari, Omri Casspi, Yi Jianlian, Al Horford and Marc Gasol. And why not expand the roster to accomodate former draft picks, Euroleague stars and NBA prospects currently playing overseas. Fans would get to see such outstanding -- and heretofore mysterious -- talents as Ricky Rubio, Víctor Claver and Tiago Splitter, as well Donatas Motiejūnas and Jan Veselý.
Imagine all the people sharing all the world.