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Prister: NBA needs LeBron to save failing image (Oct. 7)

Eric Prister | Friday, October 7, 2011

The NBA does not come anywhere close to matching the popularity and the fandom of the NFL.

It cannot compete with the mystique or the traditions of the MLB.

But one thing the NBA and the sport of basketball in general have is excitement — excitement that will likely be missing this season.

The saddest part of the NBA lockout, which looks like it will cancel the entire 2011-12 season, is that the NBA was just finally bringing the excitement back. Not since Michael Jordan retired after the 1997-98 season had so many people cared about and watched the NBA.

The quality of basketball was starting to improve again. Defense played an important role in games, and not just playoff games. But one factor caused the increased interest in the NBA more than any other — LeBron James.

Quite possibly the most polarizing figure in sports today, James’ decision to leave Cleveland and join up with his partner in crime Dwyane Wade in Miami caused one of the one of the most outrageous and longest-lasting uproars in recent sports memory.

But love him or hate him, James causes people to watch games and to care about the NBA again.

Fans from far and wide came out of the woodwork when the team they only marginally supported before played against the Heat. It gave them a reason to cheer against this supposed menace to society and for all that is good in the world.

Even Bulls fans, who had not watched an entire NBA game since Jordan hung up his jersey, hopped back on the bandwagon when Chicago faced Miami in the Eastern Conference finals.

And one cannot forget the hero worship draped on Dirk Nowitzki when the Mavericks were given the task of knocking off everybody’s new favorite evil empire. Nowitzki became everyone’s favorite player overnight, simply because he was the only person who could keep the evil Heat from winning a championship.

James is so universally hated because he is so good at providing what the NBA thrives on — excitement. He is bigger, faster and stronger than most of the players he faces on a nightly basis, and is the most complete combination of all three in the history of basketball. No player is more exciting to watch, and in the case of the NBA Finals, to watch fail.

Many have claimed that James’ arrogance and greed are signs of all that is wrong in sports. This could not be further from the truth. His greed is blown out of proportion, and his arrogance is what makes him so polarizing — so easy to love for some and so easy to hate for most.

The true sign of all that is wrong in sports is that the NBA, which had its most successful season in more than a decade in terms of excitement and popularity, will not hold any games this season. Just when the NBA was finally starting to become truly relevant again, it hit a wall and might never recover.

Stop cursing players like James. Without them, the NBA has no chance of ever bouncing back.

Contact Eric Prister at eprister@nd.edu The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.