What’s It All About, Dave??

By Mark Heisler
Updated: November 21, 2010

LOS ANGELES — Dude, where’s my league? The way I hear it, we have focus groups to thank for Commissioner David Stern’s latest campaign. Not that David is getting a little activist, but I don’t mean his labor campaign, in which he suggests the NBA may contract or go out of business at any moment. This is his “Respect the Game” campaign, slapping technical fouls on players for any protest up to, and possibly including, eye rolls. Not that it isn’t way better without the operatic complaining players used to do. Imagine how much fun it would be if Rasheed Wallace was still playing.

His games would all sell out, just to see how long it took him to get bounced. Unfortunately, with Stern’s distinctive autocratic touch, R-E-S-P-E-C-T has a familiar bonkers overreach. At one game, reportedly, the referees T’d up three players, the P.A.

announcer who cleared his throat, a fan getting up to go for a beer and a partridge in a pear tree who wouldn’t shut up. Well, it could happen. As it is, it dials up technical foul totals for players who may wind up serving suspensions in the playoffs, and affects games, like Miami at New Orleans on Nov. 5. With the Heat having cut a 14-point deficit to 88-85, Chris Paul hit a five-foot runner but was called for charging. Close as the call was, tight as the game was, Paul gave a little fist pump in surprise and anger. Bingo! He got a technical, and Dwyane Wade made the free throw, cutting it to 88-86. Though the Hornets went on to win, one day one of those calls will decide a game. Personally, if games are to be subject to Stern’s whims, I hope it’s Game 7 of the Finals. As Charlotte Coach Larry Brown, a purist’s purist, noted, “Respect for the game goes both ways.” If commentators like Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy slash away boldly, Stern’s name never comes up, even on edgy, freewheeling shows like ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” Of course, ESPN is a broadcast partner — and I’ve heard the NBA deal includes language barring any criticism of Stern. If it doesn’t, then it’s a curious, universal omission. (It’s also true for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose name never comes up in the gnashing of teeth over his more frequent and controversial moves.) If someone has to go out front to explain, Stern isn’t doing it, silver-tongued devil that he is. Nor is his camera-shy deputy, Adam Silver. That leaves it to Stu Jackson, NBA VP for Explaining Our Latest Crackdown. Not that Jackson isn’t ideal, but when they suspended the Suns’ Amare Stoudemire in 2007 for leaving the bench after the Spurs’ Robert Horry knocked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table, Stu said it was “not a matter of fairness but of correctness.” Exactly! Explaining their position all too accurately again, Jackson just told TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott: “The proper mind-set in every player’s mind is abstinence. That is: to not complain. The focus here is to just play the game.” Maybe they can put a chip in the players’ brains! You don’t think the rising tide of regulation — remember the dress code for walking from their cars to the dressing room? — means the NBA has become officious, do you? Actually, it’s more and more like the 256th Army Air Force squadron in “Catch-22,” with the lieutenant, distraught at finishing last in parades, musing about nailing his men to an oak beam to keep them in line. “The plan was not feasible,” wrote author Joseph Heller, “for making 90-degree turns would have been impossible without nickel-alloy swivels inserted in the small of every man’s back.” “Lt. ___ was not sanguine at all about obtaining that many nickel-alloy swivels from Quartermaster.” Since Stern is no slouch at marketing, it shows you can kid a kidder, after all. Focus groups are run by marketing experts. Marketing experts are people you pay to tell you your business. Unfortunately, no one knows how pertinent the groups’ feelings are — which is why they have launched some of capitalism’s greatest fiascos. Remember New Coke? Despite praise in tests for its “smoother, rounder taste,” its 1985 launch, replacing the beverage that conquered the world, prompted a frantic search for old Coke, as if it was Soft Drink Prohibition. “Soon people were hoarding cases of the old stuff,” U.S. News & World Report wrote in a survey of self-imposed disasters. “. . . Savvy black marketeers sold old Coke for $30 a case. “A Hollywood producer, giving an old vintage its proper respect, reportedly rented a wine cellar to hold 100 cases of the old Coke.” Honorable mention in the U.S. News story went to Clairol’s Look of Buttermilk and Touch of Yogurt shampoos — “soundly rejected by consumers who didn’t want food in their hair” — and Amoco’s Ultimate clear gasoline — “marketed with the slogan, ‘Your car knows.’” After a seven-week national outcry, old Coke was reintroduced as ” Coca-Cola Classic.” Hey, they can call it whatever they want. I’ll have “NBA Classic” please, straight, no ice.