Since the 1980s, the NBA has gone from infamy and championship game tape delays to a global powerhouse. Through the efforts of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and a cast of thousands, the league is in position to continue expanding their empire and grow the game even further. In "Elevated: The Global Rise of the NBA," Harvey Araton documents the growth of the NBA through the lens of the New York Times across the years.
Laying the foundation
The book begins with the story of Daniel Biasone. Biasone is a name that doesn't ring out, but his idea is one that had an immediate, permanent effect on basketball. You can learn more about Biasone and the importance of the shot clock to 1950s basketball in this article by Seerat Sohi.
From there, we see how the advent of free agency was viewed by tema executives, which included Red Auerbach writing a whiny op-ed complaining that free agency would decrease the amount of motivation, desire, and discipline in players. Araton draws a line from the early days of free agency to “The Decision,” Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City, and wraps up with LeBron James joining the Lakers. When you consider just how much the NBA and media apparatus around it invests in free agency, going back to the initial doubts about it as a concept helps put things in perspective.
The next generation
The book heads into the 1990s and deals with the fallout from the retirements of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan (the first one) in a span of two years. Here we spend some time with Shaquille O'Neal. Now, before you continue reading, I want you to watch this commercial with Shaq's stepdad, Sargeant Phillip Harrison.
Seems harmless and in good fun, right? Apparently not in 1994!
What’s wrong with these pictures and lyrics? O'Neal’s commercial persona represents an insidious glorification of needless destruction. It is the exponential advancement of showboating and trash talking, all for effect. With youth violence a national scourge, here we have basketball’s most visible star telling kids the coolest thing they can do on a basketball court is disable it.
One thing I noticed is that Araton was not a fan of how 90s basketball was played and presented at the time. In his articles from 1993 and 1994, he bemoaned the commercialism set forth by Nike & Michael Jordan as it made the individual star the center of the universe while minimizing the role teammates played in their success. Araton revisits that topic in 2006 when he discusses the "Synthetic Jordan Era" and the (relative) failures of stars like Alonzo Mourning, Stephon Marbury, and Tracy McGrady to have team success when they decided they couldn't share the spotlight with a co-star. Araton sums up that era as such:
"Players who earned what has come to be known as max money under the salary cap became more warlord than leader in the post-Jordan years. Skewed were the standards of stardom. The concept of multiple great players or even two sharing the ball and the attention, coexisting in pursuit of a common cause, was largely lost on the new breed."
It's interesting to read that in 2019 as we've become OK with stars sharing the load and working together to reach their goals. As a basketball media and fandom, we still haven't completely divorced ourselves from the idea of superstars running their own shows and the reaction to what Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving do this summer will go a long way in testing this out.
If there's one thing I wish the book had was a section on the Big 3 Celtics upon their creation in the summer of 2007. Their move was such a paradigm shift and it would've been interesting to see how the Times covered it at the time. It would've been a better use of time and a hell of a lot more interesting than reading a lousy Maureen Dowd article on LeBron and the Big 3 Heat.
The book highlights the evolution of on court play from the 1990s. We go from: the low scoring wars of Knicks vs Heat to the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns to the three point boom and now the do everything "unicorn" big men of today.
Race and place
Throughout the book, Araton highlights how race has influenced how the NBA is analyzed, governed, and viewed. It comes up in obvious ways such as the dress code, NBA Draft age limit, how players like Allen Iverson were viewed by the public, and the relationships players had with the occupants o For fans like myself who aren't intimately familiar with the 1970s NBA, all you sort of know is that the league was in a dark time and that they had a drug issue that threatened the fabric of the sport. At the time, the Los Angeles Times reported that 40 to 75 percent of the league’s players were using cocaine. Araton highlights a quote from then deputy commissioner Simon Gourdine that showed why the coverage of the NBA at the time left a lot to be desired:
“Seventy-five percent happens to be the proportion of blacks in the N.B.A. If someone chose to, they could have concluded that 100 percent of the black players were involved with drugs. Any time there are social problems like drugs and alcohol, the perception is that it’s black players involved.”
The book spends some time discussing the changing demographics of the league, an issue that is still a cause for discussion today. We get to read a great article from Ira Berkow in 1987 that puts the controversy in context and the stereotypes black and white athletes have to put up with.
I felt the articles selected did a good job of fully exploring how race has impacted the NBA. The articles are in depth, wide ranging and add a lot to our current discussions. Araton highlights the league's response to the Donald Sterling controversy in 2014, its own hypocrisy in leaving Detroit for Auburn Hills, athlete activism then and now, etc.
Is it worth a pickup?
At 41 chapters 480 pages, the book appears to be a daunting read. However, don't let the page count deter you from reading it. The chapters fly by and once you finish reading, you'll wish that the book was even longer. This book is perfect for any basketball fan.
Postscript: Dynasties aren't forever
As I was reading the book and writing this review, the NBA Finals were taking place. Despite their best efforts, the Golden State Warriors couldn't overcome their injuries and fell to the Toronto Raptors in six games. Since Durant moved to Oakland, we've been talking about how the regular season doesn't matter anymore, etc. It's gotten to the point where...
Players actually acknowledged that the emphasis was on getting their bodies and minds right for the playoffs.
When the marquee team can take nights off and win, what's to stop more teams from coasting and still finding a way into the playoffs? The competition is just not as keen as it was when it was important for Michael Jordan's Bulls to win 72 games in 1996.
That actually wasn't about these Warriors. That was from a Mike Wise article in 2002 following the Lakers' third straight championship. As it so happenes, that was the last championship Shaq and Kobe win together as injuries and their power struggle caused them to break up two years later.
Throughout NBA history, there have been concerns about dynasties being too powerful and ruining the competitive balance of the game. However, that doesn't take into account that the league always catches up and dynasties fade away every time. Nothing lasts forever and as fans, you should always take heed that your team will find its way one day.