Last Saturday, NBA fans witnessed one of the most entertaining slam dunk contests in years. Sure, we saw props, and even little kids. But we also saw the first dunk with multiple basketballs on multiple rims, the first dunk from behind the free throw line, and arguably the most physically difficult dunk the contest has ever seen.
And that was the first round.
The problem is, two of those three dunkers did not make it through to the finals, while the favorite to win the contest, Blake Griffin, did. I think I should provide the disclaimer that I love Blake Griffin as a player and a person, and think he is doing amazing things for the Clippers franchise. This is one of the most humble athletes to come through the NBA in a couple of generations, and his humility is only matched by the unbelievably opponent-embarrassing dunks he throws down during live competition. In this case, however, he did not deserve to make it through to the finals.
When I was thirteen, my stepfather and I had a knock-down, drag-out, fist-fight because he insisted that the NBA was fixed. Okay, no punches were thrown, but he did explain to me how it would make good business sense for the NBA to fix the playoffs to extend series with teams in large market cities. It made sense, but I didn’t believe it could actually be true. That was until Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings. Google “The Lost Champions” if you want all the details, but the bottom line is, that was the first time I felt an overpowering sense of WWE while watching legitimate professional sports.
Cut back to this year’s slam dunk contest, and it all made sense to sports marketers why Griffin got through – the moment a Kia Optima rolled out onto the court for his featured dunk. The product placement would not have been possible if Griffin did not make it to the finals to execute the planned and contracted dunk. This was completely validated to me when I saw a commercial featuring the dunk during Friday’s Magic / Thunder telecast – “That was no ordinary dunk; this is no ordinary sedan.”
My question is, has the corporate side of sports business officially taken over the original model of generating revenue from the fans’ love of the genuine purity of sports? Are we, as fans, okay with conceding some of that purity for entertainment value? I personally want to see the world’s best athlete’s intrinsically competing as hard as they can, regardless of the situation – whether preseason, playoffs, or skills competition. My fear is that if the NBA is willing to fix a dunk contest, they are willing to go further, and probably already have.