"There are a few things in the game of basketball today that can be said without debate. This is one: The deepening battle to become the 'sole influence' over the best twelve year-old is bad for the game" (Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger of Sole Influence: Basketball Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America's Youth). This pretty much sums up the most in your face and detailed account of the money games played in the NBA today. It paints a different picture than the smiles and hugs you see on NBA draft night. Before the book you may have thought, 'Look at those kids up there celebrating with their families and wearing a cap from the team who just signed them. Dreams are really coming true for these young men'. According to Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger who wrote Sole Influence, the National Basketball Association is a nasty place where money is concerned and you may just get eaten alive if you are not careful. And after getting through all 288 pages, you begin to believe it.
The Marriage of Michael Jordan and Nike
This is what the book claims really started the whole 'sole influence' war. Big time corporations looking to find the next MJ would go to great lengths to achieve this. And what kills me is, this actually starts at 12 years old now. So in order to even be considered for corporate sponsorship, now you need to have a reputation for excellence in grade school? Does this mean we have to be working our kids in preschool to get them up to an exceptional level by the time they are just hitting puberty? Amazing, isn't it? Think about how it all started. In the early 1920s to 1970s, Converse was the sole influence on players like Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. It began at the college level, where a company would go in to a Head Coach and say something like 'Hey. Here are some shoes for your kids and here's some money for you if you preach from our Bible'. Most coaches would welcome the give aways and subsequent stipend since it would make them look good in the eyes of the school administration since they didn't have to budget for the shoes now and they get some monetary credit for the development of that player. Remember when Tracy McGrady was drafted by the Toronto Raptors in 1997? He was fresh out of Mt. Zion Christian Academy and penned a 6 year, 12 million dollar deal with Adidas that included 6 figure payouts to his high school coach and the scout who discovered him. You and I deal with people everyday that you have to put on a happy face for and figure out who's in and who's out. But can you imagine playing under that pressure cloud? Unreal.
No doubt about it - Michael Jordan has been one of the biggest stories in the history of sports marketing. But what is really sad is, the whole 'be like Mike' campaign paints the wrong picture and the book really explains why. The book offers the comparison of Steve Kerr. Authors Wetzel and Yaegar feel it's more realistic to get kids to aspire to be like a Steve Kerr since he works hard at being good. This is not to say that MJ didn't work hard in his playing days but he was also an extraordinary talent and that got him ahead. I think the funniest thing about his whole story is Michael Jordan was quoted as saying, "I've never worn Nike. I'll probably sign with Adidas". Never say Never.
The Nike School of Basketball
This storyline is what struck me most about Sole Influence. The idea that 12 year-olds are being courted by big name corporations to wear their product is creepy but I get it. But the fact that athletes are now turning down colleges because they are an "Adidas school" or "Nike school" absolutely floored me. I remember covering the Reebok Invitational (DNB James will remember this) a while back thinking, 'How cool is this that a company will sponsor a high school basketball tournament, hand out some swag and prizes and give these young athletes a chance to develop their talents'? I would like to believe it was out of the kindness of their corporate hearts but after reading this book I realized they may have had other motivations. Nike does these kind of camps and tournaments, too. The book claims they set up shop (a sponsored tournament or basketball camp) to scope out potential players they can sway to be 'solely influenced' by their respective company. Then when a fraction of these kids actually make it to the NBA, the conundrum starts - does the athlete work for the team that signed them or the company that sponsors them? And I love how the book refers to March Madness as a "multi-million dollar TV orgy and better than any fashion runway in Paris".
The most positive thing coming out of the book was in chapter 9 when an argument was made in favour of the WNBA. Authors Wetzel and Yaeger say the WNBA has a sense of purity with less trash talking, violence or insubordination. Speaking from experience, I don't think this makes any female athlete less aggressive or tough as a player, they are just smart enough not to do anything stupid in front of a referee - most of the time. I have never heard anything in the NBA like the story I read in this book about Chamique Holdsclaw. She was photographed wearing Nikes when Adidas was trying to win her over. She claimed the Nikes were more comfortable, so Adidas flew down a team of designers to find out how they can improve the product and better serve Tennessee (the college basketball team she was playing for at the time). After improving the shoe, Chamique later switched to Adidas. Now that's customer service.
Flick Pick of the week
So if you haven't read Sole Influence yet, I hope today's discussion compels you to. This week's flick pick choice is in the same flavour as greed and corruption: He Got Game. If you haven't watched it already, it is a must see most definitely. It is written and directed by Spike Lee. It stars Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttelsworth, a prison inmate released for a week by the state governor to get his son Jesus Shuttlesworth (played by Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics - at the time the movie was made, he was with the Bucks) to play for the governor's Alma mater. All in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. Something you might find interesting about this movie is Kobe Bryant was considered for Jesus Shuttlesworth but was not available at the time. Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson were passed over. Even Rick Fox, Travis Best and Walter McCarty tried out for the Jesus spot but ended up with supporting roles. Spike Lee approached Ray Allen after a Bucks-Knicks game to be in the movie and the rest is history. As a basketball fan, you will not be complete without this movie.
Next week we will be discussing the book: Shooting Stars by Lebron James and Buzz Bissinger. It's a nice read after reading about today's heavy subject but some parts made me shake my head. I'll tell you why next Thursday, along with another flick pick - one of my all-time favourite movies. Happy reading and see you on Tuesday for another serving of "Jiggly Bits".