Game 7 of the 2011 Finals – Dirk Nowitzki receives a pass on the wing, guarded by LeBron James in the last minute of a tightly fought series. Two games have gone to overtime. None of the victories have been by more than three points. James’ ascension as the pre-eminent international star hinges on the next eight seconds. While Nowitzki’s play in the post-season has elevated him to the top echelon of current athletes in the NBA, doubts persist about his ability to deliver a championship under this kind of pressure. He fakes right and dribbles twice hard to his left to the elbow of the lane and elevates for a high-arcing shot over James’ outstretched arm. The ball floats forever, and the fate of the NBA rests on its descent.
In 2006, the Dallas Mavericks lost an embarrassing Finals series to the Miami Heat, led by Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, because they gave up a late lead in Game 3 and proceeded to lose the next three games. It was a final bow for O’Neal, demonstrating that he could win a title without Kobe Bryant. For Wade, it was an emergence on the national and international stage that held tremendous promise for future performance. Over the next five years, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics took center stage in the league as O’Neal’s star faded and Wade became more famous for his cell phone commercials alongside Charles Barkley.
In this time, the NBA struggled to continue its development as a sports franchise in the American marketplace, despite the struggles of Major League Baseball. Bryant, Wade, Dwight Howard, and James were unable to break through the scandals of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and other alleged steroid users to capture the imaginations of the American public the way Michael Jordan had. The NBA could not escape the reality that it was a predominantly African American league reliant on a majority white American consumer base. In markets like Utah, Indiana, and Memphis (not to mention Oakland, Houston, and San Antonio) racial and ethnic considerations shaped the rosters and marketing of the NBA franchises over the last decade in ways that were unimaginable between 1980 and 2000. The problem was not the failure of athletes to reproduce Michael Jordan’s skills, performance, or image. It was the absence of a Larry Bird figure to challenge any of them.
Nowitzki held the promise of a great white basketball player when he arrived in the 2006 Finals. Yet as a German player, he did not spark the interest of white Americans to even the same degree that his former teammate from Canada, Steve Nash, did. (See Nash’s two MVP awards over a more deserving O’Neal for evidence of Nash’s popularity.) Because Nowitzki lost in 2006, then suffered a humiliating first-round exit against Golden State in a later playoff series, he could not become the inheritor of Larry Bird’s legacy that would motivate passionate interest among the white men, ages 35-65, who powered the global marketing force of the National Football League. The opportunity presents itself again now in 2011 after the Dallas Mavericks’ victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Miami Heat hold a 3-1 lead against the Chicago Bulls – the Bulls can still make a comeback. However, their comeback would not serve to revitalize the NBA, especially going into a year with a possible lockout. Should James and the Heat go back to the Finals this year to meet Nowitzki and the Mavericks, the ascension of James as the league’s leading superstar and best player would only reinforce the marketing trends against broader white (and corporate) interests in the NBA. Compare the advertisers for the NFL, MLB, and NBA sometime. Just watch how different the products and actors are in the various commercial breaks. You will notice subtle but important gradations about the markets the different leagues serve. If Nowitzki overcame James, especially in a series of emotionally draining, well-played games, a new version of the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry of the 1980s would be born. It was that era that created the possibility of Jordan’s global appeal. If the NBA hopes to create a global sensation that will extend its reach for new generations of fans in the twenty-first century, Nowitzki must defeat James in this year’s Finals. Dirk may be the last chance to save the NBA.