Is it narcissism if you're right? A year ago, Kobe Bryant threw a public snit, demanding a trade because his Los Angeles Lakers teammates weren't good enough to share the court with him. It was taken at the time as the latest act of selfishness from the league's most out-of-control prima donna—the man whose bloated ego had once made him unwilling to keep playing (and winning championships) with Shaquille O'Neal.
But the Lakers didn't trade Bryant. Under the pressure of his unhappiness, they made a midseason trade to add high-scoring 7-footer Pau Gasol. Now, in lieu of another first-round playoff exit, the Lakers are playing in the NBA Finals, in a marquee historical re-enactment with the Boston Celtics.
It's not often that a fit of selfishness makes so many other people happy. An early report had the TV ratings for the championship up more than 50 percent compared with last year, when the San Antonio Spurs thumped the Cleveland Cavaliers to national apathy. I watched Game 3 of the finals in a Beijing sports bar, where Chinese fans in Lakers gear broke into a chant of "M-V-P!" as Bryant closed out Boston down the stretch. Based on this year's events, they were aiming a little low. People ought to be touting Kobe for commissioner.
Bryant's trade demand was based on two premises: 1) Kobe Bryant should have been playing on a real championship contender, and 2) the Los Angeles Lakers should not suck. This is exactly what the people who market the NBA—and the people to whom the NBA is marketed—also believe. That makes it, for all practical purposes, true.
Bryant acts entitled because he is entitled. The NBA owes its popularity to having star players play for star franchises. But the current commissioner, David Stern, is unable to admit that such a debt exists.
For 11 months of the year—until it's time to promote a finals between two showcase teams—the league denies that it has any interest in favoring showcase teams. Instead of being on the surface, that favoritism has become the seamy subtext of Stern's long, otherwise successful reign: from the conspiracy theories that the 1985 draft lottery was rigged to send Patrick Ewing to the New York Knicks, to this week's allegations that officials fixed Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals to rescue the Lakers from the Sacramento Kings.
The Gasol trade—in which the Lakers gave up a package of moldy deadwood to get the Memphis Grizzlies' leading scorer—looked like yet another gift to a prestige franchise in need. So, to a lesser extent, did the trade that sent Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Celtics.
What the Timberwolves and Grizzlies have in common is that they didn't exist before the David Stern era. They were part of an aggressive expansion that added teams in new territory: Canada, Florida, the far edges of the Midwest. The trouble is, nobody wants to watch teams from those places. And half the league isn't worth watching.
Expansion was a con. Second- and third- and fourth-rate cities were lured into spending their money and time and attention on NBA teams of their own. But the teams they got are still second-class citizens (or worse). Suppose Kobe had been traded to Memphis or that Boston had sent Paul Pierce to join Garnett in Minnesota. How happy would people have been about a Grizzlies-Timberwolves playoff series?