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What World Cup? We've Got the NBA

The phone rang at 4:07 a.m. It was some dingbat I knew from Europe. "Why aren't you watching the match?" he whined. 

"What match? I'm tired. Why are you calling me?" 

"The World Cup match! Brazil vs. Turkey!" 

"I don't care about your girly football," I said. "I still can't sleep. That gut-wrenching overtime Lakers-Kings game ruined my nerves." 

Then I hung up. People are stupid. 

Before I got the DSL, the telephone never rang, because the computer needed the line for constant Internet access. No longer. Now the phone is like a car alarm in the ghetto — relentless, unstoppable, full of hate. I would just unplug the thing and throw it away, but safety experts say the telephone is crucial in emergency situations. 

New Jersey comes to Staples Center tomorrow night. Even though Los Angeles is favored 9-1, those Nets are something else. A whole division's worth of multi-million-dollar talent is weeping in bed this week because they underestimated Jason Kidd and an unproven new coach

After all, the Nets sucked...except for a few ABA years with Dr. J. 

That team's sad NBA history would make Jabba the Hutt cry. Why — and how? — could New Jersey's fortunes suddenly change after 20 years of heartbreaking failure? Some of the more astute basketball watchers, like my colleague Eric Neel, knew Kidd was special way back in the Golden Bears' days at Cal Berkeley. And anybody who watched Nets' coach Byron Scott play in the Showtime-era Lakers should've expected big things. 

So now the team that never mattered is four games away from the championship. And the Showtime II defenders, battered by a seven-game death match against the Sacramento Kings, are supposed to do away with these scary young Nets. Nobody in Los Angeles can relax. We've been through two consecutive nail-biter series, and we are "cautiously optimistic," as the politicians say. 

Add to all this some soccer freak screaming about the "Brazil vs. Turkey" match, and you've got the makings of an unpleasant mood. 

Just like every World Cup frenzy since the 1980s, the soccer/"football" partisans are abusing Americans for not caring enough about the sport. "It's the global sport," they say, annoyingly. "It's in your best interest to become a fan." 

Has anyone ever become a fan of anything because it was in their best interest? What I see in the soccer boosters is the same sort of thing I see in people who tell me to watch some foreign-language teen porn over the new "Star Wars" movie. Improve yourself by faking enthusiasm for a U.N.-approved diversion. Hooray for the global village. 

And despite the claims that soccer is on the way to becoming the U.S. spectator sport, the American soccer industry isn't doing so well. The men and women's leagues have lost more than $300 million. Yeah, it's popular among the school kids who actually play, but two of the dozen U.S. pro teams just went out of business. A single investor has a stake in most of the remaining 10 teams. And immigrants tend to support their national clubs in Latin America, Europe and Asia — not the struggling U.S. teams. 

Besides, I get a little ticked off being told to appreciate "football" by the rest of the world while everything from America is roundly denounced as U.S. cultural imperialism. 

There is something scary and nationalistic about World Cup soccer. Some laughed at Japan's fear of soccer hooligans, but those people never got caught in a citywide soccer riot. I have never seen such rabid, drooling nationalism. Even Scandinavians turn into monsters after a match. If their team loses, expect the hooligans to drunkenly attack the host city and anybody weak or stupid enough to be on the streets. If the team wins...same thing. 

Three years ago, the Lakers won their first championship in a decade. Ticketless fans gathered outside Staples Center to watch on a JumboTron. Combine a bunch of rowdy poor kids and too much booze and not enough cops to keep things calm, and you get a little riot. The craziness was pretty much limited to the parking lot outside, but the news coverage made it Rodney King all over again. 

A little flare-up like that would barely make the papers after a European soccer final. 

The curious thing is that U.S. basketball is quickly becoming an international sport — right here in the United States. As the talented Mike Wise pointed out in the New York Times last week: 

In 1983, eight international players were listed on opening-night NBA rosters. This season, 52 international players from 31 countries played in the NBA. The recent conference semifinal series between the Dallas Mavericks and the Kings featured eight foreign players. 

Vlade Divac — the Kings' center from Serbia who changed the whole idea of the position by shooting like a point guard — now has two Balkan buddies on his team. Those three, along with Chris Webber and Mike Bibby, got Sacramento just six points shy of the championship series. 

International teams, especially in Europe, now serve as NBA feeders as important as U.S. high schools and colleges. Divac's agent Marc Fleisher said, "In the next five years, I would not be shocked if 50 percent of the league were non-American." 

And that's the beauty of pro basketball. Vlade and Peja and Hedo are Sacramento's most beloved citizens. America is all about a bunch of mutts from around the world, to misquote Bill Murray in "Stripes." A great NBA team is a regular United Nations session, minus the incompetence. 

Soccer is an old-school sport based on nationality and nationalism. It may thrive here as an activity, but it will be a long time before Americans care too much about the rivalry between Turkey and Brazil. We're more interested in the Turks and Brazilians playing basketball for our teams. 

There's also the Evil Culturally-Oppressive Hollywood Factor: U.S. movies are loved around the world. This year, three basketball flicks hit theaters and television. Soccer movies? Not coming to a screen near you.

Ken Layne types from a shack behind his Los Angeles home. The author of trashy thrillers such as Dot.Con and the upcoming Space Critters, he has written and edited for a variety of news outfits including Information Week, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, UPI and Mother Jones. Since the Enron-like collapse of his Web paper, Tabloid.net, in 1999, he has been posting commentary to KenLayne.com.

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