This was David Stern’s running joke. He was asked when the NBA would add a European division and his answer was almost always the same.
“In 10 years,” the then NBA commissioner would say.
The special thing is that it was not intended to be a joke. Stern was always looking forward, looking for the next thing, the next innovation to move the league forward. He oversaw expansion, pushed toward getting leagues on television worldwide, finding ways to drive revenue to record levels.
It took more than 4,700 players and nearly 14 million points to reach this spot, but the 75th anniversary season for the National Basketball Association is coming to an end. No one knows for sure where the NBA will be in 25 years when it celebrates its 100th anniversary.
The only safe bet is that things will be very different.
In recent years a play-in postseason tournament was added. An in-season tournament is probably coming in the next few years. By the 100th anniversary, it seems certain to have more teams. It also seems certain to see more women in leadership roles on and off the court.
Maybe a 4-point shot would add up. Robot ref. The possibilities are endless, especially in a wildly and rapidly changing world where technology is constantly evolving and ideas flow just as fast.
“You can have a different league,” said Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer. “Europe obviously has leagues. But you have to say, ‘What’s the purpose? Do you want Europe’s best players to play in Europe or do you want them to come to the United States and play in the biggest league in the world?’ I think the answer is the latter, because you want to see the best games against each other. It would be stupid to have an NBA team in London; travel would wipe people out, so you’re not going to do that.”
Where Ballmer sees change coming is in the way the game is experienced.
Technology, he insists – and believes – is everything. Technology really allowed the game to grow, as NBA games can now be viewed on phones and tablets in almost all corners of the world.
“I think broadcasting, the way we think about broadcasting, the way we use technology in broadcasting to enhance broadcasting and make it more social … I think it’s going to be dramatic. Will be different,” Ballmer said. “I think the stadium experiences will be dramatically different, but broadcasting is where I think … there will be no broadcasting anymore, it will be a digital interaction.”
Innovations in travel – faster planes, for example – could change the way the game is set. Innovations in fitness could allow players to recover more quickly. The ball could become some kind of computerized tracking device. Virtual reality, something that only a small percentage of people now experience, may be something more mainstream by then, allowing fans to experience a real arena without leaving their home.
It will be different.
Oscar Robertson only hopes that decision-makers in 2047 treat the league with the same respect as its 25th anniversary, its 50th anniversary, and now that the league is celebrating its 75th anniversary.
“Sports is a great sport,” said the Hall of Famer. “The 3-point shot is electrifying … and fans love it. As long as the fans want the game, it will be fine. I hope the players and the owners will come together and put this at the top of the list.”
No one knows what will happen. But whatever comes, the players of today are laying the foundation just as the players of yesterday did for the players of today.
The way LeBron James sees things, it’s up to each generation to step up and take the game forward.
“It’s definitely a responsibility,” said James, a four-time champion with Miami, Cleveland and most recently the Los Angeles Lakers. “Someone did it in front of me and put it in a position where it was my responsibility to make sure I keep it there and make it even grander and make it better and represent this league with the utmost respect .
“I have retained that title of league ambassador. Nobody ever told me to do it, but I felt like if I wasn’t supposed to do it, who was going to do it? I’ve taken it with a lot of responsibility, and I’ll keep doing it until I finish the game. ,
And in 25 years, he hopes – and hopes – to see something even better than the world he enjoys now.
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