It was David Stern’s running joke. He would get asked when the NBA would be adding a European division and his answer was almost always the same.
“In 10 years,” the then-commissioner of the NBA would say.
Thing is, it wasn’t intended to be a joke. Stern was always looking ahead, looking for the next thing, the next innovation to keep the league moving. He oversaw expansion, pushed toward getting the league on television around the world, found ways to take revenues to record levels.
It took more than 4,700 players and nearly 14 million points to get to this spot, but the 75th anniversary season for the National Basketball Association is winding down. Nobody knows for certain where the NBA will be in 25 years, when it’ll be celebrating its 100th anniversary.
The only safe bet is that things will be very, very different.
A play-in postseason tournament was added in recent years. An in-season tournament is probably coming in the next couple years. By the 100th anniversary, having more teams seems certain. Seeing more women in leadership roles, on the court and off, also seems certain.
Maybe a 4-point shot gets added. Robot referees. The possibilities are endless, especially in a wildly and rapidly changing world where technology evolves constantly and ideas flow just as quickly.
“You could have a separate league,” Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said. “There are obviously leagues in Europe. But you have to say, ‘What’s the purpose? Do you want the best players from Europe to play in Europe or do you want them to come to United States and play in the greatest league in the world?’ I think the answer is the latter, because you want to see the best of the best play against each other. To have an NBA team in London would be nuts; the 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 is what truly allowed the game to grow, because NBA games can now be watched on phones and tablets in just about all corners of the world.
“I think the broadcast, the way we think about the broadcast, the way we use technology in the broadcast to enhance the broadcast and make it more social … I think that will be dramatically different,” Ballmer said. “I think the stadium experiences will be dramatically different, but the broadcast is where I think … there won’t be a broadcast anymore, it will be a digital interaction.”
Innovations in travel — faster planes, for example — could change the way games are scheduled. Innovations in fitness could allow players to recover more quickly. The ball could become some sort of computerized tracking device. Virtual reality, something that only a small percentage of people experience now, might be something more mainstream by then, allowing fans to have a true in-arena feel without leaving their home.
It will be different.
Oscar Robertson only hopes the decision-makers in 2047 treat the league with the same reverence as was the case at its 25th anniversary, its 50th anniversary and now as the league celebrates its 75th.
“The game is a great game,” the Hall of Famer said. “The 3-point shot is electrifying … and the fans love it. As long as the fans want the game, it’s going to be fine. I just hope the players and owners get together and keep it at the top of the list.”
Nobody knows what will happen. But the players of now are laying the groundwork for whatever will come, just as the players of yesterday did for the players of today.
The way LeBron James sees things, it’s on each generation to take the game and push it forward.
“It’s a responsibility, for sure,” said James, a four-time champion with Miami, Cleveland and most recently the Los Angeles Lakers. “Somebody did it before me and put it in a position where it was my responsibility to make sure I kept it where it was and also make it even more grand and make it better than what it was and represent this league with the utmost respect.
“I’ve held that title of the ambassador of the league. Nobody ever told me to do it, but I felt like if I wasn’t going to do it, who was going to do it? I took that with a lot of responsibility, and I’ll continue to do it until I’m done playing the game.”
And in 25 years, he hopes — and expects — to see something even better than what the world enjoys now.
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