My name is Jeremy Arnstein, and I think it is safe to say that the game of basketball has shaped my entire life. My story begins in a small Vermont town named Putney. Putney has about 3,000 residents in total. The graduating class of my middle school was 17 kids. The odds of somebody from Putney playing basketball at any competitive level is almost 0%, and yet I still brag to my friends that I am the only person from my town to ever play NCAA basketball. Basketball has been much more than just a game to me. Basketball has shaped the friends I connected with, the academic and professional choices I have made, and the character of the person I am today. My playing career ended in 2013 when I graduated as a 4 year student athlete of Bard College. In the last three years I have had lots of time to reflect on my playing days, and I have often wondered, why did I do it? What drove me to spend countless hours lifting, running, and performing will bending drills to get better? Why did I develop such a need and a desire to prove that I could play at a high level as a 5’7 Vermont native with very little natural athletic ability? Why didn’t I just pursue a passion that would have been easier and more suited to my strengths?
The more I reflect on these questions the more it becomes clear that the only advantage I had over thousands of kids in the country, hundreds of kids in my state, and every kid in my town is that I had a dream. My dream ever since I was nine years old was to play basketball in the NBA. To compete at the highest level, with some of the best athletes in the world, and my dream was to do it against all odds as a complete underdog. There was a very specific month long window that this dream became engrained into my DNA. It was in May during the 2001 NBA playoffs when a 9 year old boy in Vermont, who couldn’t sleep at night, went into his parent’s room and found his mother watching the Philadelphia 76ers play the Toronto Raptors in round II of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
I had seen NBA games before. My mother for some inexplicable reason loved to watch NBA games, and she used to bribe me with buttered popcorn to watch with her. I usually found it entertaining enough, I was in awe of the size, athleticism, and skill of the players like many people are. But when the popcorn was finished I would get bored and find something else to do like most 9 year olds would. The game I watched that night however was very different. It was in this game that a 6’0 guard that I quickly learned was named Allen Iverson dropped 52 points to lead his team to victory. It wasn’t that Iverson scored a lot that wowed me. It was the way he did it. The sheer willpower that he played with. The determination, the aggressiveness, the guts, and the joy he showed at the end of the game when he knew he achieved victory just from outworking his opponents. I felt like I knew Allen Iverson after only watching him on T.V for a little over an hour because he played with everything he had the whole time. Every scrap of emotion he could muster he left on the court, it was the most human act I have seen in my entire life.
I knew from that day on that I wanted to be like Allen Iverson. I wanted to go up against the steepest mountain, the hardest challenge I could find in life and conquer it. It wasn’t that I loved the game of basketball, and I never developed a passion for the game itself. I loved what Iverson showed me. I loved the dream of showing the whole world that mind is stronger than body, and that anybody can achieve any goal no matter the odds. At every level I played at, from 5th grade rec league to Division III basketball. I showed that I could compete not based on my size, strength or skill but on what I had on the inside. I will never be able to thank Allen Iverson enough for that gift.
This brings me to why I chose to write my first article on my childhood dream of playing basketball sparked by Allen Iverson. The NBA and the players in the NBA give kids and people around the world a gift that cannot be repaid. Everything good in my life, my job, my kid, my friends, my relationships with the people I care most about can be traced directly from my experience with the game of basketball. I don’t know where I would be, or who I would be if I didn’t watch Iverson play 15 years ago… but I honestly would not want to find out. I think it is important for anyone who might read this article, and for the people who spend so much time and energy following the NBA, its dramas, and its franchises, that the reason we do it is because it is important. Every fan has a different relationship with the NBA, but every fan has a positive one. Professional sports and leagues like the NBA are something that truly makes living in this country unique and special. This is why I am very concerned with the direction the NBA as a league is headed.
The revenue the NBA makes is insane. The value of NBA franchises has tripled over the last four years due to TV deals and sponsorships. It is just a matter of time before the NBA allows advertisements on player’s jerseys and on team’s logos. Don’t get me wrong I am all for the NBA making money, and I truly believe that what the NBA does for its fans is priceless. The problem I have, however, is this increased revenue is going to affect the mentality and feel of the players in the NBA, particularly the ones that kids look up to.
More revenue means larger contracts, more endorsements, and more public exposure to people around the world. Michael Jordan’s first contract with Nike in 1984 was worth 2.5 million dollars over 5 years. Try comparing that to LeBron James’s first Nike contract of 90 million dollars over 7 years. So yes, more money for the league. More money for the players. Seems all good. After all, I can watch every NBA game for the whole season for just a couple hundred dollars and an internet connection. It’s not like the NBA is sapping the fans of their money. The issue for me, however, is that as superstars become more valuable, there are more and more incentives for them to not play in games or play as hard as they can every night. The thing that made me fall in love with the NBA and the game of basketball was the passion that Iverson displayed every single day he stepped on the court. It is hard for me to see someone like Carmelo Anthony sit out against the Suns with a “sore knee” and not wonder if it’s because he knows, or even a scarier thought the Knicks know, that he is more financially valuable sitting against the Suns, resting, and being ready to play well against the Warriors on national T.V. a few nights later.
I know there are plenty of great players and role models out there who play hard every game. Lebron is a polarizing superstar for many reason, but I have never seen him or heard of anyone talking about him taking days off or not playing hard. Guys like Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, Dwayne Wade, Paul George, Kobe Bryant, and many others all leave everything they got on the court (even if they don’t have much left in Kobe’s case). I look at the girls’ basketball team I coach in upstate N.Y. and see them all wearing LeBron’s shoes or Curry’s jersey. I ask them if Lebron is their favorite NBA player and they admit they don’t watch him play but they like his shoes. I worry if we have stopped rooting for what the players do on the court or if fans have turned their attention to the style or image a player might bring off the court through advertising, Twitter, and other media outlets. I look at my 1 year old son and I truly wonder who his role models will be. Will he ever get to see the blood, sweat, tears and emotion of a man giving everything he’s got for the love of the game, his teammates, his franchise and his city? Or will my son grow up with some watered down NBA where fans are told who to root for based on their shoe deals, commercials, and video game highlights.
I love the game of basketball, I love the NBA. I know that professional athletes have the power to shape lives of thousands of people in unexpected ways. I just hope that fans stay true to the game. Stay true to the 10 men playing together as hard as they can with a ball and a 100 foot court. Learn to love and enjoy that, basketball is nothing more. It doesn’t need to be to be perfect.