Greg Cote

As NBA Finals begin, how and why basketball became America’s most interesting sport | Opinion

Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 heroics stun Sixers in NBA playoffs

Kawhi Leonard talks about his game-winning shot that sent the Toronto Raptors to the East Finals of the NBA Playoffs.
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Kawhi Leonard talks about his game-winning shot that sent the Toronto Raptors to the East Finals of the NBA Playoffs.

So the once-regal Los Angeles Lakers are in abject disarray, a soap opera on steroids.

Lakers pillar Magic Johnson abruptly quits as president. He accuses general manager Rob Pelinka of “backstabbing.” (Wait. What!? A former sports agent accused of lying!?) Others blame owner Jeanie Buss for the mess. Oh and LeBron James, his once-unassailable stature now a leaky boat, wonders what in the hell he got himself into as a once-proud franchise twists in the wind.

An ESPN expose’ reveals all the details of the Lakers’ dysfunction. Meanwhile ESPN’s blustering Stephen A. Smith blasts his own network for running the story.

There is a word for all of this:

Delicious!

Perfect.

It is an example of why the NBA, in all its unending drama, is the most relentlessly interesting league in American sports. This is not a basketball-is-bigger-than-the-NFL argument. It isn’t. Not even saying basketball is better. That’s subjective. But no sport tops the NBA in tapping into the millennial and urban markets and maintaining interest.

There is a reason the NBA’s social media imprint of more than 1.6 billion followers and likes leads everybody. A reason LeBron has 42.7 million Twitter followers and Aaron Rodgers has 4.4 million.

Now we hit June, when everything goes hyper in basketball.

First it’s the NBA Finals, with Golden State going for a rare three-peat against an underdog Toronto squad bringing Finals games outside the United States for the first time.

Then it’s the draft and the royal entrance of Duke’s Zion Williamson as the most-ballyhooed, anticipated prospect since King James himself.

And then , free agency. Oh my. Who will land the Warriors’ Kevin Durant? Will Klay Thompson also bolt? Has Kawhi Leonard lifting the Raptors to new heights made him an even bigger prize than Durant? Where will Kyrie Irving land? How about Kemba Walker? Will New Orleans really trade Anthony Davis when it has a chance to draft Williamson first overall, too?

Just Wednesday: It is reported that Houston is willing to part with anybody in trade talks — James Harden, Chris Paul, anybody — and instead of landing like seismic news, it was like, “Yep. That’s the NBA.”

And does LeBron still have the cache’ and pull to attract at least one of the grand prizes out there to L.A. and make a liar of all those writing off the Lakers (and, by extension, LeBron)?

Or are the New York Knicks poised to go fast from laughingstock to power by landing Durant after it drafts in the top three? Or might the L.A. Clippers finally make that leap?

And how does somebody such as Pat Riley, without salary cap ammo at the moment, find his whale-hunting mojo and make the Miami Heat contenders again?

[Quick aside: Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo as the league’s Next Big Thing? Get in line, pal].

NBA TV ratings have been slightly down this season, yes, which could be a result of LeBron, out west, being seen less on TV. Or maybe it’s Warrior Fatigue as Golden State plays in its fifth consecutive Finals in search of its third straight crown. But that feels temporary. The ever-evolving NBA is well positioned to grow its international reach and also to continue closing the gap on the NFL at home.

“I think the game is in an ideal place right now where we have a story in the news year-round,” said ESPN analyst Mark Jackson. “I think it’s in great hands. I think the excitement that surrounds talent throughout this league is special and as good as it’s been.”

Said broadcast partner Jeff Van Gundy: “One of the things that intrigues people is all the story lines.”

The league can seem like the Kardashians in sneakers at times, but that’s part of the attraction. Like Durant going to Twitter war with Fox Sports’ Chris Broussard. Or hip-hop star Drake, a huge Raptors fan, wearing a “Kawhi Me A River” sweatshirt aimed at Leonard detractors. (Don’t know if the Raptors can beat Golden State, but I know watching Drake’s courtside antics trying to get under Steph Curry’s skin will be half the fun).

It has taken me awhile to fully appreciate what the NBA has become — the players out front and in charge like in no other sport.

I was a kid in the ‘60s, wearing a baseball mitt because you did back then. In the ‘70s I became a Dolphins fan because that was all we had then in South Florida. I still love both sports and always will.

For the anticipation of what’s next, though, for an excitement that doesn’t even require games, the NBA is king.

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