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Posted at 11:29 AM ET, 03/ 3/2011

Buzz Bissinger is a big fat idiot

By Lee Friedman

Well, not really. But when someone writes with the thoughtfulness and sophistication of Rush Limbaugh, it seems fair to lump them together. Bissinger wrote the seminal book on high school football, “Friday Night Lights” in 1990 and was considered a great writer and journalist. He lost most of his journalistic credibility when he co-wrote a book with noted literary star LeBron James in 2008. In fairness, I’d even give him a pass on that because we all have to pay the bills.

But the free pass ends with his most recent column. In the Daily Beast, Bissinger attributed the NBA’s falling popularity to the lack of white players. And, carrying that to its logical conclusion, he inferred that white people would be more likely to watch the NBA if there were more white people playing (he also helpfully explained that by white people, he doesn’t include Europeans or Canadians, a definition that even Pat Buchanan would find too narrow).

Bissinger’s thesis is that the lack of white “American born superstars” makes white Americans less likely to follow the sport. He says that, though the number of black players has stayed steady since the early 80’s, the number of American white players has shrank, as American whites have been replaced by foreign born players. He cites the transition from players like Larry Bird and John Stockton to Canadian players like Steve Nash (I doubt most casual NBA fans realize Nash was not born in the U.S.).

In his entire column Bissinger’s only evidence to back up these insights into the human psyche is by citing the following evidence: some of the people he met while writing Friday Night Lights in Texas did not have what you might consider enlightened views on race. Yup, that’s it. He does relate an anecdote about asking sports fans he meets if they still watch the NBA, but I’m thinking the methodology used for that survey was the same as an US Weekly Who Wore It Better poll.

But let’s humor a man who at one point in his career was actually a well-respected journalist. One of his main arguments is that the NBA’s popularity has fallen in recent years due to the reason cited above. I’d prefer not to rely on Bissinger’s “gut,” so let’s look at the evidence.

NBA Attendance: From the 1995-96 season to today attendance per game has varied between 16,378 in the lock-out-shortened 1998-99 season to a high of 17,730 in 2006-07 (by the way, in 2007 the number of white American players on the All-NBA, All-Star, All-Defense and All-Rookie teams totaling 49 players was two, not exactly helping your thesis Buzz). This season attendance is 16,928, down about 100 people per game from last season, which was down 400 people per game from the season before, in the midst of one of the worst economic periods in NBA history.

TV Ratings: While regular season ratings have dropped from their highs in the mid 1990’s, that is due more to the fragmentation of the television dial (as well as the wide availability of NBA games on everything from satellite TV to your iPad), a trend that has spread throughout the entertainment industry. The NBA Finals rating last year was the highest since 2004 and the second highest in the last decade. Regular season ratings this year are up 30 percent over last year.

That doesn’t sound like the NBA is battling the Professional Bowlers Association for fans.

Bissinger admits that he is only writing about basketball because his editor asked him too. He doesn’t follow the sport  and has no desire to. Bissinger was either writing a column that jibes with his “cranky old man” persona, which would be sad, or he’s trying to be a big thinker on race issues, which would be even worse. Either way he failed miserably. He also gets the history of basketball wrong. The NBA rose to prominence off of both white and black stars like Bird, Jordan, Magic and Dr. J. Does he think basketball fans liked Dr. Julius Erving because they thought he was Jewish? Fans didn’t stop following basketball when Bird retired. Does he think sports fans say to themselves "what we really need is a guy in the NBA who plays like Tom Chambers or Mark Price"? Fans want to watch great athletes perform at a high level.

What is most disappointing is that Bissinger chose to be lazy. There is probably a great story to be written about the gap between the Magic-Bird-Jordan era and the LeBron-Wade-Kobe era and how the fan base changed in between. Instead, a decade and a half after he wrote one of the best accounts of how big city government works (or doesn’t) in “Prayer for a City”, he just mailed it in.

Bissinger does a disservice to many of the great writers out there who write thoughtful pieces about race and sports every day. There is still a tremendous amount of racism in this country, manifesting itself in ways both big and small (including in sports) and it needs to be addressed. Buzz, why don’t you stick to co-writing puff piece books with stars -- I hear Carmelo is looking for a book deal.

By Lee Friedman  | March 3, 2011; 11:29 AM ET
Categories:  Lee Friedman, Wizards  | Tags:  Lee Friedman, NBA, Wizards  
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I don't agree with Bissinger, his thesis seems far too simplistic. But perhaps more stiking than his flawed anaylsis is the incredible amount of unbridled envy Friedman seems to harbor towards him. It REAALLLLY bothers this guy (who I frankly have never heard of) that Bissinger is a super successful author and actually had the gall to write a biography of Lebron James (the nerve!). You only mention it, oh, about 82 times in your little posting. Calm down dude. Maybe someday you can write something people care about too!

Posted by: dbunkr | March 3, 2011 12:27 PM | Report abuse

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