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June 1994: The NHL was enjoying new heights of popularity in the United States on the heels of the Mark Messier-led New York Rangers capturing the Stanley Cup.
Meanwhile, the NBA was in the midst of an identity crisis following the unexpected retirement of Michael Jordan as a more rugged, defensive style of basketball began to make the high-flying ‘80s style nothing more than a distant memory.
The two leagues appeared to be heading along polar opposite popularity arcs, leading Sports Illustrated that summer to pronounce on the cover of the June issue: “Why the NHL’s hot and the NBA’s not.”
As a teenaged die-hard Maple Leafs fan that summer, we couldn’t have agreed more at the time. The Leafs were coming off their second-straight appearance in the conference final and the neutral zone trap had yet to penetrate the average hockey fan’s vocabulary and NHL coaches’ chalkboards.
The Raptors were still a year away from being hatched and, while we watched with the Houston Rockets-New York Knicks, seven-game NBA Finals, the Hakeem Olajuwon-Patrick Ewing marquee match-up was still far less sexy than Pavel Bure vs. Mark Messier.
SI caused quite a stir with this June ’94 cover.
But then the Raptors began play the following season, and although they didn’t win a lot of games, Brendan Malone’s squad competed every night and provided us with something a hockey game didn’t always deliver: entertainment.
Win or lose, we knew were going to be entertained whenever we tuned in to a Raptors game and, more often than not, the star players would be the best players on the court.
We couldn’t say the same of course for our Maple Leafs, or the NHL in general back then or over the next several years as the success of the New Jersey Devils’ neutral zone trap spread like a disease throughout the league, stifling offence and creating perhaps the most boring era of hockey this generation will likely ever see.
So as the 1990s were coming to a close and the trap was squeezing the life out of the last vestiges of our passion for hockey, Air Canada was taking off, the Raptors made their first playoff appearance and our love for all things NBA had surpassed the NHL.
And despite the Raptors’ ups and downs since then, there’s been no turning back.
To some in this country, turning your back on hockey in favour of basketball is sacrilege, and that’s fine.
But after reading our eight reasons Why the NBA’s Hot and the NHL’s Not, if you still disagree with us, then we’ll assume you’re a Phoenix Coyotes season ticket holder.
1. In the NBA, your team is guaranteed to score
Seems simple enough, but during the height of the trap years — and Mike Murphy’s “hard-working” (translation: trapping) Leafs teams of the mid-‘90s — this became a very endearing quality of some very bad Raptors teams.
For while they may have stunk on most nights, we were at least guaranteed to be entertained by some offence, an assurance NHL teams have never been able to provide to their fans to this day.
2. The NBA has better characters
This one is a no-brainer, especially in today’s game. There is currently no better — or bigger — personality in the four major sports than Shaq. And while Alex Ovechkin is a bull in a China shop on the ice, when the craziest thing the league’s biggest personality is known for is wearing a funny hat once in a skills competition, we rest our case.
You want characters?
How about Dennis Rodman, Ron Artest, Charles Oakley, Charles Barkley and the wackiest of the wacky, Stephon Marbury.
What about Sean Avery, you say?
Come talk to us when he slaps another player over a gambling debt, dresses in drag as a bride, throws a fan through a second-storey window, fights a fan in the stands or records and posts his own meltdown on YouTube.
3. The NBA has a better recent history
Who knows where the NBA would be today had Michael Jordan not come out of retirement in 1995, but we do know it allowed the league to steal any thunder the NHL might have had before that.
Jordan’s Bulls would go on to win three straight titles in the late ‘90s (1996-98), before Kobe and Shaq took the reigns of their own dynasty (2000-02).
And while we’ll concede no one enjoyed watching the Pistons and Spurs walk away with the NBA title, at least their championship blueprints were the exception, not the rule, unlike the NHL’s Devils and Dallas Stars.
4. There’s better player movement in the NBA
Just look at the list of NBA all-stars that have swapped uniforms in the past three years: Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Amare Stoudemire, Jason Kidd, Pau Gasol, Carlos Boozer, Mike Bibby, Shawn Marion and Richard Jefferson, just to name a few.
Some of the biggest names to move in the NHL over the same time period?
Chris Pronger, Dany Heatley, Olli Jokinen, Marian Hossa, Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Ryan Smyth, Phil Kessel, Ilya Kovalvhuk, and Dion Phaneuf.
And with Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Rick Nash having recently signed long-term deals, it looks like the NBA will hold the edge in this category for the considerable future.
But it’s not only about the names, but the impact these moves have on their teams. And with the smaller rosters — and shorter benches in the NBA — when a big name moves in the NBA, it’s rare that it doesn’t have a deep impact on the teams involved.
Which leads us to our next point …
The lovely Rihanna is a fellow NBA fan.
5. It’s quicker to turn around a franchise in the NBA
Things could change dramatically in this regard whenever the NBA gets around to signing its new CBA, but for now, as we saw this past summer, high-profile players become free agents in the prime of their careers and it only takes the addition of one such player — either via the draft, a trade or free agency — to completely alter a franchise’s fortunes.
Consider the 1997-98 Raptors. They went 16-66, but thanks to a couple of shrewd off-season moves by then-rookie GM Glen Grunwald (trading for Vince Carter and Charles Oakley) two years later, they were a 45-win playoff team.
Now consider the 2010-11 Toronto Maple Leafs. November 29th marked the second anniversary (hope you got our card, Burkie) of the hiring of the team’s general manager and saviour, Brian Burke.
But despite almost completely overhauling the roster in that time, Burke’s Leafs are no better — and are arguably in worse shape — then when he took over. To be fair to Burke, the free agent market hasn’t presented him yet with a major impact player he can take a run at, but that only proves our point, as sobering as that may be for Leafs fans.
6. The NBA is more fun to talk about
Let’s face it: too often NHL talk is centred on boring, off-ice matters such as potential rule changes, debates over suspensions and which team is closest to declaring bankruptcy.
The lack of star player movement in the NHL today also kills any juicy trade rumour talk involving superstars or the type of gripping free-agent speculation that allowed the NBA to dominate the sports headlines for much of the past summer.
Off-ice hockey talk today is being dominated with terms such as “head-shots,” “blind-side hits” and “Colin Campbell.”
Sure, there’s Sid vs. Alex on the ice, but after that, what else? Leafs vs. Habs? Nope. Battle of Ontario? Sooo 2000s. Battle of Alberta? Sooo 1980s.
As for the NBA, love them or hate them, everyone is dissecting the Miami Heat, basketball players are arguably the most social media savvy and there are several personal and compelling rivalries in the game today.
7.) NBA video games are now better than hockey video games
In the SI article, one of the big reasons it pointed to for the rising popularity of hockey was the video game, NHL ’94 for Sega Genesis.
Featuring players such as Mario Lemieux, Doug Gilmour, Jeremy Roenick, Steve Yzerman and Pavel Bure at the peak of their video game prowess, if you talk to any hard-core gamer over 25, despite all the technological advances in the past 16 years, they’ll still tell you this is the best sports game ever made.
But over the years, hockey games have increasingly become more complicated and less intuitive while basketball games — such as NBA 2K11 and the recently-released updated version of the mid-90s classic, NBA Jam — take far less time to master and do a great job of mixing the old and the new.
Below: Perhaps the greatest installment ever of the Battle of Quebec.
8. NBA celebrity fans have bigger star power
There’s no bigger or better celebrity sports fan than Jack Nicholson. And as we explained in our Raptors vs. Lakers celebrity fan power rankings, how can you not love a near 80-year-old season ticket holder who attends nearly every game, dresses like he’s watching the game in basement and barks at referees like a 20-year-old, five beers in.
After exhausting our celebrity rolodex, we’ve come up with the following list of celebrity supporters for each league.
NBA: Chris Rock, Jessica Alba, Adam Sandler, Jack Nicholson, Leo DiCaprio, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Denzel Washington, Salma Hayek, Rihanna, Dustin Hoffman, Sly Stallone, Jay-Z, Billy Crystal, Alice Cooper, Samuel L. Jackson (admitted Raptors fan).
NHL: Vince Vaughn, Mike Myers, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Dennis Leary, Elisha Cuthbert, Hillary Duff, Mary Hart, Tim Robbins, Kevin Smith, Rachel Hunter, Snoop Dog and Cub Gooding Jr.
While, Snoop Dog give the NHL some badly needed street cred, the fact that we have a hard time imaging Rihanna wearing an outfit like the one pictured above at a Kings game. And every time we see Hillary Duff and Elisha Cuthbert at an NHL game they’re wearing a parka.<br.
Game, set and match NBA.