The Big Three are coming to Tampa (maybe; see below)! And while Tampa Bay does not have nearly the history with basketball that it has with other sports, the St. Pete Times Forum will be packed to the rafters when LeBron James (maybe; see below), Dwyane Wade (maybe; see below), Chris Bosh and the rest of the Miami Heat take on the Orlando Magic this Friday night.
The fact that over 18,000 will be on hand to watch an exhibition basketball game says more about the NBA's ability to package and sell its superstars than it does about Tampa Bay's oft-discussed reputation for finding it difficult to fill the seats for sporting events. No league does a better job of marketing individual players than the NBA. That makes sense, considering that of the four major league team sports, basketball is the most subject to being influenced and dominated by the play of an individual.
Still, the NBA is so much better at it that it's safe to say that the three players any casual fan can name from the Miami Heat is more than they could name from the entire NHL. Any sports fan with a TV or an Internet connection knows that a series of handshake deals between players led to the biggest spectacle surrounding roster transactions in the history of sports, ultimately resulting in LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade in Miami to form The Big Three. Ask many of those same fans to name three NHL superstars not named Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin and they're liable to struggle and probably couldn't name two that play for the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
While the placement of individual players above that of teams may trouble traditionalists, there's no question that this approach has been beneficial to the NBA and the game of basketball itself. Prior to the 1980s and the emergence of superstar personalities like Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Larry Bird and (especially) Michael Jordan, basketball and the NBA lagged well behind other sports in popularity, struggling to remain relevant to mainstream (aka white) fans. Now, basketball's popularity is eclipsed only by soccer's worldwide. And though Magic, Bird and Jordan are long gone, the practice of pushing the stars continues. The league is so adept at it now that a player like Steve Nash, who plays in Phoenix, a small market with relatively low media presence, is more well-known than football and baseball stars who play in much larger cities.
With all the publicity surrounding the Heat's collection of stars, virtually guaranteeing they'll be the biggest road draw in the NBA for the foreseeable future, it's almost possible to forget that the Orlando Magic, a team that's gone deep in the playoffs the last two seasons, have a true superstar of their own in Dwight Howard. Howard often appears at all-star events like the NBA's slam dunk contest wearing a Superman cape, which is fitting because he and his peers are often portrayed more like comic book superheroes than athletes. As if to say, "Behold these marvels, capable of impossible feats of strength, speed and agility. These are not mere mortal men."
The allure of that kind of star power tends to take on a life of its own and is why people will turn out in droves in a place like Tampa Bay, whose basketball heritage is limited to the fair-to-middling programs at USF and UT, hosting some championship college tournaments, and serving as temporary home to a handful of mostly fly-by-night minor league franchises that have come and gone (often in the middle of the night, when landlords and vendors weren't looking) over the years.
Tampa Bay may not qualify in the minds of some as a "sports town" but it is most certainly a big event town. Look for the kind of crowd that might attend a heavyweight fight (also the kind of event that has historically drawn very well in Tampa Bay), with a lot of people there to see and be seen. With so much glitz, glamour, sizzle and swagger on display, many people may not even notice right away that at least one, possibly two, of The Big Three might not even be there. Dwyane Wade is occupied with a child custody trial taking place in Chicago and LeBron James has been nursing a sore hamstring, very mortal problems for sure. Like the eventual outcome of the game itself, it won't really matter to most people. That's just how effective the NBA hype machine is: it can get you excited to see players that aren't even there.
IF YOU GO...
Orlando Magic vs. Miami Heat
Date: Friday, October 22, 2010 at 7:30 PM
On Sale: Now
Ticket Prices: $20.00 (general admission), $30.00, $40.00, $45.00, $60.00, $75.00 and $125.00 (Channelside Club Throne Seating).