Does Character Matter?
Part of this is due to the nature of the game itself. Of all the major team sports, basketball has the fewest participants on the field and also has the smallest playing area. It is thus more intimate and inherently subject to the influence of single players. It is also the only major team sport in which--in function and goal at least--every player is interchangeable. Any one of the five players can go anywhere on the court, shoot, pass, pick, or defend at any time. This puts a greater responsibility on each player belonging seamlessly to the whole every second they're on the court than exists in other sports. (An offensive lineman blocks but will never be called upon suddenly to pass. As long as he blocks right, he's done his work. For years the Minnesota Vikings played passable offense with Randy Moss taking every second play off even though he was on the field every down. Similarly, goalkeepers in soccer and hockey stand in one area with little chance of being involved in any offensive play.) It's simply more difficult in basketball than in any other major sport to assimilate a talented player who's not dedicated to the team and on the same page as everybody else.
In addition, the 21st-century NBA has experienced the "perfect storm" for highlighting character issues. Players have gotten younger, salaries have gotten bigger, and contracts have gotten longer and completely guaranteed, all at the same time. Both the collective bargaining agreement and current league culture practically mandate overpaying with long-term deals based on potential. What it amounts to is conveying the means to gratify every conceivable selfish desire by the time a player is 22. Money, food, house, car, girlfriends, travel, acclaim, fame, it's all there. This creates a test of character. The inevitable question becomes, "What next?" If the motivation is self-gratification alone, the answer is, "Nothing! Already got it!" Only the players who are motivated by something beyond themselves--to be the best, contributing to the team, championships, or just fulfilling what they promised--will respond.
Finally, our society as a whole has spotlighted the character issue through relentless media scrutiny. Wilt Chamberlain was one of the biggest stars the sport has seen. Yet we never would have known he slept with 20,000 women unless he bragged about it in his book. Times were different then. Nowadays if somebody even remotely famous ties their shoelaces backwards, they make the front page. There are no shortage of folks wanting to brag about their brushes with celebrities. You may expect that if you're at all interesting, your hairdresser, your landscape artist, six quackers from local newspapers and magazines, and your Uncle Jimbo will all eventually be lining up to spill all about your life on the latest edition of "Behind/Between/Underneath the Whatever". And we love it! Building up heroes and then tearing them down is our new national pastime. And the media sells us exactly what we ask for. Character, or better lack thereof, is on display with unprecedented constancy and accessibility.
For all these reasons, character is more a part of the NBA conversation now than ever before.
It's worth noting for Portland fans that both of the latter two issues are exacerbated in small markets. Because of the relative lack of publicity and attendant endorsement deals, small markets are more susceptible to paying through the nose to retain potential talent than are their bigger brethren. When's the last time you heard a superstar say, "I really want to go to Milwaukee?" (No offense Milwaukee...they don't say it about Portland anymore either, and it's a great place to live.) Also the media glare in a smaller town, especially a single-sport one, can be overwhelming. It's not that the road is different in a smaller place, just steeper.
It's no coincidence that it's been notoriously hard for small market teams to win in the huge money, media-hype, David Stern era. Nearly 80% of modern-era championships have been won by the same four big-market teams. Only two small market teams have won since 1980. Who are these exceptions? Boston won three times, San Antonio twice. That those two teams are also known as two of the best character teams in league history is no accident.
We're not talking about needing choirboys here. Whether you like it or not, late-night forays to strip clubs and occasional dalliances with drugs and/or alcohol have always been a part of the professional sports culture. I would wager a year's NBA salary that there were players on the heroic teams of yore (even in Boston and maybe SA) who did/do the exact same thing. I don't believe that's necessarily indicative of poor character. (Some would argue. That's fine.) But character does mean living for something bigger than yourself, working hard at whatever your calling is, and most of all standing tough and responding in the face of adversity instead of quitting, whining, or blaming. That is the kind of character that's intrinsic to sport, the kind sport is supposed to teach you. It's also the kind that's all too often found lacking among professional athletes.
I would argue that character matters very much if you have designs on being anything more than mediocre. Talent might possibly overcome lack of character if you could assemble enough of it, but that's getting harder and harder in today's NBA and is all but impossible for a small-market team. So if you're building one of those teams outside of LA or Chicago, you'd better take a look at a guy's character just as much as his vertical leap. It might not be the top priority, but it needs to be on the list. Now, more than ever, character matters.