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Truth Is, NBA Glass Remains Half Full

Of course, the league has problems. It's just that when you compare it to other sports, the outlook doesn't seem so bad.

April 21, 2001|MARK HEISLER

As hard as it may be to believe, we've made it to the playoffs.

By now the NBA might have been expected to be out of business, or to have all of its players locked up for one thing or another, or to have died of embarrassment because attendance and TV ratings were so bad.

Indeed, this wasn't a bumper season or close to one as the NBA continued to transition away from Michael Jordan and toward reality.

Nor has the play been very exciting since, let's say, the fall of 1991. That was when Pat Riley, who had left the Showtime Lakers, started preaching his Game of Force in New York and the game began slowing down.

Of course, this downturn has been covered extensively, another hallmark of the NBA, exacerbated by its sudden fall from its '90s highs.

These days, baseball writers tend to feel for their strife-torn game. NFL writers are too busy with quarterback controversies, franchise shifts and Raider suits to worry about the state of their game, which rules in any case.

NHL writers actually like their players because even a superstar such as Wayne Gretzky can be as unassuming as the paper boy.

The last unassuming NBA superstar was Charles Barkley, who made us laugh, even while telling us what a rotten job we had, or did, while assuring us he'd run for governor of Alabama (the guy didn't even vote), etc.

Now we don't even have him and laughs are hard to come by, not to mention interviews. I just sent back my all-interview ballot blank.

On the other hand, look around.

In baseball, the race is already over for about eight teams. World Series ratings are hitting new lows every fall. Owners are trying to decide between uncontrolled salaries (bad) and taking on the union, which will shut the game down at the drop of a hat (very bad.)

The NHL's TV ratings are going down, and they were so small you needed a magnifying glass to see them in the first place.

The Times recently ran a story, noting NHL attendance was ahead of the NBA's. This is nice for the NHL, except its days of competition with the NBA are long over, for which hockey can thank its lucky stars.

In the late '60s, when the NHL doubled to 12 teams, multiplying its U.S. exposure, the Blues ran the NBA's Hawks out of St. Louis. Not long after, however, hockey dropped off the networks and stayed off for decades before getting back on (with a management team it hired out of the NBA office). Now diminished NBA ratings still run at least twice as high as the NHL's.

The NFL still can't figure out how to make the nation's No. 2 metropolitan area accept a team while its Monday night TV package annually posts new lows in ratings.

Now, as far as the NBA goes, you may have heard Jordan's not around anymore. . . .

These days he settles for running the Wizards from Chicago, or Jamaica, although he insists it's a full-time job. It would actually be a full-time job for God, proving finally that Mike isn't Him.

The NBA still has those young stars--Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady--that David Stern keeps nominating to fill the void Jordan left.

Then there's Rasheed Wallace, who might devour a referee on camera. Think of that on ESPN's plays of the week!

As far as replacing Jordan, the kids have been a hard sell, or no sale. However, as far as basketball, they're ready to rock.

Last spring, Duncan was hurt and there went the Laker-Spur matchup. This spring, the Lakers may have to get past the vastly improved, still-fun Sacramento Kings just to get to San Antonio . . . where the Western Conference finals would open and, perhaps, close.

The East has been the dummy in two successive scrimmages, otherwise known as NBA finals. The Pacers did put up a fight, but everyone knew who would win. If they didn't, the fact O'Neal was getting 38 points a game should have tipped them off.

This season, Alonzo Mourning's return makes Miami a legitimate threat to Larry Brown's hustling Philadelphia 76ers and you can't write off high-scoring Milwaukee, even if I always do.

The East could even produce a team with, say, a 33% chance of winning.

Oh, and Mike's comeback is looking likelier every day! And Charlie wants to go to the Wizards to play with him!

The NBA, it may not be all the way back, but compared with my portfolio, it's looking OK.

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