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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

Even the View From Gotham City Isn't Pretty

June 09, 2002|Mark Heisler

NEW YORK — Talk about your desperate times....

Their exciting playoff run just smashed into a wall and they're running out of time to pick up the pieces. And, let's face it, who says they'll ever be back in this position?

Say good night, NBC.

Oh, and the New Jersey Nets are in trouble too.

Not that you couldn't see this coming six months ago, but it's still rare that a mismatch lives down to its billing as these NBA Finals have. The Lakers led by 23 in Game 1 before the Nets rallied to make it look respectable at the end ... whereupon the Lakers waxed them by 23 in Game 2.

NBC's ratings, up 14% entering the last Finals on its expiring contract, promptly cratered and, unless the Nets pull off an upset today, can still go south from here.

Of course, the Nets are back in their turf in Truck-Stop Land, or so we hear. The league has headquartered the media in midtown Manhattan and is busing it back and forth through the jammed tunnels to New Jersey.

This is a nice interlude for the media, since no one on the New York side cares much about this series. The big sports stories here this weekend were Barry Bonds playing in the House That Ruth Built and War Emblem in the Belmont Stakes, not to mention the out-of-town events like the Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson fight.

The New York Times and New York Post didn't even send a columnist to Los Angeles. The Daily News planned a special section but killed several stories when ad sales came up short.

"I told you last year that people in New York don't care about Philadelphia," said Bloomberg News' Manhattan-based Scott Soshnick. "People in New York don't care about New Jersey, either."

Of course, there are a few million front-runners in Gotham who would have come over, if only the Nets could have done any front-running. But that's how it is in your modern, West-tilting NBA these days.

A year ago, the 76ers put up a fight, winning Game 1, almost winning Game 2 and sustaining interest through Game 4, when they still had a chance to tie the series on their home court.

However, the East, which was puny enough then, was even worse this season, which doesn't seem like a hopeful trend for the NBA.

Now, a plague-on-both-your-

houses mood prevails in Gotham.

The Nets, noted the New York Times' Mike Wise, "can be hard to root for too. Sure, Jason Kidd is awesome on the court. But his wife is quoted more than Mike O'Koren, the assistant coach who has spent, oh, his adult life living and breathing Nets basketball. They have a great young coach in Byron Scott, who is objective and humble enough to believe that Byron Scott should have been the coach of the year. Their energetic young forward, Kenyon Martin, came from Bob Huggins' mercenary program at Cincinnati (see Nick Van Exel, Ruben Patterson). And any time anything goes wrong--from blown leads to bad airplane food--everyone blames Keith Van Horn."

Oh yeah, the assistant coach thing. If a writer wishes to interview one of them, he has to arrange it with the Nets' public relations staff, which will want to know what he intends to ask.

The Nets are personable from President Rod Thorn on down but a Kremlin atmosphere prevails, nonetheless, courtesy of Lou Lamoriello, the NHL Devils maven who was put in charge of the entire operation by (shudder) YankeeNets boss George Steinbrenner.

Lamoriello, also known as "Tal-Lou-Ban," could have a little softer image, himself.

Facial hair is forbidden for employees, with a notable exception made for Net players, because it obviously wouldn't be a good idea to tell Kidd to shave his goatee this close to free agency.

At a recent game, Lamoriello tangled with players' union head Billy Hunter, who had lost his pass and wanted a replacement. Things got so heated, the union rumbled about filing an National Labor Relations Board complaint.

So much for the local favorites.

Nor are the Lakers popular around here. The New York Times' Harvey Araton recently wrote them off, noting:

"Impressive as they are, the Lakers fit the superficiality of their market and fuel the critics who scorn the NBA as star-struck to the point of being scripted. Nothing against the unmatchable [Shaquille] O'Neal, the Jordanesque [Kobe] Bryant and the Zen-coach [Phil] Jackson, but, conceptually, the Lakers are prefab, the cast of 'Friends' hastily assembled as a ratings buffer while anticipating the dissolution of 'Seinfeld.' For that reason, they are less compelling, in my book, than the juggernauts of the NBA past."

It's true, there may have been East teams such as, say, the Knicks, which would have been more authentic representatives of their presumably deeper markets, but, unfortunately, they all stunk.

The only problem with the Lakers, who have appealing stars and are easy to deal with--at least in the Finals--is finding a worthy rival from the woebegone East.

The last two Finals became one-sided and this one started out that way. Without drama, the series are merely ceremonial and, outside Lakerdom, b-o-r-i-n-g.

Reseeding the final four, my solution, would address the problem, not that I'm holding my breath.

However, if this series ends quickly, not to mention mercifully and the ratings tank ... and it happens again next season ... anything could happen. In David Stern's NBA, all you need for revolutionary change is low-enough ratings.

Not that this one is over yet. There's time for a last stand before the lights go down and the party ends.

For the Nets as well as NBC.

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