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Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Despite a Bad Rap, League Finds Rhythm

March 06, 2005|Mark Heisler

Michael Jordan left, the U.S. economy went into recession, scoring went down, the NBA Finals became walkovers, there was a melee that seemed to signal the end of the world as we knew it, and now the NBA's problem is ... hip hop?

According to a spate of stories coming out of All-Star weekend, the current image of the league is tattoos, braids and won't-play-in-the-red-states.

This crystallized in a Rocky Mountain News story that started: "Riots, terrorist attacks or a deadly confrontation between rival rap labels -- if anything happens as NBA All-Star events take place this week, Denver police and the FBI will be ready."

This might have reassured local residents but angered NBA officials, who grumbled privately it was "code."

Nevertheless, it's an image the league is concerned about. Either that, or it got Denver mixed up with Nashville when it booked half the Country Music Hall of Fame to perform at the game.

This was not a popular perception in Denver, which sees itself as a growing cultural center.

There were eye rolls when Toby Lightman led off with "Rocky Mountain High," which is considered b-o-r-i-n-g in the Rocky Mountains. Then Big & Rich did its hit, "Save a Horse [Ride a Cowboy]," proving rappers, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake weren't the only threats to family entertainment.

The show was roundly bashed, starting with TNT's Charles Barkley who railed, "I just hope whoever put the halftime together, they're getting their resume ready."

Now, before I try to debunk this whole thing, I should note I'm not really into rap. Nevertheless, I understand it's generational, or, put another way, payback to my generation for torturing our parents with Elvis. However, the suggestion that rap is weighing on the NBA -- as in a Sports Illustrated headline: "Why Middle America is tuning out the NBA" -- is a myth.

(Of course, this may have been the SI riposte to skews-even-younger ESPN the Magazine's cover, with Amare Stoudemire and rapper Nelly over the headline: "HOW HIP HOP AMPED UP THE NBA.")

Actually, the NBA's audience has not been shrinking in recent years but growing.

In Jordan's last season with the Chicago Bulls, 1997-98, TNT posted a 1.7 rating for NBA games. That dropped to 1.2 in 1999-2000, the season after the lockout and 1.0 in the 2000-01 season.

However, TNT's ratings then advanced to 1.1, 1.2, 1.4 and are now at 1.3. This is presumed to be a result of TNT's rollicking studio show, with Magic Johnson there for credibility and Barkley ripping partners Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson, the league, the TNT schedule, the game that was just on, etc.

In theory, this could be something else that doesn't work in the red states. In fact, it's so popular, TNT is looking for more ways to use Barkley and may have him do the weather next.

ESPN, which started shakily with a new staff and got a 1.1 rating in 2002-03, is at 1.3 this season, even with a drop-off for all the Laker games it scheduled, while it auditions new commentators on "Dream Job II."

(Hint: None of these guys is going to turn it around for you.)

Even if Commissioner David Stern won't say much about it until he gets union head Billy Hunter to sign on the dotted line, the industry has turned it around in recent seasons.

Last week's talks aimed at getting a fast agreement on a new bargaining contract reportedly went smoothly. The union extended Hunter's annual $1.5-million contract through 2010, confirming the players' approval of the expiring deal he negotiated in 1999, which will be the basis of the new one.

Contrary to the sky-is-falling stories, this has been an impressive performance in a difficult environment.

The NHL owners just folded their tent rather than continue losing money.

Baseball, which is supposed to be booming, has never come back to its pre-1994 attendance average per game. Despite thrilling postseasons in recent years, its World Series rating, which averaged 20.5 from 1991 to '93, dropped to 13.5 from 2002 to '04.

When in need of a line, I like to quote Shakespeare, like Cassius' advice in "Julius Caesar," in which he notes, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars."

The NBA's problem is not in some peripheral issue, like its ambience, but in its central issue, the actual product: the season, which is supposed to lead up to the marquee event, the Finals.

Since 1998, only one of the six Finals wasn't 4-0 or 3-1 after four games. Instead of mounting drama, there was a presumption the West would win, as it did for the first five of those six seasons by a combined 20-6, and the bottom fell out of the ratings.

Meanwhile, baseball not only had memorable postseasons, they featured the big cities east of the Mississippi, New York, Boston and Chicago. That meant story lines, "curses" and, best of all, the red-hot Yankee-Red Sox rivalry, adding to the drama on the field.

For its part, the NBA all but went out of business in Boston, Chicago and New York, where the once-storied Celtics, Bulls and Knicks had won 23 of the East's 31 titles.

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