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It has been a long decade in the NBA

That was only 10 years? It seemed longer, like the Hundred Years War.

December 27, 2009|Mark Heisler
  • Indiana coach Rick Carlisle and referee Tommy Nunez try to keep the PacersÂ’ Ron Artest, right, and DetroitÂ’s Ben Wallace apart during Auburn Hills brawl in 2004.
Indiana coach Rick Carlisle and referee Tommy Nunez try to keep the PacersÂ’… (Getty Images )

As the first decade of the New Millenium runs out, I'd like to say, on behalf of the NBA:

That was only 10 years? It seemed longer, like the Hundred Years War.

The NBA has had a dramatic rise from its arrival as the bumpkin of major league sports, but also has had setbacks that were like Columbus finding the world was flat, after all, and sailing off it, before its 21st century adventure.

The 1970s were supposed to be the NBA decade after the New York Knicks won two titles and Madison Avenue flipped for Walt Frazier and Willis Reed (and Greenwich Village, at least, for house hippie Phil Jackson).

Instead, it wound up as the Tape Delay Decade, as the Knicks went back in the hole, New York forgot it was the Mecca, and CBS put on NBA Finals games at 11:30 p.m. so they couldn't torpedo their ratings.

The 1980s turned out to be the Golden Age with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird reviving the Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry, one or the other appearing in every Finals of the decade, and the two squaring off in three.

The 1990s was the Age of Michael Jordan, the NBA's zenith.

This was the Decade of Living Dangerously, seven years of defining moments that looked like neon bulbs in an arrow pointing straight to hell, ending, amazingly enough, in a dramatic turnaround.

I don't know how it happened, but this is what happened:

2000 -- With Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, two of David Stern's young stars who are supposed to carry on for the retired Jordan, the Lakers beat Indiana, 4-2.

The TV rating is 11.6, down 38% from Jordan's last Finals, in 1998.

2001 -- The Lakers repeat, beating Philadelphia, 4-1. Rating: 12.1.

2002 -- Lakers 4, New Jersey 0. Rating: 10.2.

2003 -- San Antonio 4, New Jersey 2. TV rating: 6.5, a record low.

With the Lakers stumbling in the second round, the NBA finds out how bad things can be.

With the Eastern Conference in ruins, New Jersey makes consecutive Finals appearances after winning 52 and 49 games, respectively, which wouldn't even get you home-court advantage in the first round in the West.

With clueless ABC making its debut, Stern is flambeed for putting the bulk of his TV package on cable.

2004 -- Detroit 4, Lakers 1. TV rating: 11.5.

As if answering Stern's prayers -- he once joked his ideal matchup was the Lakers against the Lakers -- they make the Finals but are upended by Larry Brown's Pistons.

In the real bad news, Lakers ownership scatters the team to the winds, trading O'Neal to Miami.

2005 -- San Antonio 4, Detroit 3. Rating: 8.2. Lowest for a seven-game series since the tape-delay days.

The season is almost beside the point, under the pall of the Auburn Hills riot.

2006 -- Miami 4, Dallas 2. TV rating: 8.5, a minimal increase that suggests how much audience they've lost with an interesting series and O'Neal, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki, not to mention Dallas owner Mark Cuban.

2007 -- San Antonio 4, Cleveland 0.

TV rating: 6.2, the new record low -- on merit after the League Office Riot.

The lawmakers in the league office garrot their own postseason, suspending Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench after San Antonio's Robert Horry hip-checks Steve Nash into the scorer's table.

It's a burn-the-village-to-save-it ruling, ignoring an easy out: Tim Duncan has done the same thing after another collision, spared by the fact play didn't stop.

Says league vice president Stu Jackson, defending his ruling: "It's not a matter of fairness. It's a matter of correctness."

With Game 5 in Phoenix after the Suns tied the second-round series, 2-2, in San Antonio, Stern says his guys didn't torpedo the Suns, it was "two Phoenix Suns who knew about the rule, forgot about [it], couldn't control themselves or had coaches who couldn't control them."

Whoever killed it, the postseason is definitely dead as the Spurs finish 10-1 against the undermanned Suns, Utah Jazz and Cavaliers.

Now it's as if the gods are basketball fans and they're upset too.

Bryant goes off on the Lakers in his days of rage after the season, demanding to be traded.

Surpassing that in another historic low point, referee Tim Donaghy admits betting on games he officiated in collusion with gamblers.

2008 -- Boston 4, Lakers 2. TV rating: 9.3, beating the 2008 World Series.

The gods, who must be over it, guide Andrew Bynum's development, chill out Bryant, restore harmony in Lakerdom and revive the even deader Celtics, who have been past the first round four times in 20 years and didn't reach the playoffs in 10.

Earthlings pitch in to help. Minnesota General Manager Kevin McHale donates Kevin Garnett to his old team, turning down the Lakers' offer of Bynum and Lamar Odom.

It's actually providential for the Lakers as Bynum surpasses Greg Oden as the center prospect of his generation.

Then, with the Lakers looking for a big man only because Bynum has gone down, Memphis donates Pau Gasol, the last piece of the puzzle.

2009 -- Lakers 4, Orlando 1. Rating: 8.5, despite going only five games.

Now as the decade runs out, the Lakers look set for a long run.

The East has marquee matchups weekly with an elite level that includes the reinforced Celtics, the young Magic, and the LeBron James-O'Neal Cavaliers.

Exit smiling, anyone who still can.

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