Geezer hoops

NBA basketball is suddenly an old, cold victim of its own marketing strategy. Plus: What was baseball's Elian protest really about?

Published May 5, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Does anyone remember when NBA basketball went from being the hippest young sport in town to the Seniors Tour? As we trudge through this seemingly interminable first round of dreary playoffs, with games spaced so far apart you could play a World Series between them, the only really significant questions seem to be, "Will Indiana, led by Rik Smits (age 34) and Reggie Miller (35) get that home edge back?" or "Can the Knicks, paced by Latrell Sprewell (30), Patrick Ewing (38) and Larry Johnson (31), do it again?" or "Can David Robinson (35) carry San Antonio over the loss of Tim Duncan?" or "Where would Portland be without Scottie Pippen (35)?" or "Is this, finally, the year for Karl Malone (36) and John Stockton (37) and Utah?"

With ratings plummeting by 12 and 20 and now 25 percent over last year's, and those down from the year before, the NBA's failure to come up with a single bona fide young superstar is so obvious that even advertising executives, the suckers who overinflated the market in the first place, aren't going to be able to ignore it.

Just five years ago, GQ -- with Grant Hill, the then-official "Next Michael Jordan" on the cover -- ran a snotty and highly fashionable piece titled "101 Reasons to Hate Baseball." (Sample reason: "Its fan base is older and poorer than basketball's.") Now we know that Hill is not going to be the next Michael Jordan, and neither will Allen Iverson, and Vince Carter probably won't be either, and guess what: GQ's cover boys are Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra. Guess their fans aren't so old and poor as they were five years ago.

There are, of course, great young players in the NBA. Duncan, 24, may well prove to be one of the four or five best players ever. Carter, 23, is very good, but he really hasn't shown enough yet to merit the "Next Michael Jordan" tag. The next Pippen, maybe, but that's not what the NBA is looking for. Shaquille O'Neal is, finally, undeniably great, but at 28 he's not really young anymore, and anyway, he's never going to get top billing over Bugs Bunny.

There has been an amazing turnaround in the fortunes of professional baseball and basketball. At the end of the '80s, of the 10 best-known athletes in the United States, seven or eight had to be basketball players. The best-known baseball players were Babe Ruth, Nolan Ryan, George Brett and maybe a couple of other dead or ready to retire veterans. Now, the best-known baseball players are Ruth, Jeter, Rodriguez, Garciaparra, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., Pedro Martinez and maybe Mike Piazza and Chipper Jones, and I'll bet you that each is better known to the young sporting public than any current NBA star, except maybe Shaq.

What happened to the NBA? How did it get so old so quick? Many things happened, but in particular what happened is that David Stern's policy of promoting players as celebrities bigger than the game itself has come home to roost. In order to keep the game high profile, such a policy demands a player with the extraordinary combination of ability and marketability that Jordan possessed, and there isn't but one Michael Jordan per century. That can change: You can lead fans back to the game and away from mere celebrity worship with the right combination of marketing and product, but it takes time, and so far the NBA hasn't shown the inclination or the patience.

Meanwhile, another problem is eroding pro basketball's fan base: the college game. The NBA boom in the later '70s was set off by a college rivalry, Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, that continued into the pros. In other words, the NBA lucked into a situation it had no hand in creating, and into that mix leapt Michael Jordan. Unlike baseball, the NBA and NFL could always count on college to provide a cost-free training program for their sports, one that delivered the players to their doors finely honed and already household names. Now, with discipline unraveling in the college game and players leaving school early for big NBA contracts, the edge is gone. There are more and more kids coming into the NBA relatively unknown, and they're coming to learn the game, not to lead it. At the same time, the average age of the top-flight basketball players grows every season -- at precisely the same speed with which the ratings drop.

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As a longtime defender of the country's proudest and most successful union, the Major League Baseball Players Association, I'm absolutely flabbergasted at the reaction of both the union and ownership to the Elian Gonzalez boycott. First of all, since when is it a protest if you stay home from work and get paid? That seems to me to come more under the heading of "vacation." If I tell Salon that my last name is Hispanic, will I be given the week off, with pay, to make my political statement, or do I have to join the Players Association first? And since when does the commissioner of baseball grant players the right to make political statements on company time? Not when Martin Luther King Jr. or Bobby Kennedy were murdered, that's for sure.

Could it be that the Major League owners have become sentimental about the union and political statements because their very strong ties to Florida Republicans suggested an opportunity to embarrass the Clinton administration? The union's executive director, Don Fehr, is in an awkward position -- does he risk alienating the union's huge Latin membership by telling them that their action is in violation of the basic agreement, especially after the commissioner has said, "Hey, it's OK with me if you want to stay home"? But now, after having let Bud Selig seize the moral high ground ahead of him, Fehr has a chance to one-up the commish by announcing publicly that he'll expect similar good will from management the next time some players boycott over an issue a little less favorable to Republicans.

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On Saturday night heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis gave a clinic on precisely how much you can get away with in boxing if you're not Mike Tyson. In full view of millions on pay-per-view, Lewis wrapped his enormous left arm around challenger Michael Grant's neck and pummeled him with a right uppercut, knocking him silly. That Grant was probably going to be counted out in another minute or so anyway is not the point. If Tyson had done something so blatantly illegal he'd have been fined or suspended, and rightfully so. Instead, Lewis' punishment amounted to Larry Merchant asking him "Was it deliberate?" Deliberate? I've seen executions on "The Sopranos" that looked less deliberate.

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There can be no greater indication of how the moral fiber of this country has eroded than the sad news that came out of the FBI's investigation into bogus sports memorabilia. Some lowlife in California wanted $400 -- $400! -- for a baseball with a fraudulent Mother Teresa signature on it. Please don't tell me about the weekends she gave up to care for lepers. This bitch played three seasons of Class C minor league ball and never hit above .240, and they want twice as much for her signature as for Pete Rose? Spengler was right about Western civilization.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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