Just before Game 1 of last season's NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Indiana Pacers, NBA commissioner David Stern gave a "state of the union" speech to the assembled press. "We're going through change," Stern said, "but we're convinced things will pick up."
It's the "but" that tips you off that "change" in the first part of that statement really means "slump." In fact, as it turned out, "free fall" might have been the most appropriate phrase: The game Stern spoke before drew the lowest rating for an NBA Finals game since 1985. Subsequent ratings got a little better, but not by much.
Stern used the words "change" and "transition" so often -- "We're going through a transition," he said in closing, "but I fully expect things to improve" -- that somebody should have asked him specifically what he meant by the word. That is, what had the NBA been, and what was it going to be when it stopped transitioning?
But then, for all intents and purposes everyone knew what he meant. Translated from Sternese into English, he was saying, "We long ago put all our eggs in the basket of our national TV star, and we haven't yet found a replacement for him. We're still looking. But we suspect it's not Shaq, and it sure as hell isn't Allen Iverson."
There was another, more disturbing thought floating through the minds of many whenever Stern used the word "transitions": the idea that the Michael Jordan era was some kind of fabulous aberration and that what was really happening was that the NBA was reverting back to what it had been before Jordan. And that is in fact what is happening. When Magic Johnson says, "We have to establish our superstars. We need a guy to be the man in terms of Michael Jordan. So who is that going to be?" he shows that he is not really understanding the problem but is compounding it. The NBA's real problem isn't the drop in ratings for the championship series, it's the 21 percent drop in regular season ratings. But, no, that's really not it either.
The real problem for the NBA, which opens its season Tuesday, is that now that it has become huge through the devil's bargain with national TV, it is living and dying with the fluctuations in national TV. The simple fact is that Americans as a whole just don't watch anything as much as they used to, not "M*A*S*H," not "Seinfeld," not "Survivor."
National ratings for "Monday Night Football" are fluctuating, which isn't good for the NFL, but isn't disastrous so long as regional ratings on Sunday hold up. National ratings are way down for the World Series, which really doesn't matter too much to Major League Baseball because baseball's appeal and prosperity depend mostly on local TV.
And national ratings are way down for the NBA -- a league whose appeal is eroding on the local level: Ratings for the NBA were down on average nearly one-fifth from the previous year, and numerous playoff games featured empty seats, most conspicuously a Game 4 between the Pacers and Bucks at Milwaukee that failed to sell out.
The real transition the NBA needs to be in is away from David Stern, whose soul belongs to show business, not sport. What the NBA needs is to stop looking for another Michael Jordan and concentrate on the game, which was doing just fine before Michael Jordan and should be doing just fine now that he's gone, but which has gotten increasingly prosaic in recent years thanks to the emphasis on defense. Or is it a de-emphasis on shooting? Whichever, professional basketball is increasingly standing out as the only major sport that tries to attract younger fans while cutting back on offense.
Much of that, of course, is due to something far beyond the NBA's control, which is the failure to teach sound fundamentals at lower levels, particularly college. But don't put it all on the NCAA: 19-year-old rookie Darius Miles of the Los Angeles Clippers will no doubt pick up some valuable pointers about survival in his first year in the NBA, but what he wasn't taught about the game in high school he's not likely to learn in the pros. Pro coaches are too busy to teach. (And in the case of some players, such as Indiana's Jonathan Bender, an 18-year-old rookie last season, the coach is practically expected to baby-sit.)
Even to those of us who have advocated players' rights to free agency, the whole thing is getting out of control. How can any fan be expected to relate to an untested 21-year-old who is worth $93 million -- and who can't make a jump shot? Myself, I wish David Stern would drop the interviews and press conferences on image and marketing and devote himself to the creation of a summer instructional league. And, as any Laker fan who has ever watched Shaquille O'Neal air-ball free throws in overtime can testify, it shouldn't just be for rookies.
Of course, if you're like me, you care about these things, but they're not going to be foremost in your mind when it gets close to playoff time. What everyone will want to know then will be, simply: Who's going to win? I can save you some time.
There are 29 teams in the NBA, and of those you can eliminate the Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns, Vancouver Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards, Boston Celtics and New Jersey Nets right now. That's 16.
Let's see ... Philadelphia 76ers? Iverson's duet CD with Eminem will prove too distracting. Scratch them. Indiana? Reggie Miller is almost twice the age of the three newest Pacers, and if he gets arrested buying beer for them on the road this team is in trouble. Utah? Karl Malone and John Stockton are a combined 75 years old, which is older than the combined age of the entire NBA rookie crop. Uh-uh. Milwaukee Bucks? They looked good against a somnambulant Indiana in the early playoffs last season, but they were still just 42-40 and there is no way of knowing how forward Tim Thomas will perform with an NBA record six tattoos on his left arm. Charlotte? They're rebuilding again. And always will be. Seattle? They have two No. 1 picks on the roster. The bad news is that Patrick Ewing and Pervis Ellison are a combined 70 years old.
That leaves, from East to West, Miami, New York, Orlando, Toronto, San Antonio, the Lakers and Portland. A few years ago the NBA held a contest to name the new Toronto franchise. I suggested the Toronto Saurus. They didn't use it; they've never won. Cut them from the list. Will the Knicks be better with Patrick Ewing gone? Yes, but not so good as the Orlando Magic with Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. The Miami Heat can't become electric without Mourning, and Alonzo's gone for the season.
So that's what it will come down to: Orlando getting creamed by whoever comes out of the West. Really, that could be the Lakers, Portland or San Antonio. Of the three, the Lakers, bolstered by the addition of Horace Grant and Isaiah Rider, are likely to win the most games. The Trail Blazers, beefed up by Shawn Kemp, are most likely to beat the Lakers in the playoffs with Dale Davis and Will Perdue putting the clamps on Shaq.
This leaves my champion, the San Antonio Spurs, with a golden opportunity to sneak in. The Spurs don't have the best talent from top to bottom, but they have the game's greatest player (and the marketable superstar heir apparent the NBA curiously keeps insisting it doesn't have) in Tim Duncan. With Duncan back, David Robinson will once again draw the other team's second-best defender, and then get two years of his life back, and Derek Anderson will add speed and free throws.
San Antonio over Orlando, or anyone in the East, in five. No, make it three.