April blandness

The NBA sure takes its sweet time getting through the boring first round of the playoffs. Plus: Charlie Ward -- meshuggener!

By King Kaufman

Published April 27, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

The NBA playoffs remind me of that old joke about the Jewish mother complaining in the restaurant. "The food here is terrible," she says. "And such small portions!"

Oy, so dull, this first round of the playoffs. And they never play! It takes them forever to get through these rinky-dink five-game series of the first round, most of which are as close to a foregone conclusion as it's possible to get in major American professional sports.

Did you get excited when the Indiana Pacers, the No. 8 seed in the East, beat the Philadelphia 76ers, the top seed, in the opening game of their series this weekend? So did I. It was a great finish, with Reggie Miller's off-balance 3-pointer winning the game. But are the Pacers going to beat the 76ers two more times? Well, hey, maybe. And when I say maybe what I mean is: no.

The first round of the playoffs consists of the eighth seed in each conference playing the first, the seventh playing the second and so on. They've been following this format for 17 years. Thirty-four times a No. 8 seed has lined up against a No. 1. Two of them have won, the 1994 Denver Nuggets over Seattle and the '99 New York Knicks over Miami. That's a winning percentage of .059. The worst team in NBA history, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, won almost twice as often. They went 9-73, a winning percentage of .109.

The seventh seeds are 4-30 against the second seeds, for a winning percentage of .118. Sixth seeds are 9-25 against No. 3s, a .265 clip. As in Clippers. Oh, wait, the Clippers played .378 basketball this year, easily surpassing the historical record of No. 6 teams. The only teams that failed to play .265 ball were the Wizards, Warriors and Bulls. Heady company.

In short, there are few things in sports where the result is less of a mystery than the first round of the NBA playoffs, with the exception of the usually evenly matched No. 4 vs. No. 5 series, which the fifth seeds have won 20 out of 34 times (.588).

And it takes them two weeks to slog through this crap! The Sacramento-Phoenix series, if it goes the five-game distance, will take 16 days (16 days!) to play. Here's the schedule for the first three games: Game 1, four off days, Game 2, four off days, Game 3. Why they're making the Knicks and Toronto Raptors and the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz race through a five-game schedule in only 13 days is beyond me. The pace, my God, it's inhuman.

Sure, the idea is to stretch these things out to get more games on the weekends, for the benefit of TV. But might the ratings not improve if the playoffs actually created some excitement among people other than hardcore hoops fans? The way to do that? Ask the folks at the NCAA Tournament: Play every other day. Create some buzz, bubbies.

I think the NBA should drop the bottom two teams in each conference from the playoffs anyway, but as long as there have to be eight, let's let 'em play. At least we can get through this first round in nine days, and get on to a round where the outcome is a little more in doubt.

I've been trying to figure out what to make of the Charlie Ward Situation for a few days now. Ward, you'll remember, was quoted in the New York Times Magazine insulting Jews. "Jews are stubborn, E," he's quoted as saying to the piece's author, Eric Konigsberg at a Bible-study class with several players in a Milwaukee hotel room. "But tell me," Ward goes on, "why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn't want to accept?" Konigsberg, who is Jewish, says, "What?" and Ward says, "They had his blood on their hands." Teammate Allan Houston then quotes a verse from Matthew by way of backing up Ward.

NBA commissioner David Stern, who is Jewish, criticized Ward for his remarks but did not punish him, saying, "I do not wish to enhance his sense of martyrdom by penalizing him for giving [his offensive opinions] public voice." Ward spent several days apologizing, claiming his statements were taken out of context and generally trying to make nice with Jewish groups. He was booed lustily at the Knicks' playoff game at Madison Square Garden Sunday night -- though he was also cheered when he helped the Knicks win.

So. Maybe I'm getting calloused. Maybe after John Rocker, nothing surprises me anymore. But I'm finding it hard to get too excited about the fact that Charlie Ward, halfway decent second-string point guard, is an ignorant boob and a religious whacko. I mean, so what? I'm glad Stern decided not to fine or suspend him, because I think people should be able to say what they think. (And yes, I think it was wrong for baseball to sanction Rocker, who is an ignorant boob.) And I'm glad Ward got booed by the hometown fans. And I'm glad he apologized, though I don't believe for a minute that he's sorry for what he said.

If you believe Konigsberg's portrayal of the Knicks, pro ballplayers are a strange, isolated lot, unable to trust anyone because of their riches, unwilling to form bonds with their teammates because of the mercenary, itinerant nature of their business. That last seemed exaggerated to me in the story, but there's some truth to it.

There are many exceptions, but as a group, ballplayers are under- or indifferently educated men who are very rich and very famous at a very young age, and they've been told since they were small that they were special -- which was true; they were special, world-class athletes. It's a recipe for making some strange ducks. And with a media hungry to record their every utterance, it's inevitable that from time to time one of these strange ducks is going to open up his bill and stick a webbed foot in it.

I'd like to put Ward's mind at ease by quoting the religious sage Lenny Bruce, who confessed on behalf of all Jews that, "Yes, we did it. I did it, my family. I found a note in my basement. It said: 'We killed him. signed, Morty.'"

You ask why, Charlie?

"I dunno," Bruce said, "it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you know."

Now go play basketball, Charlie, and try not to say anything stupid for a while.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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