Jordanless NBA To Give it a Go

Jordanless NBA To Give it a Go

February 5, 1999

   On Jan. 21, the NBA announced that its 204-day lockout, which nearly had led to the cancellation of the season, was over. It announced later that day that it would be the first sports league to release its master schedule on the Internet.

When the schedule was posted, the league recorded 449,000 visits to its website, nba.com, breaking its single-day usage record other than for the NBA Finals. According to league technowizards, there also were more than 2.7 million page views that day. (In other words, once people saw the schedule, they went to other areas on the site. Or vice versa.)

The only time there were more visits to the site, the league said, was after Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, when Michael Jordan, of the team formerly known as the world champion Bulls, hit the winning shot against Utah, which ended the series, the season, his career, and Chicago's run of titles.

No one can be sure if the massive number of visits to the website means there will be a concurrent number of visits to NBA arenas when the league officially opens its truncated 1998-99 season tonight in 12 locales. But you couldn't blame commissioner David Stern if he decided to change the league's marketing strategy from Madonna's "You Must Love Me" to Bob Seger's "Still the Same."

This season will be unlike any other. Fifty games have been compressed into 89 days. For the first time in almost two decades, teams will have to play three games in three nights. Houston, for instance, which has a Hall of Fame front line of 30-somethings Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, and Hakeem Olajuwon, has a stretch in which it plays at home, in Minnesota, and in New Jersey in three days.

"Man, what the hell were they thinking?" Barkley said recently. "I know for damned sure they weren't thinking of me. I can't play three games in three nights."

No one is immune from the vagaries of the schedule. The Celtics play a Friday night game in Portland and a game in Washington on Sunday afternoon. Yet they also have an entire week off (starting next Wednesday) and play only one Saturday in March and April. Denver has a stretch of eight games in 10 days, and Minnesota makes three West Coast visits in a space of 16 days. Miami will host the Celtics Tuesday after having played Sunday afternoon in New York and Monday night in Charlotte.

The schedule wasn't the only item of interest released Jan. 21. Trades became allowable on that day, and that kicked off a wild two-week flurry of player movement, resulting in the following:

- Pippen: He re-signed with the Bulls with the knowledge that he'd be traded to Houston, where he hopes to add a seventh ring.

- Jordan: He called it quits again. You may see him at a golf course near you, and surely he'll stop by Brookline this fall for the Ryder Cup.

- Latrell Sprewell: The man whose singular act of assault and insubordination horrified even non-hoopsters has repented and is with the Knicks.

- Dennis Rodman: The man whose many acts of stupidity have insulted everyone from players to Mormons is unemployed. While that seems fitting, someone will probably call him soon.

- Antonio McDyess took less money to go to Denver and Tom Gugliotta took less money to go to Phoenix. While the moves are radical in concept, neither lad is expected to suffer financially for his decision.

- The NBA ordered its teams to have two exhibition games and one practice free and open to the public. Fans crashed through doors and broke turnstiles to attend a Celtics-Raptors exhibition in Toronto, and thousands of season ticket seats were empty when Miami hosted Orlando.

The question remains: How soon will the league win back its fans, assuming it has such a chore, and what will the league look like now that Jordan, who propped it up this decade, is gone?

The consensus seems to be that the league will prosper as always, although perhaps not immediately. NBC, the official network of the Bulls during the Jordan reign, has dropped Chicago like a hot plate and now is zeroing in on the Lakers. Coaches talk of wanting to rebuild rivalries, and one benefit of the new schedule is that teams will play nearly all their games against conference opponents.

"I do think that that may be a way the NBA wants to go now just to sort of create that kind of scenario and allow the personalities to grow out of it," said Miami coach Pat Riley. "It has been a player-driven sort of enterprise when it came to marketing over the last four or five years, and rightfully so. I mean, how can you argue that? The sport went to its height of popularity with that particular approach."

It went to the height of its popularity largely - some might cyncially suggest solely - because of Jordan. He brought the casual viewer to the game. He seamlessly moved from Madison Street in Chicago to Madison Avenue in New York. Television ratings were much lower when Jordan was not featured.

There is no one to take his place, either from a basketball excellence standpoint or from a marketing/advertising/ratings standpoint. No one disputes that. The league is now moving into uncertain territory, having had one icon or another (Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Jordan) to highlight since 1979.

"It's not about one person," Stern said. "When Larry and Magic retired, everyone said the league was over. The person who will follow Michael is the person whose team wins. It's an unforgiving league."

Added Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens, "I think the focus has to be on teams, just like in the NFL. It's more the team, and certainly the stars will rise to the top. But we need to sell basketball. And in selling basketball, I think there will be a lot of teams that all of a sudden are going to emerge. Michael was great for our league, but the league will survive, and it will survive when all of us are gone. I think, let the stars emerge. Whomever emerges as the torchbearers, let them emerge on their own."

The suggestion that rivalries might help revive fan interest is intriguing but probably unrealistic. Rivalries, to the extent they can exist now, are in place in many areas already. And next season, when the schedule goes back to 82 games, we'll see less conference play, not more.

Miami and New York already have a built-in rivalry based on the mutual antipathy generated by Riley's controversial departure from the Knicks. Indiana and the Knicks also have a rivalry of sorts, punctuated by Reggie Miller's periodic outbursts in Madison Square Garden. The Knicks and Nets may even develop something this season, especially if New Jersey plays to preseason expectations. Out West, there is Jazz-Lakers, something that has surfaced in the last couple of years.

But there is nothing to compare to the Celtics-Lakers of the 1960s or the '80s. Maybe a Celtics resurgence will come in time to foster a third showing in the next century. The Boston-Philadelphia rivalry in the '60s and '80s was almost malevolent. All they have in common now is two coaches who were courted by Paul Gaston.

Over the next three months, fans will have more than a passing opportunity to get reacquainted with the NBA. There will be games every night, plenty of television, and as Seattle coach Paul Westphal noted, "What are the fans going to do when they're flipping around the dial, stop at 'Three's Company' instead of Sonics-Lakers? I don't think so."

It's still the best basketball on the planet, even if the conditions aren't the greatest. It's still the best players on the planet, even if the best of all no longer is interested and many are in midsummer shape. It's still the best globally marketed sport in the world, and to paraphrase John McKay, there are millions of Chinese who do care if there is an NBA season.

"Basketball didn't leave," Milwaukee coach George Karl said. "What I think is that while we didn't have the NBA, we found that the foundation of basketball is the NBA. The great players, the great coaching, the great competition . . . I still think the competitive nature of the professional athlete is the foundation of where everybody wants to be, where everybody is going towards, and what the league has to do is just go play and show some positive enthusiasm for the game."

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