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SI: Why fans are tuning out and why fans should tune in again
Until teams can control or unload players who behave badly, the league will suffer in the public's eyes
By Ian Thomsen
The NBA has lost touch with the red states, commissioner David Stern told team executives during a meeting last month. Stern realizes that people in the heartland view today's players as overpaid and out of control; the brawl between the Pacers and fans in Detroit on Nov. 19 only validated those feelings. That's why many team executives are urging Stern to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement (to take effect next season) in which the guaranteed contracts have lower maximum salaries and are limited to three or four years instead of six or seven. Teams want to be able to rid themselves of problem players more quickly, as a way not only to reestablish discipline but also to show fans that irresponsible behavior won't be tolerated.
"We need to be able to manage our own business," says one team executive, who criticizes the NBA's leadership for allowing shoe companies and other merchandisers to "hijack" the image of the league. True, the NBA has profited from this ancillary business, grossing $3 billion from sales of league merchandise worldwide last year, but it has created a mixed message. Many of the young people who buy jerseys and sneakers embrace Latrell Sprewell, who despite choking his coach in 1997 received a five-year, $62.8 million contract from the Knicks, then griped in October that the Timberwolves' offer of a three-year, $21 million extension wouldn't be enough, saying, "I've got a family to feed." Yet such outbursts alienate the middle-aged breadwinners and corporate executives who buy most of the expensive seats. And make no mistake: Ticket sales still account for the majority of NBA revenue.
Another stark example of how bad behavior can be bad for business is the Trail Blazers. In the happier 1980s and '90s Portland played to full houses, serving as a model for all that was right in the NBA's bullish world. But this season, through Sunday, the Blazers had sold slightly more than 10,000 tickets per game at the 19,980-seat Rose Garden, ranking them ahead of only the Hawks and Nets in paid attendance, a category that most owners consider more important than wins and losses.
What's turning off the faithful? A litany of suspensions, arrests and convictions by various Blazers. Take an ugly Jan. 28 argument during a film session between 23-year- old forward Darius Miles and popular coach Maurice Cheeks, after which management suspended Miles for a paltry two games. ("I might as well pack my bags," Cheeks would later say.) A proposed side deal, leaked to The Oregonian, revealed that the team was negotiating to reimburse Miles his $150,000 in missed salary if he displayed good citizenship for the rest of the season by not arguing with the coach and by making a better effort during private workouts. These side agreements are common practice in the NBA because long-term guaranteed contracts -- like the six-year, $48 million deal Miles signed last summer -- leave teams with little leverage. Salary-cap restrictions make Miles virtually untradeable; Portland's only hope is to encourage him to act better.
Like many executives, Blazers president Steve Patterson and G.M. John Nash are complicit in this sense of player entitlement. On the one hand they're pleading with Stern to negotiate financial reform; on the other, they re-signed Miles, forward Zach Randolph and center Theo Ratliff to overpriced, long-term deals since last summer, ensuring that Portland will be unable to immediately exploit any reforms. Owners are as responsible as anyone for turning the NBA into a profligate league: There are 57 players making $8 million or more this season, and at week's end 25 of them failed to rank among the top 50 in points, rebounds or assists.
Football teams are rife with discipline problems too, but their fans love that a malcontent like Jeff Garcia can be dumped because NFL contracts are rarely guaranteed. Much of the NFL's popularity is drawn from its simple value structure of authority and discipline. The NBA is a much more complicated reality show, a bruising ballet addressing many of the hot-button issues that divide our nation culturally -- race, immigration, personal responsibility and pursuit of the almighty buck. Only when the players and coach blend fluidly and bond selflessly, this year in places like San Antonio, Phoenix, Miami, Detroit and Seattle, are fans rewarded with inspiring theater.
Why Fans Should Tune In Again
The NBA is providing more end-to-end action and scintillating star power than it has in many years
By Jack McCallum
For much of the sports-watching population, the following assertion will inspire outrage, scorn and an avalanche of dissenting letters. But here it is: At the midpoint of the 2004-05 season the NBA appears to be well on its way to rehabilitating its product on the court and its image off it.
For a few crazy moments let's assume that an entire sport should not be defined by a single Friday night fight (as ghastly as the Malice at the Palace was) and that the NBA will not commit labor suicide this summer when the collective bargaining agreement expires (as its ice-skating counterpart has done). Let's take a look at all that's going right.
• Style points. After years of subscribing to the belief that 100 is, like 666, a figure to be avoided, teams have discovered that piling up points can yield stunning results -- that a winner can be built around the fast break, rapid ball movement and, in the case of the resurgent Suns and Sonics, three-point shooting. At week's end seven teams were averaging triple figures, five more teams than last season. Part of that increase comes from the foul line; referees have been told to cut down on physical play. But in most arenas on most nights the game just looks better -- more fluid, more graceful -- than it has in two decades.
Even Larry Brown, whose Pistons won last season with stingy defense and a sharp half-court offense, believes these quick-trigger offenses are more than a passing fancy. "The only way it's not going to work in the playoffs is if they don't make shots," says Brown. "Then, we'll all be geniuses defensively."
• Basketball's Patriots. If you're a running team, the Spurs will shut down your break. If you play deliberately, they'll push the tempo. If you don't like it rough, they'll body up on you. If you do like it rough, they'll play rougher.
Though they are defined by the peerless efficiency of Tim Duncan, San Antonio is far from boring. It has two of the league's most exciting players in swingman Manu Ginobili and point guard Tony Parker, both of whom have tempered freelance tendencies to work within coach Gregg Popovich's controlled offense. Yet like New England's adaptable Super Bowl champs, the Spurs seem just vulnerable enough to make a title less than a foregone conclusion, with eight of their 12 losses through Sunday coming by six or fewer points. The feeling in the West is that San Antonio's the team to beat, but it can be beaten.
• Stars out of rehab. No, not that rehab -- injury rehab and image rehab. One hesitates to mention Magic forward Grant Hill's recovery from left ankle surgeries, for fear it will jinx him. "It's like Ali [losing his boxing license] for three years of his prime and then coming back," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. That's a bit strong, but if there's one player everyone can root for, it's Hill.
And if there is one athlete whom almost everyone wants to bury, it's Allen Iverson. Line him up against anyone -- steroid-abusing Jason Giambi, cocaine convict Jamal Lewis, headhunting Todd Bertuzzi -- and many would rank the 6-foot Iverson public enemy No. 1. Yet no player in any sport competes harder and through more pain. After back-to- back 50-point games in December against the Bucks and the Jazz, Iverson laid 60 points on Orlando last Saturday night. And during an up-and-down 76ers season, he's been a model teammate.
• Young guns. Enough yammering about players entering the NBA too early. Youth movements have overtaken golf, tennis, figure skating and, for that matter, the business world. People: The ship has sailed. Live with it.
And what youth hath wrought is not merely LeBron James. The Bulls, irrelevant since Michael Jordan's last retirement, have risen in the East behind rookies Luol Deng, 19, and Ben Gordon, 21, whose spirited play has rejuvenated a couple of creaky 22-year- olds, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. "No team plays harder than the Bulls," says Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. "Anybody who doesn't think they can be a huge factor in the playoffs isn't watching the games."