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NBA in the 21st century

Page 2 comumnist

Generations come and go ever more quickly these days in the Nation of the Young. The speed of communications does not merely affect the speed of fads, it drives it. It is harder than ever for a geezer like me to stay up with the curve of popular culture, let alone be hip.

The Edge, right, Bono and U2 shared the NBA Finals spotlight with the Lakers and Sixers.
I am finally learning to admire the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger, and now I am given to understand that the hot band is U2.

U2? I thought it was a spy plane shot down by the Russians with Francis Gary Powers aboard, just in time to scuttle the 1960 Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit. But 1960! Hey, that was the paleolithic age when the NBA was first going on national TV -- in black and white, of course.

And anyone who cares about these things should know by now that U2 is a band, and that it obviously belongs on at halftime of an NBA Finals game, instead of people talking about the basketball game we're all watching, because we all want to be younger, most of all our network executives. The first rule of law in the world of television is that young is good, and old is bad. If the people who do the ratings call me at home to ask what I'm watching, I'm sworn to lie and cut 30 years off my age, lest I damage a program I really like.

But back to U2: If I have to make a choice, I'll take U2 at halftime if the alternative is that terrible NBC show, "The Weakest Link," with that dried up second-rate dominatrix.

Because I was in a bar in Carlisle, Pa., catching the game, with no control over the remote, I was forced to watch it. And I really hated it.

There were my pals, Bob Costas, Steve Jones, and Bill Walton, all good men of reasonable intelligence and civility, all signalling their network fidelity by enduring the halftime torture chamber with that grisly person. It seemed as if we were all being transported back to the sixth grade and that one teacher who hated you, and managed to make your life, instead of just unpleasant, out-and-out miserable.

Anne Robinson
Please don't subject us to this second-rate dominatrix.
So, class, here is today's question: What is "The Weakest Link"? And here is the answer. Any network that would put an ugly, stupid show like that on prime time and demean its own most talented people.

I have a suggestion for the next showing of "The Weakest Link." Before they put any more humans on, they should be forced to put on the heads of all three networks (not the people who run their news and sports divisions -- Ebersol, I'm going to let you off the hook this time, not that you deserve it after foisting that godawful football league on us -- but the top guys themselves, Eisner, Welch, and the other, nonshooting Michael Jordan) and let that dreadful woman have at them. Let them wonder what it is about her sex life that forced her to turn out the way she did. I might even pay money to watch that.

Speaking of paying money to watch something, this is the year that the torch was passed in the NBA. It was, without anyone noticing it all that much, a wonderful year for David Stern and the league. It marked with some finality the end of the Jordan Era -- and the post-Jordan Era, which was the requisite period of mourning for Michael, when we wondered whether we would ever see his like again, and whether the league would survive -- and it marked the coming of what might be called The New Kids On The Block Era.

Let us stipulate here and now that Michael was a great player, every bit as good as he was supposed to be, and that he was, in addition, a cultural phenomenon, someone so attractive and winning and fierce, that he transcended basketball as few athletes can transcend their sports. In that sense his real successor in the world of sports is not Kobe or Tracy, or Vince. His real successor is Tiger, because Tiger is this generation's principal athlete, in terms of transcending his own sport and pulling in people who do not normally care.

Michael Jordan
Once we accepted the fact Michael Jordan was gone, it became easier to appreciate the league's young talent.
(No, it's not you, Barry Bonds. I'm sorry, I know life is unfair, but that's the way it is.)

I'm a good example of the transcendent Tiger phenomenon. I do not play golf, haven't since I was a young man working at the Nashville Tennessean back in the '50s, and we played in the morning on public courses and worked in the afternoon. But I had to play with rented clubs, hitting right-handed instead of left, and because of that, I quickly lost my taste for the game. It's bad enough that I don't play it, but I don't watch it either. But I watch Tiger. I do this in my own way, of course. I tend to wait until a particular event is halfway over, and Tiger is a few strokes behind, hoping to see him make one of those patented late-round assaults.

That worked for Michael, as well; he was such a great fourth-quarter player, and the Bulls, in many of their championship years, were the smaller team, and he was a small man performing constant heroics in a game designed for big men. And, of course, there were his stunning looks, and his God-given charm as well. It was no surprise that when he graduated from the game, the network ratings dropped accordingly. It did not mean that the game was in danger; it meant that the previous figures had been unnaturally inflated by the Michael phenomenon.

Before we go on to the New Kids, let us briefly ponder the era that has so recently passed. If we take the signature players of that era (Bird, Magic, Michael and Isiah Thomas), what we have is an old-fashioned definition of stability and loyalty, one that we might not so readily see in the future. Each man played with only one NBA team. Only Magic had the good fortune to be drafted by a team that was already a winner. Isiah, in fact, was so appalled by the idea of being sentenced to Detroit and the moribund Pistons that he pleaded with them not to draft him.

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal has lifted his team to two championships -- but only after leaving one NBA city for another.
As former Celtics coach Chris Ford once told me, one of the things that marked the careers of Thomas, Bird and Jordan was their old-fashioned sense of obligation. Joining a bad team was part of the unwritten covenant that they wore: If you were truly a great player, you were supposed to bring a bad team to a championship level. Anything else meant that you had in some way failed. I am not sure, Ford said, that many players out there today feel the same way.

He's right. Among the New Kids, Shaquille O'Neal has already traded himself to Los Angeles, Tracy McGrady to Orlando, Chris Webber is about to leave Sacramento, Vince Carter is scrutinizing the world beyond Canada, and, of course, Stephon Marbury is unhappy with New Jersey, which he traded himself to because he was unhappy with Minneapolis.

Yet what was clear about this past year is that the new generation finally and definitively ascended, and it was nothing less than awesome. There had been a sense of it in the previous season when Kobe and Shaq came together and the Lakers won the title, when Kevin Garnett emerged as a singular player, and when Vince Carter and Webber showed their full talents.

But the first Laker championship had unveiled flaws as well as strengths, and it was a team which nearly imploded in the last two rounds. This year, not only did the Lakers dominate, but others came to the fore, including McGrady and Allen Iverson, who lifted his team and, in doing so, lifted the league at the end of the season.

Vince Carter
There's no denying the above-the-rim talents of players like Vince Carter.
Suddenly, mercifully, there was less and less talk about Michael. Suddenly, there was an awareness of something that should have been obvious -- that the talent level is simply awesome and, although there are highs and lows, good years and bad years, more talented athletes are coming into the league now than ever before. They are coming in too young, and not many of them are ready for the grind and the involuntary discipline of an NBA season, and not all of them understand the game, but the talent is there.

Years ago, when the great illuminating light of stardom first fell on Julius Erving, he seemed to be alone in doing the things above the rim that distinguished him. Now there are any number of talented young men who can do what Dr. J did -- and more -- but whose games remain somewhat incomplete.

When a talented but incomplete player comes into the league these days, the one problem is the uncertainty of what's going to happen -- will he become a great player, or will he simply slip away and never quite make it? Or will he stumble for a time, and then go somewhere else, and only later become a great player (Webber) in some other venue?

This rush of talent does not mean the league lacks problems. But the problems are, I think, different from what people have claimed. There are too few good teams playing other good teams during the regular season. There are too few teams that have three or more very good players. For there has been in the NBA, like every other major sports league, too much expansion over the last 20 years. The league would be far better if there were only 24 teams instead of 30. Or even better, only 20. If that happened, the regular season would improve overnight.

  Suddenly, mercifully, there was less and less talk about Michael. Suddenly, there was an awareness of something that should have been obvious -- that the talent level is simply awesome and, although there are highs and lows, good years and bad years, more talented athletes are coming into the league now than ever before.  

Look at where we are on the day of the draft. This is the year of the children. Most of the top six players will be kids -- three of four will be high school players, and one or two of the others will have all of one year in college. Three or four will be centers -- will they continue to improve, will they work hard once they become millionaires (and are forced to play for bad teams, which is often dispiriting in itself)? Will they end up -- and this is no small thing -- actually loving the game in the way that great players need to love it? Or will they be the next Benoit Benjamin? It's Russian roulette for the scouts.

The class of the draft, in traditional terms, is Shane Battier. He's very good, he's a grown-up, he's smart and his game is complete. But he is, in scout talk, a tweener; that is, he falls somewhere between a small forward and a power forward. Will he be big enough to play power forward in the pros -- or will he be a George Lynch with a better shot, merely a top journeyman? He's a perfect piece for a good or very good team that is already close to excellence and needs only that one extra bit of talent (think San Antonio or Sacramento). But put him on a truly bad team -- that is, the kind of team most likely to have a shot at him (Washington or Atlanta, for example) and the question is: Does he lift the team that much, or do you keep him for the requisite period of time, find yourself disappointed in him, and he in you, only to watch him go elsewhere on his own for a glorious rest of his career? I'm glad I'm not a player personnel man this season.

Meanwhile, I'm learning to love U2 in order to get ready for next year's Finals.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.

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