The NBA's Troubles Exposed

After Team USA's failure in Athens, a globalizing NBA must now restore America's place at the top of international basketball

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But what can a league that had a stratospheric run do for an encore? Starting in 1980, the NBA staged its greatest-ever competition, a rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers that touched the ether. At the same time it had attractive stars synonymous with that rivalry in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. By the time that rivalry ebbed, Michael Jordan had established himself as a singular talent learning to mold his mates into six-time champions. What is the follow-up tag to the Johnson-Bird-Jordan era?
During the playoffs last spring, Commissioner David Stern smiled and said, "Michael Who?" suggesting that the league has gotten past the retirement of the game's supernova and forever standard bearer, Michael Jordan. Is it so?
Jordan drew even the casual viewer to the TV set, hoping to get a glimpse of magic. Who fills that role in 2005? Is the commissioner suggesting that anyone in last year's Finals replaced Jordan for sheer "I-just-gotta-see-this-game" magnetism? Listeners were treated to countless Kobe Bryant numbers, especially his "scoring average on nights following days in Colorado," where his rape trial continued. The stats were offered up so frequently that broadcasters managed to pull off the ultimate sleight of hand: no one mentioned that the young "Next Jordan" missed 60 percent of his shots in the Finals. No comparable performance exists in the Jordan annals.
When Bryant beat the rape charges, it hardly mattered to some. In their minds he was a casualty. He had self-exiled himself from the promo lands of Gatorade and McDonald's and entered punkdom, a place from whence he still misses 60 percent of his shots. Then came Ron Artest, who would redefine thug. Not even Latrell Spreewell—who choked his Golden State coach, P. J. Carlesimo, during a practice eight years ago and was suspended for 68 games—served up the kind of water cooler litmus test and crystallized the sensibilities of a nation the way Artest and the brawl would.
Many opinions have come forth since the incident, many as errant as a Shaq free throw. Charles Barkley—who never runs out of incendiary remarks—holds the remarkable view that Artest was "defending himself." In actuality, he was retaliating. Defending himself was required only after he charged into the stands, where all the rules changed. The argument that Artest's fury was motivated by race is also specious. If the cup that landed on him had been thrown by a black Detroit fan, would Artest not have vaulted into the stands? No, this was unchecked rage. Artest is the same guy who had seven prior league suspensions and who, weeks prior to the fight, had the chutzpah to ask for time off from his onerous schedule to promote his rap album. Artest needs help. Until he gets it, basketball talent and adolescent idiocy will be running neck and neck, competing for dominance in his life.
Yet with Stern decrees triumphing over chaos, there's no reason to think that the league can't leap past this incident. It won't be easy, but talent still abounds among the circuit's players.
"Look, I think we have a lot of great players in the league now," Granik says. "There is a lot of interest about how McGrady is going to do on Houston with Yao [Ming], and before that in Shaq and Kobe. And then James and Anthony look like they can be scorers. Getting Michael Jordan you can't anticipate; he was a unique talent. But there are a lot of new players in the game, and remember, these players are only the age Jordan was when he was a sophomore in college. I think the stars are there and will continue to be there. As for the Celtics and Lakers—that was a particular high-water mark in the NBA, because year after year you had a great competition between them. That's something that happens by chance because of where players land and how teams are put together. We've had some good rivalries recently with San Antonio and Los Angeles [Lakers], but whether it achieves that status I don't know. Baseball has one now in the Red Sox and the Yankees. Those things don't last forever. But eventually you see other ones develop."
Stu Jackson agrees with the sanguine prognosis. "There is strength in numbers; there are great young players in this league: Duncan, Garnett, Iverson, McGrady, Bryant—the list goes on and on." Detroit was a throw-back champion, beating the favored Lakers. "I think Detroit was terrific and I don't think there was any basketball fan around the world who didn't appreciate the way they won the championship—with grit and teamwork. One can argue that this is the way basketball is supposed to be played."
No doubt. But for fans of the old NBA game—and the Olympics—the previous act will be a tough one to follow.
Kenneth Shouler, who lives in Harrison, New York, was managing editor of and a writer for Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia (Toronto: Sports Media Group, 2004).
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