Posted: Wednesday June 22, 2005 12:16PM; Updated: Monday June 27, 2005 5:09PM
Richard Hamilton has helped take the Finals to Game 7 but hasn't help take the NBA into greater public consciousness.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
If our professional sports were magazines, the National Football League would be Fortune, Major League Baseball would be American Heritage, Major League Soccer would be Foreign Affairs, the National Hockey League would be, uh, The Saturday Evening Post and the National Basketball Association would be, of course, People.
The NBA has always been a creature of its most glamorous or controversial stars. Basketball can't help but be that way. It's such an intimate game: only five players on a team, dressed in sexy, scanty attire, their faces distinct, clear of any helmets or hats, the fans pressed close upon them. Team play in basketball can be beautiful, and it wins games, but the sport will always be owned by its heroes.
This was so from the very beginning of the NBA. From big George Mikan to Bob Cousy, Elgin, Bill Russell, Wilt, Oscar, Jerry, Dr. J, Kareem, Larry and Magic, Michael, Shaq and Kobe. As you listen to that roster, note that basketball stars are invariably known best by their first names or nicknames. They're like rock stars or supermodels. It's ironic -- and so instructive -- that of those elite in the last half-century, Bill Russell -- by far the biggest winner of them all, the epitome of a team player -- is the only one most commonly known simply by his real name.
Hockey, of course, has chosen to disappear completely -- although we have started to hear rumblings that Appomattox is at last approaching for union and management. But the NBA has proved this championship season that a whole league can disappear in plain sight.
The two teams who will play for the championship tomorrow night, San Antonio and Detroit may well be the best two teams in the league, but, sorry, nobody's paid any attention to them. It's a ghost championship. The NBA would've fared much better if, say, Cleveland had played Philadelphia. No, the Cavaliers and 76ers aren't much good, but they are led by two stars, guys whose shirts sell: LeBron and A.I. -- Messrs. James and Iverson. San Antonio and Detroit may be talented ensembles, but the NBA needs big names up in lights to stay in the public consciousness.
And, listen, NBA: longer ain't necessarily better. The league's regular season ended way back in the middle of April. That means fans in cities such as Los Angeles, Atlanta and Minneapolis-St. Paul have been without any visceral connection to the NBA for almost two months, as the playoff eliminations have dragged out, interminably.
Having lots of playoff teams is tempting for any league. It keeps interest up at the end of the season. There's more revenue in more cities. But it also means that people tune out as the post-season goes on ... and on ... and on. How many of us exhausted NBA fans have wanted to cry out, as Oliver Cromwell did to his Parliament: "You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing lately. ... Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"
Mercifully, basketball will finally absolutely depart tomorrow night.