Let's see if we've got this straight. NBA basketball, as played by the Eastern Conference champions, the New York Knicks, is called "butt-ugly" and "thuggish" by USA Today, while the erstwhile black sheep of professional team sports, the National Hockey League, appears in the "Styles of the Times" section of The New York Times, where it is described as "hip," "sexy" and "cutting edge."
The Los Angeles Times, citing a 30% drop in prime-time television ratings during the conference finals, denounces the NBA playoffs as "a game of mud wrestling" and host to "the occasional near riot," while the trade magazine Sports Licensing International gushes that "the convergence of an exciting sport, a new executive team at the NHL itself and a renewed marketing emphasis at NHL Enterprises has made hockey the place to be."
Basketball, thuggish? Hockey, the place to be? Talk about your role reversals. When former NBA executive Gary Bettman took over as commissioner of the NHL last year, everyone predicted hockey would assume the NBA look: hip music in the stadiums; an influx of young, energetic marketing whizzes in the league offices; zippy new promotions. What no one foresaw, however, was the simultaneous and inexplicable NHL-ing of the NBA: on-court brawls spreading into the stands; a sudden and embarrassing franchise shift; bizarre, pugnacious behavior by out-of-control owners; outrageous refereeing gaffes; and spin-doctoring denials from the league.
"Attendance was up, TNT had record viewership during the regular season, and the NBA Finals will be seen live in 117 countries," says commissioner David Stern, bristling at the suggestion that the bloom is off his league's rose. "The business of basketball is doing great. This was the year the naysayers said the NBA without Michael Jordan was going to fall off the face of the earth."
No one is suggesting that the popularity of the NBA is in free fall. During the regular season TV ratings were virtually unchanged from 1992-93. Celebrities—Alec-Baldwin, Billy Crystal, Bill Murray—still stud the stands. Two expansion franchises, in Toronto and Vancouver, were admitted into the league after agreeing to pay record-breaking entry fees of $125 million each. And the estimated $300 million in retail sales that NBA Properties generated overseas showed that, internationally, there is life after Michael. But since the playoffs began, what has taken the plunge is the NBA's image as the rising star of pro sports.
What passes for Showtime! these days is the snarling, elbow-throwing New York Knicks—egged on by that yapping court-side terrier, Spike (Put a Muzzle on It) Lee—muscling home 70 to 85 points a night against the Jordan-less Chicago Bulls, the low-profile Indiana Pacers and the charisma-less Houston Rockets. It was enough to make hard-court fans pine for the return of Bill Laimbeer, not to mention Magic, Larry, Michael, Isiah and Dr. J, one or more of whom, until this spring, had been in the Finals every year since 1980. "The Knicks' style of play is like Ohio State football," admits NBA vice president Brian McIntyre. "Three yards and a cloud of dust. It doesn't do much for the average fan."
Actually it encourages the average fan to change channels, if he hasn't done so already. Even with the inclusion of a team from New York—the nation's largest market, at 6.68 million TV homes—NBC's ratings for the first game of the Finals fell 35%, to 12.6, from a year ago, when Chicago faced the Phoenix Suns. Imagine what they would have been had the Pacers, with their market of only 850,000 TV homes, made it to the league's showcase event. "We expected our ratings to drop," says McIntyre. "Last year's average rating was the highest ever, 17.9. It was the third straight year the Bulls and Michael Jordan were in the Finals, people knew them, and they were playing against Charles Barkley. We had a lot of dynamics in our favor."
Those were dynamics that the NBA cannot expect to see repeated anytime soon, unless Jordan comes out of retirement. Barkley, now the league's most charismatic player, is nearing the end of his career. And few of the emerging stars—Shawn Kemp, Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Chris Webber—have proved themselves to be either: a) capable of sinking a jump shot, a skill that has diminished in the NBA, or b) championship timber. Chicago's Scottie Pippen, one marquee name who does have three rings, will probably never live down his petulant refusal to play the final, critical 1.8 seconds of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Knicks, an incident that was just one of many lowlights the NBA has been exporting to 117 countries during these playoffs. A sampling of others:
•Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller, during Game 5 of his team's conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets, duking it out in the stands with a Denver fan.
•The Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat engaging in a bench-clearing brawl during 2 of their Eastern Conference first-round series.