Ouch. "There's a real ebb and flow here," says Thorn, who, as head of the NBA's competition committee, is considering such options as widening the free throw lane or making it trapezoidal, and moving the three-point are closer to entourage outside shooting. Thorn adds, "Five or six years ago they were saying here was no defense in the NBA. Maybe ill we have to do is have the referees call he games closer. It's becoming harder to jet open because players are impeding progress away from the ball."
"At the end of the year we'll take inventory," says Stern. "Low scoring is certainly a subject for discussion. And any violence is too much violence." There are other concerns that Stern needs to address. One is the possibility of a strike before next season by the players, who are seeking to rid themselves of the salary cap. Another is the prospective sale of the Minnesota Timberwolves to a group from New Orleans that includes boxing promoter Bob Arum. Everyone knows that the Superdome, where the Timberwolves ire likely to play, is a lousy site for basketball. "It wouldn't be wise for me to comment further on that," says Stern when asked about the sale, which must still be approved by the league. "And to put the possibility of a strike into historical perspective, in '83 the players said they'd never approve a salary cap. They threatened litigation. They threatened to strike. In '88, the same thing. We've had some very loud confrontations with our players before, and we managed to settle them without work stoppages."
Still, the perception remains that the NBA, which had appeared to be on such smooth ground, is stumbling. Stern now uses words like "mature" when discussing the NBA, whereas three or four years ago the buzzwords were "hot," "now" and "happening." Today if you want to hear those buzzwords, better head over to the NHL, where the landscape appears to be one of endless possibility.
Disenchanted NBA fans who have channel-surfed to ESPN may just have rediscovered hockey. The production of the telecasts, with innovations like the goal-cam inside the net, has been superb, the games thrilling and competitive, and the results refreshingly unpredictable. Series after series featured magnificent goal-tending, last-second scoring and overtime after overtime after overtime—18 games had gone into OT through last Saturday's Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, and a record-tying six had gone into multiple overtimes.
The gritty Vancouver Canucks, down three games to one to the favored Calgary Flames in their opening round, won three straight in overtime to advance. The upstart San Jose Sharks, led by the scintillating goaltending of Arturs Irbe, beat the potent Red Wings in Game 7 in Detroit. The New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers played an epic conference-championship series, with Games 5, 6 and 7 building to a stunning finale in which the Devils, their goalie pulled, tied the deciding game with just 7.7 seconds left. The seemingly accursed Rangers finally prevailed in double OT.
Throughout, the play was fast and hard hitting but seldom tinged with the viciousness that has plagued the NHL in the past. There were the occasional high-sticking infractions that led to players being thrown out of games, as happened to Vancouver's Pavel Bure in Game 3 of the finals, but few acts of recognizable malice.
Of course, it didn't hurt the league that the Rangers, in their bid to break the Curse of 1940, became one of the top sports stories of the year. Or that New York's captain, Mark Messier, whose face looks like it was carved from the side of a mountain, did a decidedly unhockey-like thing by guaranteeing a win in Game 6 over the Devils and then backed up his boast, Joe Namath-style, with a hat trick. Or that the Canucks were led by Bure, the aptly nicknamed Russian Rocket, who, even while wearing a helmet and visor, has become a matinee idol.
"Honest, genuine and sexy—that's what I keep hearing about our players," says Bernadette Mansur, the NHL's vice president of corporate communications. "This game has been underexposed, and that makes it fresh. From a marketing point of view, we have to do a better job with our athletes. Mark Messier was fabulous when he made his prediction, and we'd like to get more of the players to show their charisma. To do a little chest-thumping. But all that will come."
Gone is the image of the NHL player as a toothless face-buster. Fighting in the playoffs, this year and last, has been practically nonexistent (though it remained a problem during the regular season). Brawling was almost entirely eliminated. Even the fans' image has changed: Pre-Bettman, when the NHL was the boil on the pro sports boom of the 1970s and '80s, hockey's spectators looked like the spillover from Wrestlemania. This year elegant couples like John F. Kennedy Jr. and Daryl Hannah (also Knick attendees) and Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal were spotted at NHL games. Big Apple mayor Rudy Giuliani has confessed to having a hockey goal set up in the backyard of Gracie Mansion, the mayoral digs, for his eight-year-old son, Andrew.
But the real news was not that the Rangers generated tremendous excitement in New York, long a great hockey town. No, it was that hockey began making strides in the Sun Belt. It started last year when Wayne Gretzky led the Los Angeles Kings into the Stanley Cup finals. Then, for once, the NHL did expansion the right way, allowing the Florida Panthers and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to field competitive teams in their first season. Both sold out nearly half their games. The Sharks were the surprise team of this season's playoff's and, as the most improved team in the history of hockey from one year to the next, won the hearts of the Bay Area. And the second-year Tampa Bay Lightning averaged more than 21,000 fans a game. "We're not just a cold-weather sport," says Bettman. "We're getting a national footprint."