The NBA's Anticlimax
Having drawn even with the Chicago Bulls on Sunday (page 42), the Utah Jazz have given themselves, improbably, a chance to win the NBA Finals. But to accomplish that the Jazz will have to overcome not only the NBA's most intimidating team but also a discouraging trend that dates to 1985. That year NBA officials abandoned the Finals' usual 2-2-1-1-1 format of home-and-road games for a 2-3-2 setup. Only three teams without the home court advantage have won the championship since then. (In '85 the Los Angeles Lakers edged the Boston Celtics, in '93 the Bulls tripped the Phoenix Suns, and in '95 the Houston Rockets swept the Orlando Magic.) By contrast, in the 12 years before the format change, seven teams without the home court edge took the title.
The league made the switch in part because the frequent finalists, the Lakers and the Celtics, forced some 7,800 miles of coast-to-coast travel in six days on the teams and the media. But while the current format has reduced wear and tear, it may also have tipped the competitive balance too far in favor of the team with the better regular-season record. "The 2-3-2 format puts a lot of pressure on the [lower-seeded] team if that team doesn't win one of its first two games on the road," says Jazz guard Howard Eisley. "Because then you've got to come back and win all three at home to have a realistic chance. That's tough to do in this league." In fact, no team hosting the middle three games has ever won them all.
The NHL has continued to use the 2-2-1-1-1 format for the Stanley Cup final, and in 1994 the New York Rangers waged a memorable seven-game battle against the Vancouver Canucks despite the 2,400 miles separating the teams. The NBA should return to the 2-2-1-1-1, which it uses in every other series. That format rewards a team for its regular-season performance with a reasonable home court edge. Besides, there hasn't been a coast-to-coast matchup in the NBA Finals in 10 seasons.
Losing Their Shirts
One of amateur sport's more enduring and endearing traditions, that of a defeated crew team surrendering its waterlogged racing jerseys to the oarsmen in the winning boat, has been scuttled by the NCAA. The practice, say the bureaucrats in Overland Park, Kans., constitutes gambling and thus has no place in collegiate athletics. "Where do you draw the line?" asks Steve Mallonee, a director of membership services for the NCAA. "If shirts are O.K., is a steak dinner O.K.? Is cash O.K.? The rules say there can be no offering or accepting of a tangible item. And a shirt is a tangible item."
It is also a symbol—of respect, camaraderie and continuity in this oldest of all college sports. "Our rowers don't go to the start of a race thinking about shirts," says Bob Ernst, coach of the University of Washington's national-champion heavyweight crew. "But if your boat gets to the line first, we'll hand them over. It's only right."
Clayton Chapman, director of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta, says his group will present the NCAA rules committee this summer with a written plea for an exemption, arguing that the handing over of shirts does not constitute "a bet for a material item."
"How could anyone seriously rule against this?" says Chapman. "It actually brings [opposing] crews together. This is what athletics is all about."