When it finally came to this—when NBA players stood at arena turnstiles, personally apologizing to all who passed by-nobody asked, "What, exactly, are you apologizing for?" Nobody had to. In 1999 to be a pro basketball player was provocation enough.
"Hello, I'm sorry," said Ivano Newbill, a 6'9" center for the Washington Wizards, as I entered the MCI Center one Sunday in January. Then, in a singsong voice to the woman behind me: "Hello, I'm sorry." Newbill never elaborated and didn't have to. Even though I had barely heard of him, his apology seemed somehow necessary.
The 191-day NBA lockout, which ended on Jan. 6, served as a shot of sodium Pentothal. Under its influence, many players said what they had theretofore only thought—that the rest of society existed to enrich them vastly. During the lockout Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson declined to make payments on three of his leased Mercedes. (He will be paid $70.9 million over the next six years.) Kenny Anderson, who plays for the Boston Celtics, fretted publicly about meeting the $12,500 monthly rent on his house in ... Beverly Hills (the average annual salary on his current contract: $7 million). As the work stoppage wore on, an instantly infamous charity game was arranged: 10% of the proceeds to starving children, 90% to needy NBA players. After a public outcry, organizers agreed to give all the money to the starving children, though the attitude of the players was summed up by union president Patrick Ewing (reported annual salary: $18 million), who told fans, "We have to put food on the table."
"We make a lot of money," Ewing, the New York Knicks' center, explained to a puzzled public, "but we spend a lot of money, too." Indeed, the Knicks even practice in a town called Purchase.
Which brings us to the owners. Last year the league opened a 35,000-square-foot store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The emporium offered fans such souvenirs as an $8,000 Waterford crystal vase—store personnel pronounced it vahz—etched with the likeness of Larry Bird. Eighteen-karat-gold watches, embossed with the Chicago Bulls' logo, were priced at $25,000. To be fair, inexpensive items were also available: A New Jersey Nets jacket could be had for a mere $2,000. But the impression was already indelible. The NBA, owners and players alike, had become Howard Hughes in his final days: money-gorged, mentally ill, egregiously out of touch with the rest of humankind.
Suffice it to say that when the lockout ended, there was much public relations work to be done. And undone. Fans would have to be wooed back, with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers. Each team would host one free scrimmage and one free exhibition game and promise to never again leave the toilet seat up. The Knicks sent every season-ticket holder a Valentine's Day card signed by a player and addressed by hand. "Watch us," pleaded commissioner David Stern. "See whether we become more fan-friendly."
Against my better judgment, I gave the NBA one more chance. I resolved to attend—as a fan—one intrasquad scrimmage, one exhibition game and one of last Friday night's season openers. Those three events in three cities turned out to be a morality play in three acts.
My first stop was Washington, where I would watch the Wizards scrimmage. An hour before tipoff, players stood at various gates, greeting fans and handing out leaflets bearing the team's 10 commitments. No. 10: "We will never forget that the fans are the lifeblood of this game." "Hello, I'm sorry," Newbill said, sounding sincere and handing me a flyer. The 28-year-old Newbill had played 134 games in three seasons. Washington was his fourth team in five years. He hardly seemed like the poster child for boorish NBA behavior. Quite the contrary. Yet here he stood, a serial apologist to rival the city's other compulsive mea culpa-copper, Bill Clinton. I sympathized with Newbill: The owners locked out the players, then crushed their union and now were making him stand here in little more than his practice shorts and tank top, apologizing for sins he hadn't committed. For some reason, when I picture NBA owners—which isn't often, I assure you—I see the short, stocky, top-hatted fat cat from Monopoly.
To my great pleasure, upper management was being made to eat it as well Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff was on the concourse, nodding weakly as a fan filibustered him about the half-court trap. The two men were in a food court, Bickerstaff's usual dignity somewhat dampened by the sausage-stand sign above his head: 21-BUN SALUTE.
I settled into a 12th-row seat and let die Wizards go to work on me. Within minutes the Wizards Dance Team was delivering a salacious 22-bun salute. More than a dozen young fans were given free basketballs. Bickerstaff came on the P.A. and said, "I can't tell you how much we've missed you." I fairly blushed and batted my eyelashes.