Pro basketball urgently needs an Urkel, what TV types call a "breakout character," an individual who emerges during this long-running series of NBA playoff games as the league's Fonzie or Frasier or Flo. Otherwise, David Stern can kiss my grits good-bye. His ensemble of "stars," assembled from spare parts to replace Michael Jordan, doesn't work in today's telemarketplace. Television viewers need a single out-sized hero or villain. In the calculus of Q ratings, J.R. Rider plus Patrick Ewing does not equal J.R. Ewing.
Fortunately, TV breakouts—like prison breakouts—can happen overnight. Or they can require years of tunneling with a teaspoon. But they are inevitable. One cannot hide a blazing lamp beneath a bushel basket forever. Eventually the turbocharged talent of an Abe Vigoda will pull away from the pack on Barney Miller, giving a grateful public its Fish.
The relevant question here is, who will be basketball's Fish (presuming it isn't journeyman Matt Fish)? Certainly not the tiresome twosome, John Stockton and Karl Malone: TV couples have always been too self-canceling for true superstardom—Huntley codependent on Brinkley, Lenny leg-shackled to Squiggy. What about Allen Iverson? Too WB. Allen Iverson's mom? Warmer, but no. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, Jason Williams—do any of these Sweathogs want to be our Barbarino? That, more than the quest for a championship ring, is what these playoffs are about.
Many are casting-called, only one will be chosen. Once upon a time the NBA could be supported by a tripod of Bird, Magic and Jordan, and the league was brilliant, like the early M*A*S*H of Hawkeye, Trapper and Henry. But soon we were left with just Jordan, and the league resembled the lamer, still-often-inspired, more commercially successful M*A*S*H of an overworked Hawkeye, barely abetted by Winchester and Potter. Everyone else—B.J. Armstrong ( Bulls), B.J. Hunnicutt (M*A*S*H)—was a bit player. The post-Jordan NBA is now, it pains me to say, AfterMASH, the shapeless, unspeakable spinoff that was, if memory serves, canceled during the first commercial break.
When pro sports became mere programming for the world's Disneys and Murdochs and Turners, the games became as beholden to TV's formulas as Three's Company ever was. If Norman Fell folds his seminal Stanley Roper character, the public demands, as replacement, nothing less spectacular than Don Knotts in an ascot, playing leering landlord Ralph Furley. Historically, all the NBA's Bill Curleys and Bob Hurleys exist to revolve around its Ralph Furleys. Sosa and McGwire can coexist in the convoluted daily soap that is baseball. But basketball—with its iso plays, its jazzlike solos, its playground ethos of one-on-one—craves a single super-duper-star. In today's NBA, one's company. Two's a crowd.
The most popular series currently on television has an ensemble cast, but even ER had to offer up Dr. Doug Ross to the stardom gods. Which is not to say that Jordan is irreplaceable, any more than George Clooney will be. To the contrary: When Shelley Long left Cheers, when David Caruso left NYPD Blue, when Mr. Hooper prematurely departed Sesame Street, each show hit its creative stride.
Not so the NBA, whose early postseason ratings were down from those of a year ago. Jordan was exactly right, it turns out, to have called his teammates "my supporting cast." Without him, Pippen has proved himself a Potsie, Ron Harper a Ralph Malph, Toni Kukoc a mere Shortcake Cunningham.
That's the problem with these playoffs: too many Chachis, not a single Fonzie. Too little "aaaayyyyy" in the NBA.