USA today sent a fashion reporter to the June 30 NBA draft to ask players, "Who are you wearing?" UCLA's Baron Davis was wearing Troy McSwain, Duke's Elton Brand was wearing Rochester Big & Tall, and the whole lot of these nitwits were, within minutes, wearing me out.
Wally Szczerbiak was wearing Tommy Hilfiger, with whom the Miami of Ohio star had huddled before the draft to "talk about pinstripes."
Talk about pinheads. Szczerbiak and at least six of die top 10 draftees told TNT, which telecast the draft, that they looked forward to playing at "the next level," where they hoped to take their new teams to "the next level." When Minnesota's Quincy Lewis, picked 19th by the Utah Jazz, said all of the above to a Minneapolis TV station, I turned to a basketball coach friend of mine and asked him what, exactly, was this Utopian Next Level? "The Concierge Level at Marriott," he said. "And the only thing he'll be taking there is Karl Mal-one's suitcase."
By the way: Did I say "Wally ZER-bee-ak"? I meant to say "Wally SIR-bee-ak," the new pronunciation used by everyone on TNT, which arbitrarily introduced this coinage in much the way that network anchorpeople one day decided that Nicaragua would henceforth be called "Nee-kah-RRRAH-wah" and that your foyer was from this day forward a "foy-AY."
But then, pomposity, self-importance and inappropriate solemnity are the hallmarks of all televised sports, to say nothing of televised sports drafts. This applies to the imperious enunciations of commissioner David Stern ("With the twenty-sixth pick in the Nineteen Ninety-Nine NBA Draft, the Indiana Pacers select Vonteego Cummings... .") as well as to the preposterous reverence of the TV "analysts" deployed to various "war rooms." When TNT correspondent Scott Hastings said he had recently spoken to Randy Wittman, anchor Ernie Johnson wondered what Wittman had to say about the Cleveland Cavaliers' coaching job, for which the Minnesota Timberwolves' assistant was said to be the leading candidate. "Aw, man, I didn't go there," Hastings huffed. "He's a friend of mine."
TNT did manage, almost apologetically, to ask Rhode Island star Lamar Odom why, with a fortune at stake, he disappeared for the most important week of his life rather than show up for scheduled workouts with NBA teams. Odom replied that he needed to chill that week and "get my head straight." I don't know who he was kidding—I don't even know who he was wearing—but no elaboration was deemed necessary. TNT didn't want to go there.
But so what? The NBA, after all, is all about appearances, about pinstripes and pat answers. Arizona's Jason Terry knows the drill: When he was selected 10th by the Atlanta Hawks, Terry strode to the podium in a suit evidently sewn together from the reflective Mylar blankets given to runners at the finish line of a marathon. The draftee then paused for the traditional grip-and-grimace photo op with Stern, who always seems to be mumbling something as the flashbulbs pop, presumably, "Listen, this is my league, and if you cross me in any way, I'll have your head in a vice faster than you can say 'lockout'! Capisce?" All the while Stern keeps pumping the player's hand as if it were the arm of a slot machine. Which, in essence, it is.
On draft night The Tonight Show reran a recent program with an appearance by the inadvertent role model for these newly minted professionals. The show was a post-basketball coming-out party for Michael Jordan, a chance for MJ to define his next role—to take it to die next level, as it were. So Jay Leno formally introduced Bijan spokesman Michael Jordan. And I thought, Didn't he once have something to do with...basketball? Come to think of it, didn't all of these guys?