The NBA Rookie switched on the light in his apartment and sat down to study the itinerary for his first regular-season road trip.
"Let's see, we land in Rome on Pan Am, November 9th, 9:40 a.m., and don't play 'til the next night," the rookie said to himself. "Give me some time to check out the dol-say-veeda action, provided the jet lag's not too bad. Leave the morning after the game on Alitalia, land an hour later in Milan, play a game that night.
"Head to Madrid on Iberia the next afternoon, arrive two hours later—man, it takes an hour just to get from Sacramento to L.A., and they're in the same state!—and no game 'til the next night. Get some dinner at that Casa Carne, where they cook your steak right on the plate, or maybe some American food at the Hollywood Restaurant the vets talk about. Morning after the Madrid game, an hour hop to Barcelona. We can hook a couple hours of Mediterranean beach time before the game, if we don't have a shootaround.
"After that—yeah, here it is—Air France to Par-ee, baby! Coach is worried we got an off night there, but, hey, you can get in trouble in Salt Lake City if you're looking, right? The thing about Par-ee, you just don't have to look as hard.
"Leave Paris the morning after the game on Olympic Airways, change in Athens to El Al, get to Tel Aviv two hours later, game the next night. Vets say the Israeli fans are crazy, like in Boston Garden. But they also say Tel Aviv has the best discos and the best-looking women. And they love basketball players.
"Fly home on TWA the morning following the game. So, that's—what?—12 days? Six games, seven airlines, six cities, four countries. Wouldn't think it could be done. Coach will probably be happy if we get out with three wins. Same as any road trip, I guess. Next year we'll be over here even longer, with London and Vilnius, which is someplace in Lithuania, joining the European Division, and after that it's supposed to be Athens and maybe Munich and Moscow and Belgrade. And I thought we played in some strange places in college."
It wasn't too long ago that the NBA was like a tattered and dispirited army, marching out of step and casting worried glances at the sky for incoming missiles from all directions. At least half a dozen franchises were in financial trouble, drug use among players was widespread, labor unrest between the league and the players' association bubbled near the surface, and TV ratings ranged from disappointing to disappearing. The final game of the 1980 championship series between Julius Erving's 76ers and rookie Magic Johnson's Lakers was shown on tape delay by CBS, a slap in the face that commissioner David Stern would later call "our biggest public relations disaster of the decade."
But eight years later, the picture has changed. Not only has the league stopped retreating, but it's also on the offensive, looking for new places to conquer. Today, Charlotte, Miami, Minnesota and Orlando. Tomorrow? The world. In how many languages can you say Air Jordan?
The NBA has television agreements in 75 countries, on every continent except Antarctica, ranging from the obvious, like Italy, Spain and France, to the esoteric, like Qatar, a small, oil-rich country in the Persian Gulf. As best as the league can figure, 200 million foreign households could receive its games on a regular (60 games per year are broadcast in Italy and Spain) or irregular (14 are shown in Singapore) basis. At the same time, NBA merchandise is being peddled in some 40 countries outside the U.S., so that the wide-eyed Italian lad who watches Magic Johnson on television can run out and buy himself a Laker T-shirt.
And what's the NBA's manifest destiny in all of this? Well, you read the itinerary. European expansion. Believe it. It will happen.