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It has now been two full seasons since professional basketball was proclaimed the Sport of the Seventies. The projections forecast an instant replay of that familiar pattern of success set by pro football in the '60s: TV ratings would climb, attendance would soar, expansion and regional franchises would bring the sport to every city bigger than Boise and a merger between the NBA and ABA would guarantee the pros stability and prosperity clear into the 23rd century. By now the ruffles and flourishes of economic victory were supposed to have been heard off in the distance. Instead, all there is is a loud fizzle. Pro basketball as a business has become the world's largest Alka-Seltzer.
The latest pfffffft came last week at the second annual NBA- ABA All-Star Rip-Off in New York's Nassau Coliseum, where the Players' Associations of the two leagues showed some startling moves on the court and some dubious footwork Off it. TVS paid $175,000 for TV rights to broadcast the game. Advertisers and local stations spent more than that to put it on the air. Fans forked over $6 to $10 for seats—the highest ticket scale in the pros aside from The Forum in Los Angeles at playoff time. All expenditures were made on the Players' Associations' promise of a "confrontation between the greats of both leagues." To back up their claim, they advertised a roster for the game that included Kareem Abdul-Jab-bar, Walt Frazier, Jerry West and Zelmo Beaty. None of them played.
Even little old ladies wearing rose-colored glasses while they watched Beaty in the ABA playoffs last month could have foreseen that his sore knees would prevent him from making an All-Star appearance. The promoters used Zelmo's name in their advertising, then announced a few days before the game that he was scheduled for surgery instead.
Last year Abdul-Jabbar waited until three hours before the tip-off to announce he would not play because he was being married that day. This time he gave NBA Players' Association Attorney Larry Fleisher three days' notice, but no excuse for his nonappearance. Fleisher allowed that he felt some "annoyance" over Abdul-Jabbar's behavior, which was undoubtedly considerably milder than the reaction of fans who had already put down $80,000 for tickets in expectation of seeing the NBA's high scorer and Most Valuable Player battle against ABA MVP Artis Gilmore, who interrupted a European vacation to fly in for the game.
Frazier and West simply did not show up for the game, which the NBA won 106-104. Fleisher had announced the previous day that he expected West to play even though only moments before, NBA All-Star Coach Elgin Baylor had responded to a question regarding Jerry's arrival time in New York by saying, "He should get here about the first of October. He's not going to show up for this game."
The game itself was a good one, particularly when it came to the ABA's Julius Erving, whose swooping moves may have made even the most rabid NBA fans forget Kareem's absence. Still, if the Players' Associations hope to run another inter-league All-Star Game, they may need the O.K. of the Better Business Bureau and the Good Housekeeping seal of approval to get up enough public confidence to sell TV time or tickets. The game, largely a project of the NBA players' group, is designed as a declaration of independence from NBA management, which feebly tried to stop the players from appearing in a contest unsanctioned by the league. It also is a vehicle for bringing television receipts directly into the players' hands, an important factor since the sharing of TV revenues between owners and players is now, and will continue to be, a major bargaining question in all pro sports. But the players' forays into television, although they may have been lucrative, have not been successful. The All-Star Games this year and at Houston in 1971 suffered from the absence of top stars who refused to play. The NBA Player Association-supported One-on-One Tournament, which was shown at halftime of nationally televised games, was a flop. The production was badly done and again many of the best players did not participate, most of them because they considered the $15,000 first prize a pittance. The failures clearly point up the fact that the players still need the owners around to run the game as much as the owners need the athletes to play it.
The next question is whether anyone needs the sort of management pro basketball has had the past two years. NBA Commissioner J. Walter Kennedy has provided none of the leadership needed during this critical time, either because he is incapable of it or because the owners for whom he works—and who frequently deride him behind his back—will not let him. Whatever the reason, the basketball fizzle has continued this year over issues large and small:
?On the court, players and coaches, losers and winners, became so distraught over the ineptness of some NBA referees that at one time the Players' Association threatened to withhold payment of fines until changes were made. There are numerous ways to improve officiating, most of which require planning, a little hard work and some money. The NBA has decided to take the easy way out by trying to hire back some of the referees who left to join the AHA three years ago.
? NBA television ratings had risen, as predicted, over the past several seasons. This year they suddenly dipped because fans were no longer interested in watching programs consisting mostly of third-rate Eastern teams such as the Baltimore Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers instead of the Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics. Officials at ABC, which paid $5.8 million for the rights to televise Sunday afternoon NBA games, claim they must broadcast from the East because of time differences and viewing habits—West Coast fans are accustomed to sports on the tube at 11 a.m., but Easterners will not wait until 5 p.m. to watch an event from the West. Most teams, East and West, do not want to play games on Sunday afternoon anyway. They will change their minds soon, however, if the ratings continue to go down.
?Attendance increased modestly in both the NBA and ABA this season—a good indication, but not as good as it looks. A large percentage of the added attendance was limited to those cities, particularly the media centers of New York and Los Angeles, where the spoil was already doing well.