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Some people are obviously turned off by the NBA for racial reasons, others may couch their rationale in more palatable—but essentially the same—terms. "A lot of people use the word 'undisciplined' to describe the NBA," says Al Attles, the black coach of the Golden State Warriors. "I think that word is pointed at a group more than at a sport. What do they mean by it? On the court? Off the court? What kind of clothes a guy wears? How he talks? How he plays? I think that's a cop-out."
O'Brien agrees that the NBA has an image problem, but he feels that it is mostly a result of poor promotion. Next year the league will spend $500,000, quadruple its current public-relations budget, to hire an outside agency to pump up its image. But the fact that the league is resorting to improving its image indicates dissatisfaction with the current product. The league also will conduct a national survey to find out just what areas need the most fixing. Says O'Brien, "I would be immensely disappointed and surprised if our survey showed race to be a problem."
O'Brien could start the survey with a few phone calls to those in the NBA's inner circle. A top executive from one of the league's charter teams said last week that the gravest problem might be that "the teams are too black." When it was suggested that black domination seemed to be a fact of life, and that the league has no choice but to turn it into something positive, to promote it, he replied, "The question is are they [the black players] promotable? People see them dissipating their money, playing without discipline. How can you sell a black sport to a white public?"
"This is something we must no longer whisper about," says Denver's Scheer. "It's definitely a problem and we, the owners, created it. People see our players as being overpaid and underworked, and the majority of them are black. What can we do about it? Just try to get people who will work hard, and I don't think we'll have a problem."
Phoenix is the only NBA team with more whites than blacks. (It is also the NBA city with the lowest percentage of blacks in its population.) Nonetheless. General Manager Jerry Colangelo insists that this is merely an accident. "We look for good people," he says. "A player's race has nothing to do with anything. As far as our fan support goes, I honestly believe that if we had 10 black players and won, we would do just as well. When you're winning, fans forget skin color, salaries, everything. Winning solves all problems."
For the record, Phoenix is winning, but is marginally down in attendance. Around the NBA, "good people" is often a euphemism for white players who won't cause problems. Most coaches want a "good person" to fill the seats at the ends of their benches. Denver has John Kuester and Kim Hughes. Detroit has Ben Poquette. Indiana has Steve Green. Kansas City has Gus Gerard. San Diego has John Olive. New York has John Rudd. These players are lucky to be white.
As compared with today's figure of 75%, 10 years ago the NBA was 60% black. Seven of the top 20 scorers were white—now only two of the 20 are. In the intervening years, as the percentage of blacks steadily increased, the NBA has more and more reflected varying elements of American black culture. "You always hear basketball referred to as the 'city game' or the 'ghetto game,' " says Phoenix' Paul Westphal. "That's never rung true to me. Not just because I'm white, but because there are a lot of black players in this league who are not from ghettos or inner cities at all."
That's true, but "playground basketball" caught on just about the time that the Knicks and Celtics, who played vigorously patterned basketball, stopped winning their championships. Television billed games as "Dr. J vs. Rick Barry!" or " David Thompson vs. Pistol Pete!" It focused attention on spectacular slam dunks, the epitome of playground ball, running replay after replay of them and eschewing explanations of the intricacies of team play. Halftimes were devoted to slamdunk or Horse contests.
This year the NBA persuaded CBS to junk the "circus act" halftimes and replace them with human-interest features on players. And next month the network may drop the regionalization concept and air a single game nationwide each Sunday afternoon.
"This is still a team game," says Seattle Coach Lenny Wilkens. "Unfortunately, we don't always show it that way. People want to see one guy score 30 points and make a great slam dunk. But that is not the game."