Two fundamentally sound and harmonious teams didn't merely fail to excite the nation's sports fans--they turned them off. Here are a few ways the NBA can start to win them back.
1) Commissioner David Stern should move into crisis mode. The business indicators (corporate suite sales in the arenas, merchandise receipts overseas) may show that the NBA is humming along, but the league's popularity is in free fall in the red states--a fact the commish all but acknowledged in March, when he brought in consultant Matthew Dowd, a strategist in President Bush's reelection campaign. Stern must pound that notion home to his stars, as he did when the league was struggling in the early 1980s. Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson and LeBron James, take heed: Everything is not O.K. Two decades ago Stern established a de facto partnership with players such as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, who helped sell the league. The current crop of superstars sells only itself.
2) The league's top players should show up and trumpet the Finals. Pay them to be there if you have to. Instead of having Shaq weigh in from Miami about Kobe Bryant ("I'm not familiar with that name"), fly him to San Antonio to discuss the virtues of Tim Duncan. Throughout the postseason the league trots out the legends of the game, but Bill Russell waving to the crowd doesn't generate the same buzz.
3) The players should be presented as full-bodied and interesting characters. Where are the crowd shots of Rasheed Wallace's wife, Fatima, and their kids during the game? Where is Tim Duncan's wife, Amy? The networks have lived and died over the years, particularly during the World Series, with shots of spouses covering their faces at tense moments or holding their sleeping children. Here's a bulletin: NBA players have families too.
4) If defense-oriented teams are going to make the Finals, the league should persuade its TV partners to do a better job explaining the ABC's of D. Large and mobile players such as Rasheed and Ben Wallace are doing extraordinary things that even Russell was not called on to do. Just as NFL broadcasters have made clear to fans what schemes like Cover 2 are, so does Hubie Brown need to decode the myriad "defensive rotations."
5) Stern should prohibit league business from being conducted during the Finals. Even Major League Baseball, generally clueless in the area of public relations, strongly discourages teams from making transactions during the World Series. The Lakers could have hired Phil Jackson on June 25, two days after the conclusion of a scheduled Game 7. --J.M.