The NBA has no idea what it will take to win you back, and the truth is, neither do you. All you know is that free admission to preseason games won't do it, nor will a few extra autographs. These seem like token gestures considering all that has happened. The players and owners ignored you during die lockout, and now they're making you feel less like a fan and more like the target of a marketing strategy, a slice of a pie chart, and that's equally insulting.
No advertising campaign, no cute commercial featuring one of the league's slickly packaged celebrities, is going to rekindle your affection for the NBA. You need a reason to care about the league the way you used to, so we went out and found five of them: players, not necessarily stars, who make up a model team. Together they embody all the qualities that can make the NBA likable again: charisma, passion, lightheartedness, humility, attitude, athleticism and, yes, an appeal to desirable demographic groups. If you were choosing an All-Star team, this would not be the starting five, but for a league looking for a new beginning, these players are perfect.
After the ugliness of the last six months, the fans need someone to brighten their mood, which is why the captain of this team is New Jersey Nets center Jayson Williams. More than any other player, Williams makes sure that the face of the NBA has a smile on it. He is the new Charles Barkley: witty, opinionated and sometimes outrageous. In a league dominated by players with carefully crafted images, Williams's personality comes through as refreshingly unfiltered. He is always ready with a one-liner ("I got a lot of hugs from my teammates when I signed my new deal—or maybe that was just guys reaching for my wallet"), and no topic is too delicate for his sensibility. When the Nets held a preseason bowling party in Tampa in 1996, Williams got the feeling that the other patrons weren't used to seeing huge young black men use the lanes. "One old lady," he said, "just about gave Yinka Dare her purse."
The No. 2 rebounder in the league last season, Williams, 30, belongs on this team because he knows not only what's funny but also what's right. Toward the end of the lockout, his voice was one of the loudest calling for commissioner David Stern and Billy Hunter, executive director of the players' union, to lock themselves in a room until they reached an agreement. Shortly after the settlement, he signed a seven-year contract for $100 million and almost immediately pledged $20,000 to the vendors and other workers at the Meadowlands sports complex who had lost money because of the labor dispute.
"I understand why we make people mad," Williams says. "People break their backs working for $300 a week, and some guys in this league make $10 million and act like they can't play hard for two hours. My solution is, before a guy makes big money in this league, he has to do the nine-to-five, he has to work in construction or something. Then he'll appreciate what he's got, and the NBA will be a better place." Talk shows and sitcoms have discovered Williams, and now he does his wisecracking with Bill Cosby, Michael J. Fox, David Letterman and Chris Rock.
Once Williams defuses the fans' anger, the first player they should see is someone who gives an honest day's labor for an honest day's pay. That's why the power forward for the starting-over five is Bo Outlaw of the Orlando Magic. His name sounds as if it should belong to a trash-talking prima donna who checks the stat sheet before the scoreboard, but Outlaw, 27, is exactly the opposite of that. He is the quintessentially unselfish player, the kind whose hustle wins him a special place in the hearts of fans.
If the 6'8", 210-pound Outlaw has an ego, it doesn't show. Maybe he lost it when he went undrafted out of Houston or when he spent part of the 1993-94 season in the CBA. He straps on his goggles every night and simply goes about his job, slam dancing under the basket with power forwards and sometimes filling in at center, where his opponent is always beefier. Outlaw keeps rebounds alive with second and third efforts, dives into the stands to save possessions and sets picks without complaint.
"If people see me out there doing all of this running, diving and sliding, they're going to appreciate that," Outlaw says. "When you're working hard, people just take to it."
His averages of 9.5 points and 7.8 rebounds last season were the highest of his five-year career, but you get the feeling that Outlaw barely notices his numbers. Last season, when he put together his first triple-double, he downplayed the achievement. "A triple-double?" he said. "Isn't that some kind of hamburger meal? Three patties and two layers of cheese?" Orlando coach Chuck Daly has compared Outlaw to Dennis Rodman, but the difference is that Rodman pats himself on the back for doing the dirty work. "I was just out there getting in the way" is how Outlaw likes to describe his performance after games. To watch him is to remember that even in the ritzy neighborhood that is the NBA, there is still such a thing as a working man.
Unpretentious players such as Outlaw have their value, but the appeal of the NBA has just as much to do with glamour. The league needs stars if it's to repair its relationship with the fans. The NBA has more than enough celebrity players, both young and old, but the starting-over five needs a rising star, and Milwaukee Bucks third-year shooting guard Ray Allen makes the team because he is coming up the right way.