Monday, November 28, 2011



The NBA Never Had It So Good

    When I began to cover pro basketball about 20 or so years ago, it was a hit-and-miss sport, mostly the latter.
    Franchises were like floating crap games. The teams dropped their bags wherever they could get a basketball and a couple of hundred people to pass the hat to. If you scratched the St. Louis Hawks uniform emblem, you might see Waterloo, Iowa stenciled underneath.
    The game was played in metropolises like Sheboygan, Oshkosh, Anderson, Ind., and Providence, R.I. The Tri-Cities Blackhawks (Moline and Rock Island, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa) were the forerunners of today's Atlanta Hawks.
    But, it wasn't only in prehistoric times that the game was part sport, part medicine show. The public thought the Harlem Globetrotters were the best team in basketball and, to sell out Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks usually had to share a doubleheader with the Globies.
    The public was slow to warm to the game. I can remember, as late as 1961, going to a playoff game on a Sunday afternoon between the St. Louis Hawks and the Los Angeles Lakers and finding a "throng" of about 2,800 at the Sports Arena. And the floor had players on it like Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan, Clyde Lovelette, Lenny Wilkens, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Rod Hundley.
    Even with that kind of talent, I recall Wilt Chamberlain was the highest paid player in the league at less than $20,000. The Lakers had been sent to L.A. by the then-owner, Bob Short, with instructions to his general manager to "keep the team going into the Pacific Ocean if they lose money there, too." The game ultimately thrived in L.A. where the population had a large number of New York expatriates who had learned the game in their youth in the boroughs of the big city, where basketball was "the poor man's polo."
    I bring this up because the commissioner of modern pro basketball passed through this week with a report to the media on the state of the game in this Year of Our Lord 1982.
    One thing is sure: It's never going back to Oshkosh.
    Lawrence F. O'Brien, once the Kennedy family's political mentor, and ex-Postmaster General of the U.S., reports that rumors of the game's terminal status are somewhat, if not greatly exaggerated. He broke up the fast break of the doomsayers with a little fancy "D" of his own under the basket:
    Rumor No. 1 had it that the NBA was in deep financial trouble and in imminent danger of collapse from top to bottom. "Not so," said Commissioner O'Brien. "In the NBA, one-third of the league is highly profitable, one-third is breaking even or almost, and one-third is losing money. But corrections in the league population of 23 are not contemplated because cable revenues are just over the horizon for even the most troubled franchises."
    Rumor No. 2 had it that television, the Great White Father of sports, is disenchanted with basketball as a prime time or even Sunday afternoon attraction. "We just signed a new four-year pact with CBS for $88 million and a $5.5 million-a-year pact with cable TV (ESPN and USA). That's $27.5 million a year we get to split evenly among our franchises. We signed for only two years with cable because we think the numbers there are going to go up substantially and soon."
    Rumor 3 had it that affluent white fans are becoming disenchanted with the almost all-black makeup of the game. "There is no evidence of that at all.  Attendance is up 8 per cent all over the league and some franchises are up dramatically — a 90 per cent increase in New Jersey. The color of the uniform means more to the fans than the color of the player."
    Rumor 4 had it that fat-cat owners are pricing the league out of business, as witness Magic Johnson's $25-million contract. "The average salary in this league is $214,500, and our figures indicate that two-thirds of all team revenues go to the players," O'Brien said. He did not say it in so many words, but he indicated that, when the league players association contract is up this year, the players may have to approach the bargaining table in a "give-back" frame of mind, that, like all labor, it might behoove them to sacrifice individual benefits to preserve the industry as a whole.
    Will players be apt to take such a statesmanlike view, he was asked, or will most choose not to care what happens to the goose now that they've gotten their golden eggs out of it? "We hold more informal discussions than other sports," O'Brien pointed out. "I have not personally dabbled into the preliminary negotiations, but I think we have a closer sense of fraternity and purpose about our league that some of the older, more-established sports."
    Maybe they should have. There are lots of us still around who remember when the "league" was a bus load of players riding through the cornfields of Iowa on the lookout for an empty gym and a bunch of farm workers who just got paid, when Walter Brown bought the Celtics for $2,500 and, when someone called the arena to ask what time the game would be played, the answer might be "What time would you like it?"

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