Is There Life After Mike?

If we can believe Lawrence Funderburke, the Sacramento Kings' resident apocalyptician, the world is coming to an end in the next five or six years. Funderburke bases his prediction on biblical prophecy and says his primary regret is that his career will be cut short.

Meanwhile, NBA commish David Stern and the people who sell all those $85 (and $200) game tickets may have more immediate things to worry about. To wit: The end is near for Michael Jordan. The greatest basketball player in the history of the sport. It's even nearer for the team he led to five league championships in the past seven seasons. Jordan's name and that of the Chicago Bulls are now household words in Bangkok as well as Bangor, but the gospel might not continue to spread.

Will there be life after Mike? Which product of high-powered marketing--Shaq? Grant? Kevin Garnett?--will take on the awesome burden of carrying the NBA's phenomenal success into the new millennium? Or will it require half a dozen new superstars to haul the load? Which team--San Antonio? The Lakers?--can emerge as the next dynasty? Or must the game's gazillion fans content themselves with lukewarm league parity and a traveling trophy?

The answers aren't clear, but most savvy hoop-folk agree on one thing--better make that two things. One: The Denver Nuggets belong in a Tuesday-night gym league. Two: Thanks in part to Scottie Pippen's tantrums against management, this is the year that Da Bulls fall on dere butts and Jordan says goodbye to the Windy City--if not to the game itself. Unsettled and distracted, Chicago is just 9-7 so far, and it has lost three of its first six road games. For the moment, Atlanta (Bonjour, Dikembe), Charlotte and, in particular, the New York Knicks all look like good bets to unseat Michael and Company as the Eastern Conference champion. In the final, the revitalized Lakers might win the whole thing.

Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of conjecture.
But let's not ask All-Star guard Latrell Sprewell (aka the Oakland Strangler) his opinion right now. Last week Sprewell made Dennis "Kick the Photog" Rodman look like a choirboy when he attacked Golden State head coach P.J. Carlesimo at practice, choking him and throwing a punch, then springing off the stool to fight round two twenty minutes later.

Carlesimo's sin? Apparently, the coach had the temerity to offer instruction to his leading scorer during a shooting drill. Hey. When you've got a bank account the size of Latrell's, you don't need any tips. Not even when your team is 1-13.

Anyway, don't look for Sprewell to replace Jordan as the next NBA icon. He's been canned by his team, banned for a year by the league, and cut loose by Converse, whose sneakers he endorsed.

As for Pippen, his constant bitching about how Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Jerry Krause used him as trade bait earlier this year has gotten old with his teammates. Now he demands to be traded. They feel betrayed. And for the time being, Pip's sore foot continues to keep him out of any lineup: It probably won't start to feel better until he takes it out of his mouth.

That's just the start of the trouble in Chicago. By this summer, coach Phil Jackson will be replaced by Iowa State's Tim Floyd; Rodman could be dyeing his coif on Pluto--or in the WNBA; after collecting $33 million this season, Jordan (who's not talking for now) will either sign up for a twilight year or two with a contender or take off for the golf course. The Bulls will have to start anew.

Despite the antics of thugs like Sprewell and nutjobs like Rodman, the game Jordan leaves will--largely because of him--be the undisputed heavyweight champion of U.S. pro sports. Team revenues are fat. TV ratings have gone through the roof. Fans in dozens of other countries are new hoops junkies. And the manufacturers of NBA jackets, caps and sneakers can't turn the stuff out fast enough to supply every hoops-mad kid who wants it.

Commissioner Stern is regarded in most quarters as a creative genius on the order of Leonardo da Vinci, and his Mona Lisa is Jordan. While baseball flounders and even the tough guys of the NFL are starting to wonder where the next generation of fans is going to come from, basketball flies high above the sporting crowd. It's almost as if everyone's forgotten that a couple of guys named Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had to save the game's bacon less than twenty years ago.

"Michael is bigger than Babe fuckin' Ruth!" the ever-eloquent Charles Barkley has crowed on more than one occasion.

Fine, but now that His Airness is verging into the past tense, the question seems to be: Is the game bigger than Michael fuckin' Jordan?

We'll see. The current momentum may be enough to sustain the NBA's popularity for years, especially if charismatic new stars emerge. Splendid Michael-era veterans like Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing and Barkley have all shined in their time (if all a little less brightly than the man who dominated the game), but it's new blood that's expected to carry the day--in the era of abject greed, uncoachable prima donnas and the subjugation of team play by individual ambition.

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