Hoop-De-Doo

Have you heard? The Denver Nuggets are serious about winning. About winning games and winning back the hearts of the fans.

Of course, Napoleon was serious about winning at Waterloo. The Germans probably liked their chances in Stalingrad. And the Miami Dolphins rolled into Mile High Stadium Saturday afternoon filled with every confidence that they, too, could win--beating long odds and the even longer reach of history.

When Nuggets owner Charlie Lyons says he's serious about winning, who's going to take him seriously? The Nuggets are Denver's forgotten pro franchise, a distant number four on the list, a joke--and short of signing up Jayson Williams, luring Michael Jordan out of retirement and announcing the second coming of Larry Bird, last year's worst-in-league team is likely to find itself back in the Midwest Division cellar again this season. At least the season will be short--50 games instead of the customary 82. This will provide ex-Lakers guard Nick Van Exel fewer opportunities to wonder anew how he wound up here in the first place. And for new Nuggets coach Mike D'Antoni to stick his head in the oven.

As for winning the fans back, our Mr. Lyons (and the rest of the NBA owners) might be--just might be--fooling themselves. To be sure, these are men unaccustomed to losing. Their pockets are stuffed with ill-gotten billions, which tend to pump up the confidence level, and they have just shot the NBA players' union dead in the street at high noon--something that didn't happen at the end of the ruinous 1994 baseball strike. But getting sufficient butts back into the seats at Madison Square Garden or McNichols Sports Arena to pay the bills may be a taller order than these captains of industry ever imagined back when they were cooking the books in the trucking business or making bad movies in Hollywood.

It's safe to say that even hardcore pro-hoops fans are angry and alienated by six months of pointless argument between tall rich guys and short rich guys. It's safe to say that most Americans, always an inventive lot, have found alternatives to $50 or $150 NBA tickets on which to spend their disposable income. It's safe to say that most citizens of this peerless republic wouldn't bat an eyelash if league commish David Stern were marched out to the guillotine at dawn tomorrow, or if union rep Patrick Ewing were suddenly deported to Kazakhstan. As for greedy player agents like David Falk, most folks wouldn't mind a bit if a posse rounded up the lot of them and put them to work as hospital orderlies.

On the other hand, a few lucky NBA fans will get to see an exhibition game for free!

This magnanimous gesture, Stern assures us, will spread its wings over the entire league. Before the truncated 1999 regular season gets under way on February 5, all 29 NBA teams will open their doors to the unhappy and the unwashed in the interests of "reconnecting." Little matter that inviting the peasants inside the palace for a practice game is a little like Pol Pot telling his fellow Cambodians how much he loves them. Hoops fans are supposed to be grateful. On their way to and from their Rolls-Royces, players who have ignored their adoring fans for years might even sign a couple of autographs. League orders.

But don't expect a professional quality of play until, say, mid-March. Here in Denver, it could take a little longer--maybe seven or eight years. "When [the season] starts out," out-of-shape Orlando guard Nick Anderson warned the New York Times the other day, "it's going to be ugly, real ugly. Believe me."

We believe you, Nick. As a matter of fact, we've gotten used to considerable ugliness over the last 200 days. Seen in its best light, the eleventh-hour agreement that ended the NBA lockout and salvaged the season one day short of the so-called "drop-dead date" was a buzzer-beating miracle on the order of the Jordan jumper that beat the Utah Jazz. And proof that man, after all, is a rational beast. Seen in its actual light, the pact was another demonstration that, in a war of attrition, deep pockets and corporate might will always outlast working people--even working people who average $5 million a year. This is no brief for the Ewings and Shaquille O'Neals and Rik Smitses of the world: They've become so seduced by fame and their overblown lifestyles that when it came down to facing up to Stern, their union cracked, then caved in. Their solidarity was broken, the old defiance gone with the wind.

The owners' victory is nothing to cheer about, either. The NBA players saved their season, all right. But in the end the owners and the commissioner had them right where they wanted them: After losing half a year's pay, they now face "cost controls" that will reduce the league's top salaries by tens of millions of dollars. Stern and the owners are being careful not to crow, but they have won big. Theirs is now the first pro sports league with a stranglehold on top dollar. The future of the players' union, almost torn apart by mutiny last week, and its director, Billy Hunter, are very much in doubt.

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