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.
Looking for a poster child amid the gloom? Clearly, the league hopes it's Detroit's Grant Hill--ex-Dream Teamer, 1995 co-rookie of the year and enthusiastic pitchman for McDonald's, GMC Trucks, Sprite and Fila. Polite, squeaky-clean and Duke-educated, he's exactly the kind of role-model model David Stern dreams about. He's talented, he doesn't strangle coaches and his hairdo is always the same shade: It's not for nothing Hill finished third in the MVP voting last year.
He doesn't suit you? How about the big guy, the overgrown kid, the Pepsi salesman? How about Shaquille O'Neal? The ex-Magic/now L.A. Lakers center is the kind of rapper only the hearing-impaired can dig; he's proven himself an even worse movie actor than Ryan O'Neal; and some doubt his commitment to the game--could be it's just another plaything to him. But the 1993 rookie of the year is now teamed in L.A. with hot shooting guard Eddie Jones (who's on star alert himself), mercurial point guard Nick Van Exel, and young Kobe Bryant, who could become the best player of them all. Together they might have the stuff to forge a new NBA dynasty.
So long as David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Wake Forest grad Tim Duncan, the most talented big man to come into the league since, well, Mr. Robinson, don't beat them to it down in San Antonio.
Your chimes still not ringing? Maybe Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway can do it. After all, he led a successful mutiny down in Orlando to get coach Brian Hill pink-slipped, and he's averaged twenty points per game in his career and helped get the Magic to the 1995 NBA finals. He's even got his own alter-ego, the loudmouthed little TV puppet "L'il Penny," to help him sell all the goods--and himself. But some charge that Penny, fine as he is, is an underachiever who runs hot and cold; others say he'll never be superstar material because he has the personality of a beanbag. Another danger sign: He's a big-deal player on a team going downhill fast.
Well, then. Feel like visiting chilly Minnesota on a league-saving mission? Why not. That's where you'll find the splendid point guard Stephon Marbury, the excellent power forward Tom Gugliotta and--if you please, a flourish from the cash register keys--a 21-year-old by the name of Kevin Garnett. He joined the Timberwolves at the tender age of nineteen and just last summer got a $103 million contract offer. Turned it down, of course. Held out for $120 million. Age 21, mind you. If Garnett doesn't give the T-Wolves one hell of a year (they're currently 7-8 and mid-pack in the Midwest Division), it's a pretty good bet the fans up Minneapolis way will make lutefisk out of him.
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So. While we're sweeping out the corners, care to run the "Be Like Mike" flag up the pole for Seattle's Vin Baker? Some smart money's on this dark horse. How about Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks? Or Jason Kidd down in Phoenix? Care to have a gander at gunnin' Glen Rice of improving Charlotte?
Perhaps not. As Michael Jordan, still donning his baggies every night, begins, ever so slightly, to fade from view, we can't help but get the picture. It's this: There is just one edition (accept no substitutes) of the man who ate the Wheaties, hawked the Nikes, broke the game's heart when he slipped away, in madness, to try baseball, and soared higher and scored more than any other man in the history of the game.
In all likelihood, the National Basketball Association will continue to thrive when he's gone. But diminished, fans, much diminished. Michael is bigger than Babe Ruth. Without him it's the game that could get small.