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Lame Dunk

This just in: The National Basketball Association has canceled its 1998 exhibition games, the players and owners remain at each other's throats over filthy lucre, and the entire regular season remains in grave jeopardy.

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Let's try this again: The National Basketball Association has canceled its exhibition games, the players and owners...

Oh, forget it. If there are still six people on the planet who care whether Michael Jordan puts on short pants again this year, they're not making an issue of it this October. If anybody but the morning drunks in three Indianapolis bars gives a hoot whether Larry Bird gets the Pacers back to the playoffs next spring, you can't hear them.

Patrick Ewing? Who the hell is that? On the streets of Manhattan, sports fans are worried sick that the Yankees won't win the World Series after tearing through the American League like Hitler went through Poland. The football Giants stink, the Mets need to keep Mike Piazza next year, and if the trends continue apace, the market could wind up lower than Monica Lewinsky's self-esteem.

Meanwhile, that 35,000-square-foot flagship retail store the NBA just opened on Fifth Avenue has become the embodiment of bad timing. It carries eight different styles of caps for all 29 teams and the new line of Hugo Boss golf wear with the league logo plastered all over it. But the place debuted soundlessly three weeks ago, with nary a politician nor a player in sight. Sales are reportedly 70 percent below expectations, and you can hear the zippers in the dressing rooms.

By the way, ever heard of Raef LaFrenz? No, he's not the porn star who diddled half of America in Boogie Nights. And he's not a pre-Raphaelite poet. Raef LaFrenz is the number-one draft choice of the Denver Nuggets, who had more players on the roster last year than they had wins. For those who've forgotten, the Denver Nuggets are the local NBA team.

While David Stern fiddles and the world's tallest zillionaires complain that they can't put a third Rolls-Royce in the garage on the chump change they're making, no one but the hardest-core hoop junkies seem to give a flying slam dunk. In the early Nineties, basketball was the hip pro sport. Now it seems bent on self-destruction--just like baseball during the 1994 players' strike. So be it. I'll bet there aren't nine people in the city--water boys and Dan Issel excluded--who will mind one bit if the godawful Nuggets never play a minute this year.

Consider the other attractions at the circus:
Every Denverite's favorite jock, John Elway, and his sidekick, Bubby (better make that "Mister") Brister, have led the Denver Broncos to a 6-0 start, and the fans are beginning to murmur about a second straight Super Bowl title. If Terrell Davis doesn't get a major headache and Bill Romanowski can keep his spit to himself, it could happen. Meanwhile, we have the diversion of a sideshow--owner Pat Bowlen's stadium-financing flap, which goes before the voters November 3.

Okay. Who is Priest Lauderdale? Never mind. Over at Coors Field, the disappointing Colorado Rockies, who have just escaped a season in hell, canned their one and only manager and replaced him with the finest mind and toughest will in the game, Jim Leyland. The first miracle is that master tactician Leyland, who lofted the overpaid but outclassed Florida Marlins to a World Series title last October, would take on the challenge of winning 12-10 games at 5,280 feet above sea level. The second is that he'll probably clean a lot of high-priced problems out of the clubhouse. Don't be surprised if 1997 MVP and 1998 National League batting champ Larry Walker is the first to go. The market value of number 33 would fetch a lot of much-needed help up the middle: a catcher who can hit, a starter, a center-fielder.

The season may be over for Rockies fans, but the mind games are just beginning.

Wondering what poor old Bill Hanzlik and beleaguered Allan Bristow are up to these days? Or where Danny Fortson is working out to stay in shape? Didn't think so. Who would give the Nuggets or the NBA a second thought when Rick Neuheisel's surprising Colorado Buffaloes are 5-1, the undefeated Northern Colorado Bears--already the winners of two straight Division II football titles--are ranked number one in the country, and the Colorado Avalanche, under a new head coach, have hit the ice?

There's also that impeachment business to keep your eye on, maybe a messy little war in the former Yugoslavia and, if you're not interested in all that, a foot of fresh snow in Steamboat Springs. Who could possibly give a damn that NBA owners are trying to roll back the percentage of revenue devoted to player salaries from 57 percent to 48 percent?

Roll this back, you dopes. At Nuggets games last season, there were sometimes more cheerleaders than fans, and it didn't have anything to do with salary caps--hard or soft. Commissioner Stern and his owners claim that half the teams are losing money. Why shouldn't they? The product they put on the floor isn't very good, and too many of the players are spoiled brats with notions about entitlement that Louis XIV couldn't have dreamed up.

Witness Kevin Garnett: In the next six years, the Minnesota Timberwolves will pay this young man $126 million. Because he earlier refused a $110 million contract. L'affaire Garnett, NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik allows, has raised players' salary expectations to an "unrealistic level." What insight.

In sum, it's hard to imagine that anyone in these parts (or any other parts, for that matter) will care a whit if Shaquille O'Neal spends the winter in acting class, or if Anthony Goldwire lies on the beach in Maui, or if Kevin Garnett buys himself his own continent, moves there and starts up his own league. Certainly, not many will care if Michael Jordan's endorsement value (fifteen contracts, $47 million) slips down into the sub-stratospheric range because pro hoops are no longer on the boob tube or in the arena.

Truth is, owners and players alike have locked themselves out of their fans' hearts. So take your hard cap and your basketball season and stick 'em, boys. The rest of us have more important things to think about.

In April, the San Diego Padres were barely a blip on baseball's radar screen. After reaching the post-season in 1996, they collapsed the following year: The pitching staff's 4.99 earned-run average was the worst in club history (although not as bad as the 5.25 put up by a certain purple-pinstriped bunch), and their stone-fingered fielding put them at the bottom of the National League, with 132 errors. Things did not bode well for 1998, despite the addition of a pitcher named Kevin Brown.

Most baseball pundits picked the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the division, behind a dauntless combination of pitching and power. A few others liked the Barry Bonds-led Giants, and some even had their eyes on the Colorado Rockies--a homer-happy outfit that had finally landed a first-rank starter, in the person of ex-Astro Darryl Kile.

As for the hapless Pads, 38-year-old Tony Gwynn might win his umpteenth batting title in '98. Do farmers eat flapjacks? Is John Gotti a crook? But the team would continue to wallow and make do with the usual publicity stunts--like resuscitating the career of Fernando Valenzuela, playing some "home" games in Mexico and selling their stadium's naming rights to a guy named Qualcomm.

What joy, then, to see San Diego on the verge of going to the World Series for just the second time. If they make it, they will have plowed straight through the cocky, overrated Houston Astros and the arrogant, insufferable Atlanta Braves to get there. All that remains for the Padres to bring matchless joy to the hearts of most baseball fans would be to knock off the imperious, swaggering New York Yankees in the Fall Classic.

This would be just deserts for the exemplary Gwynn, whose artistry with the stick is equaled by the career-long sturdiness of his work ethic, and for slugger Greg Vaughn, whose fifty-home-run season was overshadowed by the noisier heroics of messrs. McGwire and Sosa. Long-suffering first baseman Wally Joyner would get a lift, too, as would third-sacker Ken Caminiti, who's 35 and can see the end in sight.

Most of all, a Padres win would be good for fans everywhere--even Atlanta or the Bronx. Bruce Bochy's team has already provided new hope that the wretched of the earth (with the help of a few high-priced free agents) can still rise up and kill off kings. To put mouthy Braves owner Ted Turner in his place one week, then break George Steinbrenner's icy heart the next, in view of millions, would be the ultimate satisfaction--for the Padres and for all of us. Especially for us.


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