Ask Not for Whom the Bulls Toll

Last Wednesday night, Michael Jordan threw a little outside fake, stopped short and rose from the floor of the United Center like an ascending saint. The soft jumper hit dead center, of course, and just like that, His Airness had the 34,999th and 35,000th points of his storied career. Even a couple of the badly beaten Indiana Pacers had to smile in awe. Thirty-five thousand.

Chicago Bulls fans--maybe all NBA fans--might do well to cherish such milestones while they can.

Solid favorites to win their sixth league title in eight years, Jordan and the Bulls remain, for the moment, commissioner David Stern's--and NBC Sports'--fondest dream. The most popular (and winningest) team in professional sports, the Bulls pile up hefty Nielsen ratings in outposts like Anchorage and Albany even more easily than they win championships. A Utah-Indiana final would have been anathema to the league and to network number crunchers. Small markets equal small potatoes. Jordan and company ensure a gigantic international audience.

But when M.J. sank his historic basket against the Pacers late in game five of the Eastern Conference finals, you could hear a bell tolling. At season's end, the greatest player ever will likely retire. Certainly, the Bulls dynasty will lay in ruins, torched by an intransigent team owner, a departing coach who reviles that owner and a superstar who says he will remain in Chicago only if his coach stays. As for bad boy Dennis Rodman's current Bengal-tiger dye job, it, too, will probably be getting out of the Windy City.

Deprived of Jordan and future greatness from the Bulls, the NBA is sure to take a major image hit. But those who follow the league closely see other, even more ominous signs that the grand old game is not nearly what it used to be.

Consider. In the heyday of the Eighties, NBA basketball was typified by the sparkling passes of Larry Bird (now the Pacers' coach) and the wizardry of Magic Johnson (now the world's most noticeable AIDS spokesman)--two guys credited with saving the game from oblivion. In the mid-Nineties, the highlight reel of an ever more vital league was dominated by Jordan's beautiful clockwork, the seamless pick-and-roll partnership of Karl Malone and John Stockton, the flash of Hakeem Olajuwon, the heroics of Patrick Ewing.

And this week? Jordan's still taking the game to new heights, and the game's other Golden Era stars, all in their thirties now, continue to suit up. But for how long? In the meantime, Michael's glamorous image keeps getting bumped aside by the common mug shot: Latrell Sprewell with his thumbs on P.J. Carlesimo's throat; New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy in mid-brawl, attached like a barnacle to Alonzo Mourning's huge knee; young Kevin Garnett in his agent's office, coolly turning down a $100 million contract.

Let's not forget oft-suspended Alan Iverson, sullen Nick Van Exel or Charles Barkley throwing some beery loudmouth through a plate-glass window. Can you believe it? Even Old Folks has to do his gangsta thing. You could buy a fleet of Benzes with the fines levied against NBA players this season, and some of the dialogue in recent ref-baiting scenes would be too blue for late-night cable.

So far, the ill effects have been subtle but noticeable. First of all, Nielsen reports that the NBA's TV ratings are falling: In 1995-96, pro hoops hit its pinnacle with 5.1 (one point equals 970,000 TV households) but declined to 4.7 this year. League revenues have grown 10 percent a year since 1988, but attendance fell for the first time this season, by about 1 percent per game. Bottom-feeders like the Los Angeles Clippers and, yes, your Denver Nuggets have no legitimate reason to expect frenzy at the box office. But even more successful franchises are growing alarmed at the increasing number of no-shows on game night. The Charlotte Hornets, a playoff team this season, reportedly filled only three of every four seats sold.

Starter Corporation, which makes NBA-style fan clothing, reported a $40 million loss last year after a highly profitable history.

Meanwhile, NBA ticket prices continue to go up--another 25 percent since 1995. In the same period, major-league baseball tickets rose just 10 percent. By the way, those claiming that baseball has yet to recover from the after-effects of its disastrous 1994 players' strike should take another look: The 1995 and 1996 World Series outscored the NBA Finals in those years by a wide margin in the TV ratings.

Clearly, this is no time for basketball to face major labor strife of its own. But that looks inevitable.

The current collective bargaining agreement between players and the league expires June 30, contract talks have stalled, and team owners could well vote for a lockout. For their part, the owners claim that at least 15 of the NBA's 29 teams are unprofitable and that as a greater share of revenues goes to inflated player salaries, there is little left for the clubs. The players' union counters that only four teams--the Atlanta Hawks, the Clippers, the Golden State Warriors and the Pacers--are losing money.

For the record, NBA players are the best-paid athletes in pro sports. Jordan got $33.1 million this year, almost twice what NHL salary leader Joe Sakic earned as a Colorado Avalanche center and more than five times the paycheck of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, the NFL's best-paid player. The NBA's number ten man, Washington forward Chris Webber, collected $9 million; baseball's top guy, outfielder Gary Sheffield, will get $10 million.

Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, whose team collapsed in a 0-4 playoff wipeout by the Utah Jazz, is squeezing by on $12.85 million this year--not including product endorsements, of course.

O'Neal is, to be sure, one of the emergent stars expected to take up the slack when Saint Michael, Sir Charles and Hakeem the Dream finally leap into NBA history for good. Shaq's baby-faced teammate Kobe Bryant, Grant Hill and the zillionaire holdout, Garnett, will also be expected to do their part. But many NBA-watchers doubt the brilliance of the new star power. And the bad behavior--on court and off--among the newest crop of players, some of them immature kids who've left college early for rich pro contracts, makes ex-tennis brat John McEnroe and umpire-abuser Roberto Alomar look like a couple of altar boys by comparison. Indeed, another hot point of contention in the current NBA labor talks concerns the league's desire to dole out swifter, more severe penalties to wayward players.

At best, a lockout seems to loom this summer, along with the dismantling of the Bulls, the league's only active dynasty. The latter may not be such a bad idea: New blood at the top has a way of provoking new interest. At worst, though, a well-heeled maverick like, say, Fox Television's Rupert Murdoch might threaten the NBA's ultimate stability by financing a new pro-basketball league.

Think it can't happen? Just ask Murdoch's archrival in media power, Ted Turner, and NBC: Turned away from the NFL's broadcasting treasure house, they've announced the much more daunting joint mission of launching a new pro-football league.

That brings us, inevitably, to the aforementioned Mr. Sprewell.
It would be enchanting to say that the NBA's most enduring image these days is that of Jordan leaping skyward to score, say, his 35,200th point. But the realities of a game that has begun to lose its luster with ticket-buyers and TV audiences are difficult to ignore: Two weeks ago Sprewell filed a $30 million lawsuit against the NBA, charging racism and character defamation in a claim for lost wages. Having fired their guard last season for choking and threatening to kill his coach, the Golden State Warriors still owe him $17.3 million for the two years remaining on his contract.

Can he collect? Who knows. League officials call Sprewell's suit "totally absurd." The players' union and Sprewell's own agent, Arn Tellem, have denounced it. But some legal analysts say the NBA may have violated antitrust statutes by suspending the player and preventing him from negotiating with another team.

Whatever path this nasty case takes, it won't be good for the game. Because along with a raft of other troubles, the NBA's very face seems to be changing. Where once we beheld Michael Jordan's holy visage, the Latrell Sprewells of the world keep shoving into the picture.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo