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Wednesday, October 2, 2002
Updated: October 9, 3:52 PM ET
NBA's summer of discontent

By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2

Editor's Note: Charley Rosen has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. A former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, he has also co-authored several books with Lakers coach -- and close friend -- Phil Jackson, including "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League" and "Maverick." This is the first installment of his look at the 2002-03 NBA season for Page 2.

Hi, my name is Charley, and I'm an addict. So much so that I have my own personal mantra: "Life is a metaphor for basketball." But the times they are a-changing, and for the first time ever, the prospect of a brand new NBA season doesn't seem to inspire my round, brown, pebbled heart with unmitigated delight.

Why is this so?

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson's arrest set the tone for a bleak NBA offseason.
For starters, there was Allen Iverson's most recent brush with the law. Then there was the saga of Chris Webber, who faces a January trial on federal charges of perjury. And there have been other offseason arrests, including Stephon Marbury and Kurt Thomas.

Even more upsetting is the dismal performance of the NBA's Nightmare Team in the World Basketball Championships, and the debacle has spawned a herd of scapegoats. The likes of Shaq, Kobe, Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd are roundly condemned for reneging on their promises to play. George Karl is another easy target. Here's a guy who avoids face-to-face challenges with any strong-willed players (see Karl's kowtowing to Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp in Seattle). An "I-won-but-they-lost" type of coach. Also considered blameworthy is the selection committee, which featured a disproportionate number of fat suits representing the NCAA and the AAU.

And those critics who took issue with the selfish play and appalling lack of fundamentals displayed by Team USA were frequently castigated as being racists. (NOTE: Watch this space for Darryl Dawkins, the incomparable Chocolate Thunder, analyzing the very real differences between black basketball and white basketball.)

George Karl and Baron Davis
George Karl isn't the only one who'd like to forget the World Championships.
In the long view, however, all of the on-court, off-court, and in-court woes of the NBA have a common historical cause -- David Stern's implementation of the Superstar Syndrome way back in the 1980s.

At the time, the NBA was in turmoil. Many of its players were abusing drugs, and such standouts as Terry Furlow, and "Fast" Eddie Johnson would soon succumb to overdoses. Also, attendance and TV ratings were down. The NBA's fan base was predominantly white, and they resented the preponderance of blacks on the teams' rosters (84 percent in that last pre-Magic-&-Bird season). The 1978-79 New York Knicks were publicly referred to as the "Niggerbockers," and the NBA was widely regarded as an "outlaw" league.

Then the crafty Red Auerbach drafted Larry Bird (first round, No. 6 overall) in 1978, even though "The Hick from French Lick" had another year of eligibility at Indiana State. And the Lakers made Magic the top pick in the 1979 draft.

With the spotlight on Bird and Magic in that momentous 1979-80 season, commissioner David Stern decreed that the NBA's marketing strategy be shifted from "The Game" to "The Players." And lo, the personifications of country grit and city slick saved the NBA. Ever since then, the sad reality has been that the NBA is in the business of promoting players -- Kobe, His Airness, The Mailman, The Admiral, Air Canada and The Big Aristotle. And ever since then, most devoted denizens of Sports America have defined professional basketball strictly in terms of spectacular shot-makers, long-range bombers, passing fancies, hocus-pocus dribblers, and a parade of merry dunksters.

So, two NBA-generations removed from The Magic Man and Larry Legend, who are the modern-day players? What have they become? Arrogant, multitalented chest-beaters and woofers. Irresponsible and irrepressible, too-much-too-soon, millionaire hooplings, who have been conditioned and encouraged to believe only in their own talents, and to blame others for any failures. A league full of knuckleheads and gun-toting, faux gangstas routinely glorified by the NBA's publicity machine.

Larry Bird & Magic Johnson
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson made David Stern's "superstar theory" work beautifully.
This celebration and promotion of the league's players necessarily has led to inflated salaries, which led to inflated egos, which led to bogus self-justifications for rude, crude behavior, which led to a macho elitism, the elevation of style over substance, an utter disregard for team play and a belief that a haphazard collection of NBA All-Stars could overcome any team of "civilians" just by throwing their jocks on the floor.

Wrong!

And this time around, instead of a wholesome pair of All-American saviors on the horizon, the troubled NBA is offering Yao Ming (who is, at best, an Occidental version of Primo Carnera). That's why, love it or hate it, the league is at another crossroads.

Will the league's two rookie coaches help point the NBA in the right direction? Only if Eric Musselboy can give heart to his spineless Warriors. And if Jeff Bzdelik can transform the Nuggets into a reasonable facsimile of an NBA ballclub.

And what impact might the most significant trades and free-agent signings have on the league's power balance and the overall quality of play?

In truth, Marcus Camby and company (to Denver) for Antonio McDyess (to New York) actually signifies the exchange of null for void.

Toni Kukoc (to Milwaukee) for Glenn Robinson (to Atlanta) is heartburn for hemorrhoids.

Keith Van Horn and Todd MacCulloch (to Philadelphia) for Dikembe Mutombo (to New Jersey) is a white hopeless and a white heap for an ancient black hole.

Tracy Murray (to the Lakers) for Lindsey Hunter (to Toronto) is almost something for almost nothing.

Vin Baker
Do you think Celtics fans are really excited about the Vin Baker trade?
Speedy Claxton (to San Antonio) for Mark Bryant (to Philadelphia) is zippity for doo-dah.

Kenny Anderson (to Seattle) for Vin Baker (to Boston) is a pointless guard for a sticky-handed powerless forward.

Andre Miller to the Clippers is a brain for a team of talented scarecrows.

Rodney Rogers to New Jersey is less than meets the eye.

And Doug Collins' wheeling and dealing, plus the ghost of MJ, constitutes nothing less than the NBA's all-time mystery team.

Hmmm, on second thought, I'm already enraptured by the sound of basketballs bouncing, the squeal of sneakers as acrobatic giants gracefully change direction, the whistles and the buzzers, the fans screaming their joy and despair. ...

After all, what is any junkie but a true believer? Perhaps the 2002-03 season will indeed turn out to be another thrilling and unforgettable basketball adventure.

So never mind all of the above. Let the games begin!

Charley Rosen's other books include "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."