Finally another team can win the NBA
They wasted no time re-retiring Michael Jordan's hallowed No. 23. Just minutes after Jordan made official what had been known for days, suspected for weeks and dreaded for months, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf gave a signal and the throng assembled in Chicago's United Center looked to the rafters. As the banner with Jordan's number on it was unveiled, a large black cloth that covered it dropped away. It floated through the air, like Michael through the lane, until it landed, a shroud for one of the luxury boxes in the House That Jordan Built.
That black cloth seemed a most appropriate symbol, both of the moment and of the mood that now greets the return of NBA basketball. Even before the league's disquieting labor war and Jordan's departure, fans had begun grumbling about everything from stratospheric ticket prices to tedious, low-scoring games to a new breed of me-first, me-only stars. Had Jordan not capped his career with the most extraordinary of his last-second heroics, last season's most enduring image would be Latrell Sprewell's choke hold on his coach. No. 23 himself admitted no gloom and doom at his retirement, insisting gracefully that "the game is a lot bigger than Michael Jordan." But Peter Roby, vice president of marketing for Reebok, takes a different view. "You don't ever want to say 'never'," he says, "but I don't think the NBA will ever again attain the glory it did with Michael." About the only silver lining is that the league has taken its biggest hits all at once. "We start over again from scratch," says veteran power forward Derrick Coleman. Of course, none of today's players really knows what scratch means.
Commissioner David Stern does, having arrived at the NBA as league counsel back in the '70s when the championship series wasn't even televised live, let alone in prime time. The bicoastal rivalry of two court geniuses, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, saved the league in the '80s -- and then they retired. "People were voicing the very same concerns about the NBA after Larry and Magic," says Stern. "They didn't quite appreciate what Michael Jordan's impact would be." Thanks to Jordan's magic, the game's growth not only continued but accelerated through the '90s into a global marketing phenomenon. Because of that growth spurt, the recent lockout battle was over $2 billion a year in revenues, hardly scratch money. And it's why NBC and Turner Sports thought enough of the league's prospects last year to pony up $2.65 billion for the next four years of NBA games, knowing it was likely that Jordan wouldn't play in a single one of them.
"Look, it would be better if Michael Jordan stayed indefinitely," says Stern. "There will be a drop-off of attention, and even I might wince on occasional Sundays. But there are a significant number of fine players who will enjoy more ink and airtime." Stern won't get any argument from players like Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Penny Hardaway and Kobe Bryant, who have flourished in Jordan's huge shadow but never had the opportunity to play leading man. Just as basketball fans discovered the talents and charms of Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon during Jordan's mid- career hiatus (the first retirement), "there are a lot of young guys eager to take over" for him now, says Bryant, the flashy youngster who, at 20, is in his third season with Los Angeles. "I feel that I'm ready to take over the tradition he and other players developed."
Much has been made of the low TV ratings for the Houston Rockets-New York Knicks final in June 1994, when Jordan was playing baseball (and, perhaps as important, O.J. was driving up a highway in a Bronco). But reg- ular-season ratings dipped only slightly that year and have, in fact, remained relatively constant since NBC began its NBA broadcasts in 1990. "The traditional basketball fan will be back in relatively short order," says Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports. "For the rest, it's up to us to put the great players and competition in front of them and let them vote."
The funereal atmosphere surrounding Jordan's departure is the inevitable downside of an NBA marketing strategy that promotes its stars ahead of the game. At the very least, the NBA's next generation have to be savvy enough to come down occasionally from their pedestals and demonstrate some connection with the fans. Or as Jordan advised the many wanna-bes during his retirement press conference: "Get back to the love of the game." This may be the perfect time for the league to slightly retool its approach. "With nobody worthy of Jordan's level of attention, the NBA should abandon its star thing," says The Boston Globe's Bob Ryan, a longtime chronicler of the NBA. "It's time to get back to the idea of selling teams that can entertain us with good old-fashioned five-man basketball and great rivalries."
Ironically, both blows of this month's double whammy could ultimately help serve that purpose. The new labor agreement, which caps salaries and ties rookies to their drafting teams longer, should stabilize teams and bolster overall competitiveness. And the absence of Jordan injects some welcome suspense back in the title race. With Michael around, the sole question was: who will the Bulls beat? Now, "in at least seven, maybe 10 cities, the fans really feel their teams have a chance to go all the way," says NBC's Ebersol.
The season poses some intriguing possibilities. Will the aging duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone finally take the Utah Jazz to the pinnacle? Can Larry Bird's Indiana Pacers capitalize on their great veteran depth? Will Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers show some newfound maturity? Can Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, bruised and battered from heading union negotiations, mount the same effort for the New York Knicks and Miami Heat? "We love the process of crowning a champion," says Stern.
Great as that competition could be, the NBA is no longer just about crowning champions or even creating mythic superstars. It's also about Web sites and retail stores and a women's league and international markets, where basketball now rivals soccer in popularity. And it is too strong to unravel because of the retirement of any one man, be it Michael Jordan -- or David Stern. Beyond business, basketball is now deeply ingrained in the American fabric, from the country ("Hoosiers") to the city ("He Got Game"). "Basketball fundamentals remain extremely strong, so I don't see any reason for doom and gloom," says Ray Clark, founder of The Marketing Arm, which handles endorsements for such NBA stars as Scottie Pippen and Tim Hardaway. "The game is fast-paced, it televises well and youth participation remains on the rise." College basketball is fine, but now that its best players just make pit stops on their way to the NBA, it really functions as a live ad for the pros. Jordan achieved his stature by beating the best players in the world. The rest of the best are still there, in the NBA, if the fans can only dry away last week's tears.