The Nba's No-Shows

L.A. vs. New York figures to be a showcase for NBA excitement. But by the time the Lakers arrived for their once-a-year showdown against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden last month, the dysfunctional L.A. team bore little resemblance to last year's NBA champion. Its two superstars, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, were embroiled in a fierce public squabble over who was "the man." While Bryant played a one-man game, his teammates stood around and glowered. And O'Neal, who sat out the contest with a foot injury, never even emerged from the locker room for an NBC cameo. The Laker loss was its 15th--two more than the team suffered all last season. Meanwhile, Bryant appears to be reaching new heights of selfishness. "I already have a ring," he told a confidant. "Now I want to get a scoring crown and an MVP trophy."

Everyone expected the NBA to stumble after Michael Jordan's departure and a bruising labor battle that wiped out almost half a season. But the game that captivated America and seemed on the verge of global conquest appears--thanks to lackluster play and uninspired stars--to have lost its magic. TV ratings are sinking, down 17 percent from last year on flagship NBC, and attendance has plummeted in onetime hotbeds like Boston (minus 11 percent), Charlotte (minus 15 percent) and Houston (minus 17 percent). Most telling is how empty, high-priced seats now provide the backdrop to so many games. Sources say NBC, which is in the middle of a $2.64 billion deal with the NBA, is very concerned about the league's future. NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol declined to discuss the deal, and NBA Commissioner David Stern is playing defense: "You can't shut down your business for half a year and not suffer lingering effects," he says. But one executive with longtime ties to the league says the problems may be lasting: "Too many terrible teams and too many so-called stars that the public doesn't really give a damn about."

As the NBA held its annual all-star game festivities last weekend in Washington, D.C., it had precious little to celebrate. The gathering, usually one perpetual party, began with a "state of the league" meeting between management and players' union leaders to consider how to inject new life into an ailing sport. "We can't afford to take our fans for granted," says Stern. "We're prepared to look at everything." The NBA will consider new rules to boost offensive play as well as programs to help younger players stay in college. It also needs to retool its vaunted hype machine. The NBA once thrived by promoting its stars--especially the holy trinity of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Jordan--above the game itself. Now, too many players ballyhooed as "the next Jordan" have turned out to be counterfeits who place winning on equal footing with individual stats and highlight-film moves. And too many owners are paying in too many ways for lavishing millions on one-dimensional talents.

The league has also suffered from an influx of younger--and far more immature--talent, including a record 10 players straight out of high school. It's hard to fault the players, many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds. "It was mainstream America that became so obsessed with athletes that they began handing out million-dollar shoe deals," says Norm Nixon, who starred alongside Magic on the great Laker teams of the '80s. "You can't spoil the child and then chastise him for being selfish."

The changes have exacted a severe toll on the game itself. NBA basketball, once the embodiment of speed and grace, has devolved into a slow, roughhouse grind. Gone is "Showtime," which captivated fans with its high-speed, precision offensive charge. Dull, stand-around "isolation" offenses, which are far less fan-friendly and rely on just a few individual stars, are now the rule. As a result of the slowdown, NBA teams are averaging 15 points less per game than a decade ago. "The thrill isn't completely gone yet, but it's leaving," says Dennis Williams, 49, a fan from Washington, D.C., who was once such a devotee of the game that his 15-year-old son bears the nickname "DJ" after former NBA star Dennis Johnson. "There may be still be great players, but there aren't any great teams."

Lately the league has also endured too many unwelcome headlines. Before play even began, the NBA's No. 1 "bad boy," the 76ers' Allen Iverson, wrote a rap song that demeaned women and gays. This season Iverson has elevated his game to MVP caliber. But he was also fined $5,000 after a nasty squabble with an abusive fan in Indiana during which a TV mike picked up Iverson calling the fan a "faggot." Other NBA superstars have also been embroiled in ugly incidents. Gary Payton has twice been suspended by the Seattle SuperSonics for insubordination. And Phoenix Suns guard Jason Kidd took a leave from his team after his arrest for allegedly striking his wife.

The NBA is hardly the only pro sports league facing such problems. But its players are the most visible in team sports, and many of the middle-aged, primarily white fans who can afford choice seats in NBA arenas are turned off by the hip-hop style of the new generation, from its music to its baggy pants and tattoos. "[We are] going to get criticized for everything we do because we're different," says Kobe Bryant, adding that he values winning as much as his teammates. "It's just like hip-hop taking over from rock and roll. People hated it at first, but slowly they grew to understand it and love it. That's going to happen with us." But Kevin Garnett, the Minnesota Timberwolves superstar, isn't as optimistic. He worries that too many fans think the players are spoiled brats, and he senses thinly veiled racism in those attitudes: "There is resentment because we're rich young black men with our own way of doing things."

The league insists that neither race nor style is an impediment to success. "I have the most cornrowed, baggy-pantsed, attitude-having kid in the league, and we're sold out every night," says 76ers owner Pat Croce of his star Iverson. Philadelphia also boasts the league's best record. But four of the six teams that have experienced double-digit dips in attendance are still contending for playoff spots. Alvin Gentry, coach of the L.A. Clippers, the NBA's youngest team, thinks the fans will be rewarded if they just show a little more patience: "This new generation is trying to find its wings."

The NBA has been flying high for a long time, and a down cycle was probably inevitable. It remains a vital business, a far cry from the pre-Magic-and-Larry days when the NBA Finals were shown late at night on tape delay. NBA action is now syndicated to more than 200 countries. Its Web site has 720,000 visitors a day, up 32 percent from a year ago. And the league has just signed an agreement with Real Networks Inc. to provide a live streaming-video feed of NBA play on the Internet. "Things aren't bad, just different," says Stern. "People are still consuming our sport, but in a variety of different ways."

No technology, though, can replace the magic of Michael. Jordan's return, as part owner of the Washington Wizards, is a painful reminder, and some NBA folks wish he had just stayed on the golf course. But if he won't go away, the league wishes he'd at least go to the Wizards' games. Jordan has made no secret of his displeasure with his team's woeful performance and has shown up at fewer than half its home contests. Fans can't help but wonder why if Jordan can't stand to watch, they should be expected to.