No More Show Time

Magic Johnson's MVP farewell in the 1992 All-Star game ended an era. With his selfless game and transcendent smile gone, the real action in pro basketball will increasingly take place off the court, in the form of salary wrangles, endorsement deals and racial squabbles. What's happening to the fast-break favorite of the last decade? Six new books tell-sometimes inadvertently-how the game is transforming itself from America's glitziest athletic show into the vengeful, megamoney-grubbing Sport of the '90s.

In "Elevating the Game," Village Voice columnist Nelson George correctly asserts the obvious: that blacks are breathtakingly better than whites at basketball. (It's dizzying to recall that the game was invented by a bespectacled Canadian with a theology degree a century ago.) Is the reason physiognomy? If it were, all enforcer-type forwards would be white and point guards black. How about natural ability? That's a racist canard that ignores the fact that black players think and practice just as hard as white ones. Could it be (to cite George's favorite thesis) the improvisational nature of African-American culture? Then what are East Europeans like Vlade Divacs and Drazen Petrovic doing prospering in the NBA? Might it involve some ineffable, macho-lyrical soulfulness yet to be named? Well, everyone to his own metaphysics. And that's more or less where George leaves off. Instead of facing the issue head-on and straight through for a couple of hundred pages, George complains about whites (always a small "w"), extols Blacks (always a capital "B"). He gives the impression of having cobbled together his book from fanzine-style outtakes on such greats as Elgin Baylor and Earl (The Pearl) Monroe and a lot of library work on early barnstorming teams like the Harlem Rens. Nevertheless, "Elevating the Game " delivers enough solid information and rhetorical flashes to make it a valuable book-first off the shelf if not a starter.

While the NBA's treatment of blacks is well short of ideal (only one of 27 teams is even partly minority-owned, and there is still only a handful of black coaches), it's been better than in most American businesses. "Much of this forward motion," says George, "is due to the Boston Celtics," whose alumni include five pro and two college black head coaches. Mr. George, meet Harvey Araton and Filip Bondy, two New York Times sportswriters and (flimsy protestations aside) rabid Celtic-haters. Their scattershot book, "The Selling of the Green," reads like two guys grousing to each other at Madison Square Garden during one of Boston's perennial playoff pummelings of the Knicks. They detail how the Celts have a disturbing contractual tendency to shaft good black players like Gerald Henderson (whose steal in the '84 finals was more crucial than the one in 1965 for which John Havlicek was practically canonized) while fawning over white washouts like Rick Carlisle. But if Red Auerbach & Co. are so racist, how did they manage to put up all those championship banners in Boston Garden, including three in the '80s, by which time the league was three-quarters black? On the other hand, black Celtics players-with the exception of dynasty-starter Bill Russell-have tended to be guys who go along to get along. If the Celtics really want to prove they can embrace a genuine black individualist, they should consider acquiring Philadelphia 76er malcontent Charles Barkley (creaking white legend Larry Bird won't last forever).

In Barkley's autobio "Outrageous!" the Round Mound of Rebound keeps reiterating how he just doesn't give a s--- what anybody thinks. (He's still teed off at being talked out of wearing an "F --- Iraq" cap at the '91 All-Star game.) Under no illusions about whites ("If I weren't earning more than $3 million a year to dunk a basketball, most people on the street would run in the other direction if they saw me coming'), Barkley certainly doesn't pause to coddle the homeboys: "These guys who have three or four babies by different women should have their balls cut off. They should just be castrated.""Outrageous!" offers more than a hint why the outspoken, physically dominating Barkley hasn't brought a title to anybody since Pattonesque coach Bobby Knight cut him from the '84 Olympic team for-choose your version-mouthing off or weighing 280 pounds.

The outbursts of Sir Charles the Angry do take some of the pressure off Michael Jordan, who earns an estimated $20 million a year as role model for Mother Teresa. "I'm the good brother and [Barkley's] the bad brother," Michael says in Sam Smith's "The Jordan Rules." "He says a lot of good things the good brother wants to say but doesn't." Jordan, however, manages to blurt out enough in Smith's book to reveal his own narcissistic, trash-talking, obsessively competitive side (once beaten at Ping-Pong, he bought his own table and became the Bulls' best at it). To go with his unearthly hang time, cute ears and Fort Knox portfolio, Jordan boasts a wicked tongue, and not just when it's hanging out as he dunks. His public taunting of struggling teammate Stacey King is especially cruel: "Big, fat, fat guy. One rebound in three games ... Maybe they should call it powerless forward." Jim Naughton's "Taking to the Air" is a much gentler look at Jordan, padded with game accounts and digressions on Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. It's another microwave jock bio with about as much literary value as a satin starter jacket.

Which brings us to what pro basketball is really all about these days: the marriage of Michael and Nike. (They should just call 'em Mikeys.) The company signed its first pro player endorser in 1972, pioneered the dubious practice of paying big bucks to college coaches to get their players to wear free Nikes and had about half the NBA players under contract when Jordan came into the league in 1984. "Would you rather sign 10 guys for $50,000, or one guy for $500,000?" asked former Nike exec Rob Strasser, husband of "Swoosh" coauthor J. B. Stresser. "If that guy is Jordan," said consultant Sonny Vaccaro, "I'll take the one guy. " Jordan wanted to sign with the German shoe company Adidas, but it didn't come anywhere near Nike's initial offer of $2.5 million over five years plus complex incentives and ad promises. So before Jordan had played his first official rookie game, Nike had readied Michael's own poster, video, print ads and the shoes that eventually saved the company, Air Jordan. Michael now makes an annual visit to the Beaverton, Ore., HQ to check out the new ones, which the company unveils around All-Star time. Nike's designer pronounces the '92 model "looser, more passionate, not quite so German techy. " (Forget vertical leap kids, what you want is high fashion.)

But nearly 700 pages on Shoe Wars is about three times as much as a reader should be asked to take. And the unrelenting business-as-war tone of the book is almost unbearable. Strasser should be embarrassed to recount that her husband likened product developers to troops who ought to be told whether to attack Normandy or Calais. Then again, this is the same man who wrote of the magnificently talented Jordan, "Nike found him. Fought to get him, paid for him, built his reputation and special stature..." Did they show him how to dunk, too?

Photo: The big score: Jordan in action (PAUL J. SUTTON-DUOMO)

THE GAME ITSELF ..MR0-

The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of a Turbulent Season With Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. By Sam Smith. 333 pages. Simon & Schuster. $22.

Taking to the Air: The Rise of Michael Jordan. By Jim Naughton. 264 pages. Warner. $18.95.

Outrageous! The Fine Life and Flagrant Good Times of Basketball's Irresistible Force. By Charles Barkley and Roy S. Johnson. 315 pages. Simon & Schuster. $20.

..MR.- THE LARGER PICTURE ..MR0-

Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball. By Nelson George. 261 pages. HarperCollins. $20.

Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There. By J. B. Strasser and Laurie Becklund. 682 pages. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $24.95.

The Selling of the Green: The Financial Rise and Moral Decline of the Boston Celtics. By Harvey Araton and Filip Bondy. 271 pages. HarperCollins. $20.