Starr Gazing: The Meaning Of The Nfl Draft

If there was any doubt about which pro sport is now king in this country, there was certainly none remaining after last weekend.

The NFL delivered huge TV ratings for its annual draft, essentially no more than a name-calling marathon featuring men in suits.

It is hardly the traditional TV ratings-grabber. Outside of the beer ads, there were no seminaked women. Moreover, you could have watched "Lethal Weapon" 1 through 4 in the time it took just to finish the first round. And throughout the endless ordeal--seven rounds and 262 picks (No. 263 will come when the Vikings finally make their first-round selection)--there was enough blather to make talk-TV mavens like Montel Williams and Ricki Lake appear downright Aristotelian. Every coach and G.M. mouthed the same platitudes, a certain kind of sports b.s. that, taken at face value, would have you believe that each team somehow conspired to land exactly the player they coveted most.

Sounds like a turnoff, huh. Yet in my hometown of Boston, where for decades pro football ranked a distant fourth in fans' affections, the draft actually outdrew the Celtics' playoff win over Indiana. And it's really not that hard to understand why. Given the dramatic single-season resurrection of recent Super Bowl champs like the Rams, the Ravens and the Patriots, it's the gridiron that has become America's true field of dreams. NFL fans have every reason to believe that good management, reflected in a shrewd draft, can be the path to glory--and indeed a rapid one. Who can quarrel with such unbridled optimism when sixth-round draft choices like Terrell Davis and Tom Brady, not to mention Arena League refugees like Kurt Warner, can emerge just a few seasons later as Super Bowl MVPs?

Contrast that with the NBA, which can be summed up with the '60s autobiographical line fashioned by the late novelist-folkie Richard Farina--"Been Down So Long It All Looks Up To Me." And where the draft offers far more flash, yet far less salvation. Sure, rookie of the Year Amare Stoudamire helped nudge Phoenix into the final playoff spot in the West. And Houston, with Yao Ming proving hype-worthy, almost made the leap into the playoff fray. But the average first-rounder contributed next to nothing to his team. Only six of 27 active 2002 first-rounders averaged double figures in scoring and only one, Miami's Caron Butler, broke into the league's top 50 (and just barely at No. 49). More typically, 17 of those first-rounders, including three of the top eight picks, averaged less than six points a game.

So while fans may rightfully get excited about the possibility of watching high-school phenom LeBron James in their team's uniform, at this time next year LeBron will be cruising the highways in his Hummer, not the NBA fast lanes. The last five rookies of the year before Stoudamire--Pau Gasol, Mike Miller, Steve Francis, Elton Brand and Vince Carter--are all watching the playoffs on TV. The complex dynamics of winning basketball in the NBA makes the postseason increasingly a case of deja vu (and the very opposite of the NFL crapshoot). Phoenix was this season's only newcomer among the eight teams in the Western Conference playoffs, replacing Seattle in the final spot. And both likely semifinal matchups--L.A.-San Antonio and Sacramento-Dallas--would be replays of 2002. The Eastern Conference, while far less talented, is no more fluid. Of last year's lottery teams, only Milwaukee claimed a spot in the playoffs.

Still, while this NBA postseason may not offer novelty, it has already proved to be a bravura entertainment. And, I presume, a considerable relief for the league's brass. Because there was this other bit of troublesome deja vu in the Air. As Michael Jordan lurched toward what, please God, is his final retirement, there lurked the very same succession question that greeted his first a decade ago. The 2003 playoffs have swiftly revealed many potential heirs. While the league may never again soar to the heights of Jordan's heyday, its current talent rivals any era in its history. I even envision Kobe Bryant surpassing Jordan's achievements, given that he already has four rings and is still four years younger than MJ was when he won his first. And there are a host of other players--Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce--who have already delivered star turns in the first round that compare with any I've witnessed.

The NBA got a little luck, too. With the finals pretty much a foregone conclusion in favor of the Western Conference survivor, the league desperately required a modicum of postseason suspense. And now they certainly have it. After the Lakers' regular-season stumble, the presumed L.A. "four-peat" has taken on a giant question mark. Though Kevin Garnett's T-wolves don't appear to have enough to topple the champs, the Lakers, now minus their best defender, Rick Fox, still look very vulnerable. And the road--and without home-court advantage, it will be "the road"--through San Antonio and Sacramento is daunting.

The league needs the Lakers to fall. It isn't that dynasties are, of themselves, unappealing. There was never as much interest in the NBA as when the Bulls ruled the roost. But Jordan was too disciplined and demanding a team leader to focus solely on the playoffs. The Bulls not only won all those titles, they dominated the regular season, as well. In those six championship seasons, they averaged 65 wins and always finished atop their division.

The Lakers won 67 games their first championship year and have not approached that mark again. The last two seasons they averaged 57 wins, while finishing the regular season close behind either Sacramento or San Antonio in the West. This year they won just 50 and barely claimed the fifth spot in the playoffs. If the Lakers demonstrate that they can win it all simply by turning it on whenever they choose--and they choose late April--the regular season is revealed as a long yet relatively meaningless exercise. And that's not something the NBA can afford to have its fans believe.