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Down to the Wire -- On and Off the Court

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

SAN ANTONIO

On the night Detroit pushed the season and the Spurs toward the ledge, peace prevailed elsewhere in the NBA. That's right, before the plucky Pistons forced the first Game 7 since Knicks-Rockets in 1994, owners and players agreed to divvy up $3 billion in the interests of $3 billion.

On the evening the two most complete teams in the league captured a viewing audience for four scintillating quarters, a six-year collective bargaining agreement was agreed to, guaranteeing labor harmony until 2011.

This means everyone gets richer, no games are lost to labor strife, Tim Duncan is allowed to unabatedly clang crucial free throws and Larry Brown and his squad continue to audition for "Hoosiers II" or, "Yo, 'Sheed, Hickory Got Nothin' On Us."

Like the movie, the coach stays (for at least one more game) and a disrespected, left-for-dead basketball team emerges from the depths of defeat, rallying around its sideline taskmaster with a less-than-stable past.

(Did you hear Larry Brown's Hackmanesque line to his team in the final minutes of Detroit's 95-86 incredibly resilient win? "Did I tell you guys I love you?" he said. This is getting so sappy, L.B. might as well draw up a retro picket-fence play for Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton.)

"We go back to the hotel instead of the airplane," Chauncey Billups said simply after his team's performance canceled a civic celebration scheduled for Thursday here.

Game 7, for everything in the NBA kitty. After San Antonio's wild Game 5 victory in suburban Detroit, it's as unpredictable as the owners and players coming to terms before a lockout tore them asunder.

Give credit to Billy Hunter, the executive director of the players' union, and David Stern, the NBA commissioner. In a season in which their players cold-cocked fans in Detroit, in a season in which fewer people watched their product -- and more and more of the masses did not feel a real connection to the game's stars -- they knew they could not go down the same road as the NHL, whose players are all calling "Next!" on one frozen pond in Iceland.

NBA players and owners smartly also agreed to institute an age limit of 19, meaning more and more gifted teenagers will skip class for John Calipari or Jim Boeheim before they are able to cash in. Roy Williams may even be able to keep some Tar Heels. Or teams can send players to the National Basketball Developmental League for up to two years, which will probably result in many of the game's younger players bolting for Europe before coming back to the NBA.

Yes, the age limit is a legal minefield, what with the apparent restraint of trade and the idea that any union has a right to collectively bargain away the rights of its future members. After Michelle Wie and Freddy Adu, keeping 7-foot, 17-year-old Greg Oden from Lawrence North High in Indianapolis out of the NBA for another two years seems almost criminal.

Unfortunately, 20-year-old Darko Milicic is grandfathered into the deal.

Darko, the last man on the Pistons' bench -- Serbia-Montenegro's "gift" to American basketball -- is within one win of his second championship ring, which is two more than Elgin Baylor, Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton have. Combined! There is clearly no justice in this game.

For instance, Wallace, one of the most miserable professional athletes alive, is also working on two rings. 'Sheed calls championships " 'ships" for short, and his 'ship was rightly about to sail after Game 5. But Wallace atoned for his knuckleheaded move to leave Robert Horry open for the game-winning three-pointer Sunday, scoring seven of his 16 points in the final five minutes in Game 6 on Tuesday night. Wallace could win another 'ship.

Hey, haters aside, 'Sheed happens.

Where does the NBA go from here? Straight to Game 7, where it should be.

As much as the country has rejected a series between the nation's No. 11 and No. 37 media markets, respectively, rivalries and teams need to be shoved down the public's throat. Because, when you think about it, when it comes to these NBA Finals -- how we truly feel about the game domestically -- we're all hypocrites.

We kept giving Stern grief about pushing the marketing of individuals on us, all those Sunday afternoons of Shaq vs. the Admiral, A.I. vs. T-Mac, the Lakers vs. themselves, Larry Brown against his own job-hunting ego. We asked for the golden days of Celtics-Lakers, in which each Finals team had not one star and a bunch of extras, but rather a group of players who understood the sublime choreography of teamwork.

And the moment we get such a matchup -- Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker against Billups, Ben Wallace and Hamilton, not to mention 'Sheed -- we talk about blowouts, low ratings, lack of star power. We want to go back to the selfish ballhogs who said crazy things on the off day and talked junk behind their teammates' backs. Duncan actually gets along with Ginobili. How weird is that?

We've become such an A.D.D. nation of sports fans, more of us would rather watch a re-run of the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills than the last two taut games of this back-and-forth series. We should be ashamed of ourselves, being such fickle consumers of a game we profess to love.

At least the owners and players were sensible enough to stop the bleeding. If anyone else left in this fame-struck society still appreciates the game for the game, they will turn on the television Thursday night and watch what they keep saying they want the NBA to be about.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company