THERE'S A GREAT DEAL of agonizing going on over the decline of public interest in professional basketball this year, at least by those sportscasters and writers inclined to agonize. Attendance at games is down, except in such places as Seattle and San Antonio, where the teams are winning. And television viewers are preferring college ball to pro -- a fact not new in history, yet one that always alarms officials of the National Basketball Association who owe the rise of their sport to the box with the dials.
At this point, then, such officials, along with other observers of the game, always begin to come up with technical solutions to the problem, in the best how-to American tradition. There are the perennial suggestions of raising the basket; of shortening the season; of extending or reducing the 24-second period in which a team must get off a shot; not to mention everybody's favorite, the three-point basket. Finally, we hear the familiar notion of rearranging the championship play-off schedule yet again -- an odd thought given the current dilemma, since the play-offs, oversized as they are, offer the only times in a season when houses are likely to be packed.
One rationale offered for all such tinkerings is that pro basketball might thereby match the excitement of college ball. But this would be impossible no matter how many rules were changed; for the excitements generated by pro and college ball are two quite different things. Whatever reformations pro ball might choose, it could never recreate the sloppy, chancy, admirably un professional style of college play. Nor could the collegians reach the magic of the pros.
But the real question is: Why the fuss? No rule changes will solve the fundamental problem of professional basketball this year, which isn't all that hairpulling a problem anyway. Public interest and enthusiasm are down a bit this year, because: a) too many hotshot stars are not being coached in team play; and b) some of the big-city teams, such as Boston and New York, are doing terribly (actually, New York isn't up to "terribly" yet). The latter reason is merely an adjunct of the former, which is the key.
For, unlike other sports, there are no big single moments in the game of basketball -- no long bomb, no grand slam. There are stars, to be sure, but the deep appeal of the game does not center on them. Rather, it centers on the team as a coordinated unit, a fact proved year after year. All this year's teams need do is remember that fact, and the people will be watching again.