". . . But what is the state of the NBA?" Commissioner Larry O'Brien asked himself yesterday at the National Press Club. That he waited until the final two minutes of his speech to broach the subject was amusing; that he dismissed it after about 200 general and largely irrevelent words was significant.
"Last season, our attendance leveled off and there was a dip in television ratings," O'Brien said, "so there were dire predictions by some would-be experts. This was evidence, they said, that fans would not support a professional sport with a high percentage of black players and, therefore, the league faced a dismal future.
"I have been asked, 'Who was the NBA's Jackie Robinson?' The answer is the NBA did not have a Jackie Robinson, because color has never been a criterion in this league. The only criterion is ability, and I don't believe our fans would have it any other way."
As O'Brien, and anyone else with a mind realizes all too well, race has been, is and probably will remain a troublesome, though mostly unmentioned, part of the NBA. And in case anyone does ask, Larry, the NBA's Jackie Robinson was Chuck Cooper, in 1950.
Still, the major NBA problem is the one that undoubtedly will not be seriously considered, either by the owners or O'Brien: the league is too easily ignored. Potential customers are not racists, as O'Brien seems to imply. They will not take the NBA to their hearts because it plays too many games that have too little meaning.
"I don't believe the season is too long," O'Brien replied to a questin afterward. "Also, we're the only league in pro sports at the moment that's reduced the length of the season.
"Until this year, it was possible (for the NBA championship game) to be played June 8. This year the outer limit is May 18. We've reduced the overall schedule by three weeks."
But not the number of games, which is the critical point. Extraordinary athletes are getting even less rest, though the travel is less taxing. A comparable move by the NFL would be to stage an occasional doubleheader, to squeeze 16 games into 13 weeks.
Pro basketball must be a splendid sport, though. Why else would so many take so much time to offer ways to make it better. As O'Brien undoubtedly thinks to himself now and then, if every NBA critic would watch 40 games a year, the league would be in glorious financial shape.
As O'Brien seemed to suggest by all but ignoring the matter during more than nine pages of speech that tried to mix sport and politics, there may be no manageable way to offer a state of the NBA.
What is euphoric in Los Angeles is boring in Washington.
"Attendance is up, TV ratings have taken a significant jump," O'Brien said.
Jump is the proper word. The NBA beat the colleges, at last, the first week of their Sunday head-to-head battles this season, 8.5 to 5.3 in the ratings. And the second, 6.7 to 6.2. However, with arguably the best analyst in sport, Bill Russell, at the mike again, the NBA was beaten the third week, 7.2 to 5.5.
The conclusion: The Boston Celtics are America's NBA team, the only one more than mildly popular a jump shot beyond its home arena. The Celts (versus Magic Johnson, then Seattle) were part of the first two telecasts, but not the third.
"O'Brien is finding sports fans are smarter than voters," a television realist said. "They want to watch teams play, not five guys throwing the ball up every chance they get."
That seems obvious enough, except it won't play in Philadelphia. That is one league-wide puzzlement at the moment, why the 76ers are failing to bedazzle the town.
For several years, the Sixers best exemplified the NBA at its worst, five wonderfully gifted players who seemed to consider an assist an athletic crime. The Sixers have purged two of the major soloists, George McGinnis and Lloyd Free, and actually field a swift and unselfish team with Julius Erving still peerless at times.
Attendance in Philadelphia is down.
The NBA is so unwieldy at times that the Mattress Theory becomes dominant. What is up in one part of the NBA causes a valley somewhere else. Los Angeles and Boston have returned to prominence; the Bullets are fading; has anyone seen the '74-'75 champs, Golden State, lately?
No one is quite certain how to build an NBA champion, unless a Walton or Russell happens along; everyone does know how quickly a champion can falter, how easily a slight change in the formula can produce catastrophic chemistry.
To preach to the NBA about what is wrong with its product one must realize what makes it special. And the NBA has the largest and most agile athletes in sport.In basketball, it has the most accurate shooters, the most tenacious defenders and the most instantly creative players.
At its best, the NBA is the fastest and most imaginative game in town.
But it is too often in town to the point where a decision about whether to choose the theater or a college game or an interesting restaurant -- or almost anything else -- often goes against the NBA.
The NBA always is there. We'll catch it later, perhaps in February in the final two minutes of the regular season, when the veterans end their hibernation.
Nobody, players and fans, can stay at maximum intensity 48 minutes of 82 games. If the season cannot be shortened, maybe the games can, to keep the best players on the court as long as possible.
This does not occupy the NBA's collective mind. With its excess so clear to so many, the NBA today considers expansion.