For the past few seasons, in the midst of declining attendance and growing criticism that the game is too dull, the National Basketball Association has run a fast break away from reality.
"Nothing is wrong with our game," has been the company line from Commissioner Larry O'Brien on down.
"If enough people perceive you have a problem, then you have a problem, no matter what you think," said Joe Axelson, the NBA's director of operations. "Therefore, we have to realize we have a problem. We're in the entertainment business and we ought to know it. We have to give the people what they want."
Attendance is down and television ratings, while slightly higher than last season, still are not satisfactory, a clear indication that the public is not all that interested.
One six of the 23 teams showed an increase in attendance this season. The average attendance during the regular season was 10,020 per game, down from 11,037 a year ago. Seven teams had a decline of more than 2,000 spectators a game, with Seattle having the largest dropoff, losing an average of 5,259 customers a game. Those are the Sonics who once led the NBA in attendance, averaging 16,466.
The poorest attendance in the league belonged to Cleveland, which averaged only 5,457, a drop of 2,298 from a year ago. The Bullets drew an average of 9,155 at Capital Centre, a decline of 2,231 from the 11,386 of the previous season.
Among the reasons given for the decline in attendance are high ticket prices, the state of the economy, the lack of exciting new gate attractions, poor security at some arenas, the vast number of games that are being televised on the networks, locally and on cable television, the fierce competition from other forms of entertainment, the preponderance of black players, the length of the season and the general dullness of the game, especially during the regular seson.
The league is in the third year of a four-year television contract with CBS. Last year's ratings were up 10 percent from the previous year's and this year regular season ratings wre up 13 percent from last year. Nevertheless for primte time, although many are being shown on a delayed basis at 11:30 p.m. on the East Coast.
"Of course, we would like to air the games in their regular time, but we are just a part of an overall company," said Herb Gross, a CBS vice president in charge of sports programming. "Most of our viewers want to watch the prime-time shows."
CBS has emerged at the No. 1 network, based on ratings for its prime-time programming. The network is leery of preempting the shows that made It No. 1 for a basketball game that is appealing to a narrow spectrum of the viewing public.
Cable television could be the answer for the future. The NBA now has a contract with the USA newtwork for Thursday night games during the regular season and selected playoff games, "but the big money numbers right now are with the networks, not with the cable people," said an NBA official.
There have been some other encouraging signs in the television ratings. Last year, the first three playoff games CBS aired on Sunday afternoons drew a 5.9 rating. This year, the first three games have has a 10 rating.
Still, there is some talk that CBS, now that is has college to stay with the NBA when this contract runs out. If CBS does, it probably will pay less for fewer games. Next year, each team will get $1 million from the television contract; sources say there is no way the network will pay that much again.
Still, increased attendance, prime-time telecasts of playoff games and an overall increase in excitement over NBA basketball all can be attained if the right moves are made, Axelson said.
In an attempt to find out what those right moves might be, he recently prepared an extensive questionnaire that was sent to a cross-section of the NBA: coaches, general managers, assistant coaches, writers, broadcasters, referees and former players. He solicited their opinions on such topics as zone defenses, the 24-second clock, widening the foul lane and even the proposition of a single-elimination Christmas tournament involving the top 16 teams.
"I think that would certainly generate a lot of excitement," Axelson said, adding that results of the survey will be released next month. "We had a lot of interesting responses, but that's all I'll say about it right now."
Axelson liked the responses so much that he is sending out a shorter version of the questiionaire to selected fans. He is planning a meeting sometime next month invloving a general manager, a coach and an owner from each division to discuss "if we should go anywhere with any of these suggestions."
NBA owners, as rule, are conservative. Many say that nothing at all is wrong with the game.
"Writers are always making the mistake of saying what's wrong with professional basketball. Hell, what's right with it?" said Red Auerbach, president and general manager of the Boston Celtics.
"The television ratings aren't where they should be, but there are other things that effect them," Auerbach said. "I think the game is in damn good shape. I really do. Some teams are having problems, but then you turn around and you get a super player like we did with Larry Bird and you can go right back up to the top. That's the beauty of it."
Auerbach represents the old guard, one resistant to almost all change. But surprisingly, the new guard, like Jonathan Kovler, the managing partner of the Chicago Bulls, also feels the game is fine the way it is.
"I love the game in its present form," Kovler said. "I'm speaking as an owner and a fan. I just love the game. My basic position is that the college game is boring. I just like the pro game much more.
"From an attendance standpoint, the league has some problems, but I don't think the NBA game itself needs to be changed. I do think some other changes may need to be made, though. The whole thing could be packaged a little better. I just hope the league doesn't overeast to the criticism it's getting lately.
"There are some things we just have t live with. The length of the schedule and the regional schedule are economic necessities. It costs $20,000, for instance, to send my team to Los Angles for one game."
Kovler also feels that with 23 teams the league may have diluted itself too much. "I don't know if there are enough real superstars to attract people." he said. "I don't care how good a team is, if it doesn't have sex appeal, it won't sell. I don't want to see any team lose its franchise, but I think a 16-to 18-team league would be great."
The lack of a significant number of white stars is something the league can do nothing about.
"One problem you can't deal with is the black-white problem because we simply go with the best players," Axelson said. "We want the best players and the best officials and it simply doesn't matter what color they are. It can't matter."
A look at this year's statics shows a more complete dominance of the league by black players than ever before. The top 10 scorers all were black, as were the top 10 assist men, nine of the top 10 in steal and seven of the top 10 in rebounds.
Of the 132 players on the 12 teams in the playoffs this season, 99 of them, or 75 percent, are black. Of the 22 players who appeared in the last all-star game, only four were white: Paul Westphal and Jack Sikma of Seattle, Bobby Jones of Philadelphia and Bird of Boston.
If one is searching for another white star, there is Scott Wedman of Kansas City, Mitch Kupchak of Washington and Dan Issel of Denver. Only Bird and Westphal are proven gate attractions.
Black stars such as Kareem Adbul-Jabber, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, George Gervin, Moses Malone, David Thompson, Marques Johnson, Adrian Dantley and Lloyd Free dominate the game now. Others, such as Sidney Moncrief, Michael Ray Richardson and Ralph Sampson, soon will.
"If that sort of thing bothers some people, there just isn't anything we can do about it," said Axelson, who has letters to prove on whether to attend NBA games. "Our obligation is to showcase the best possible players we can.
Axelson feels that the next improvements to be made are clarification of the enforcement of the rule against zone defenses, a reduction in the number of free throws and, possibly, widening the lane.
Another man taking a close look at the league is Larry Fleisher, head of the NBA Players Association. He is delighted that the NBA itself is taking steps to deal with its problems.
"I don't see any real problems the league is having that can't be solved with some rule changes," Fleisher said. "The players are so good today and can score so easily that to average fan it looks boring sometimes.
"As far as attendance is concerned, there are always some teams that are going to be shakey. We're in a period of recession tied in with inflation, so a lot of business are hurting.
"I'm one who worries because the players' association has a lot at stake, but I'm really not negative about the league at all."