Thirteen years after its silver anniversary, the National Basketball Association could this season recapture the glitter and glamor of the early to mid-1970s, when it was regarded as the coming sport.
Consider this scene Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City: Although it was only an exhibition game, 15,239 people were on hand, many encircling the court. It was the Big Apple debut of Olympic star and Chicago Bulls rookie Michael Jordan. Jordan was clad in black sneakers, local hero Bernard King of the Knicks was in his home whites, but both men were given thunderous receptions as they took the court. The fervor rose throughout warmups with each double clutch dunk by Jordan and matching tomahawk slam by King.
King scored 29 points and Jordan 23. The final 4:56 of the first half was almost savage in its intensity as the two men had the crowd screaming in delight.
This season, such excitement could be commonplace.
"For one thing, everybody's trying to run and that's more entertaining," said the Bullets' assistant coach, Bernie Bickerstaff. "We walked (last year) because we had to but I'll tell you, it was boring watching us all year."
The Bullets are hoping that the addition of guard Gus Williams from Seattle and forward Cliff Robinson from Cleveland plus holdover talents like Jeff Ruland will make the team terribly exciting, not terribly dull. Similar expectations exist in new places that are now home to old faces -- Dan Roundfield in Detroit, Terry Cummings in Milwaukee and Marques Johnson in Los Angeles. Then there is the outstanding incoming talent like Jordan in Chicago, Akeem Olajuwon in Houston and even Vern Fleming in Indianapolis.
The groundwork for the league's revival began a year ago with total attendance topping the 10 million mark, including a regular-season single-game record crowd of 35,407 in Detroit in March. And when the fans weren't watching the games in person, chances are they were viewing them on television.
While National Football League ratings have declined from an 18.3 share to a 15.8 over the past two seasons, the NBA's big event atmosphere -- with fewer telecasts airing on both network and cable -- has paid off with increased ratings over the same span. The seventh game of last season's championship series between Boston and Los Angeles was the highest-rated CBS program in June and drew a 19.3 rating and 33 share, meaning an estimated 40,000,000 viewers watched at least a portion of the game.
Not so coincidentally, the league's upswing in attitude has coincided with the first year of David Stern's reign as NBA commissioner. Named to succeed retiring Larry O'Brien in November, Stern is the man most responsible for the NBA's move toward approaching the super-slick NFL in marketing and promotion.
To that end, the league's theme for the upcoming season is "America's Game," and to put out the word, NBA players have already begun popping up on televisions all over the country in public service announcements dealing with everything from the dangers of smoking to complex diseases. Specially created promo spots ("America's Game, It's Fantastic"), combining music, fans and the talents of the athletes will also be appearing.
All this from Stern, an admitted NBA fanatic.
"You work 12- to 13-hour days after 12- to 13-hour days and you start to get angry," says Rick Welts, the league's vice president of public relations and marketing. "Then you realize that he (Stern) was in before you were and is still there when you finally do leave."
Two nights ago, Stern attended the Hall of Fame Game in Springfield, Mass., the first night in a 10-day span in which he will be at opening nights in Detroit, Dallas, San Antonio and Boston, with a New Jersey Nets' game thrown in for good measure.
All this in an effort to, "spread the NBA gospel," an assignment the 18-year league employe believes is relatively simple. "Once all the clutter has been eliminated, the word will spread very well by itself," says Stern. "In the past we've been so pummeled by circumstances that we've always been busy just digging ourselves out from down under. Now we're at ground level.
"People say that this is the NBA's chance to shine, given what's happening to the ratings of other televised sports. I don't see us trying to shine at another sport's expense, I see a new appreciation of our game. We don't have to promote Michael Jordan . . . or drum up talk about Akeem Olajuwon pairing up with Ralph Sampson. People are doing that on their own and it's more refreshing than having them worry about striking refs, drugs or violence."
However, there are still concerns, far beyond why there hasn't been a repeat champion since the 1969 Boston Celtics. There are still big money matters, as in holdouts and free agency. In the former category, the biggest name is Adrian Dantley of the Utah Jazz. After leading the league in scoring with a 30.6 points-per-game average and being named the league's comeback player of the year, A.D., in the last year of his current pact, has been a no-show at camp so far. With Saudi Arabian oil barons Adnan and Essam Khashoggi injecting $8 million into the Utah franchise, Dantley has been holding out for a strike of his own, asking for $1.3 million a year for the next seven years and balking at Utah's counteroffer of $3 million for the next three years.
Holdouts -- even in the new and improved NBA -- are almost commonplace. The curiosity is the free agent situation, with such big names as Phoenix's Maurice Lucas, Boston's Cedric Maxwell and Chicago's David Greenwood still without offers.
Although it is true that, as one cynical player points out, "There isn't one big name on the list who's white," the answer as to why so many quality players are unsigned is more complicated.
For one thing there's the salary cap, the payroll ceiling set for each of the league's 23 teams. The Nets, with their cap of $3.75 million, for example, couldn't make a four-year, $4 million offer for Maxwell because the base salary of a million per year would put the team over its yearly limit. Before holdout Greg Ballard agreed to terms yesterday, the Bullets' salaries totaled $3.45 million, below the cap of $3.6 million.
There are others who say that the lack of offers is the result of collusion among the league's owners.
"You really can't call it collusion but in effect it is," says Larry Fleisher, general counsel for the NBA Players Association. "Given the available talent there should be 10-12 more offer sheets presented than at present. It's ridiculous to think that none of these last-place teams haven't made offers, that a Cedric Maxwell isn't more attractive to Indiana than he is to Boston. The teams aren't willing to be creative and take chances."
Or perhaps they aren't particularly motivated to. When the idea of an escalating salary cap ($3.6 million this season, $3.8 in '85-86 and $4 million the following year), was agreed upon by the league and the players association, it was thought that teams with payrolls below those figures would have to increase their numbers -- ideally through the acquisition of free agents -- up to those levels. It was also thought that the players union would get 53 percent of that $3.6 million from each team.
Now that concept is being disputed. Instead of the Jazz, for example, being forced to add another million dollars to its $1.9 million payroll, the league is saying that the extra money can be picked up from another team with an already over-inflated payroll, say Los Angeles, one of five teams with payrolls frozen over the $3.6 million level. The concept, known as the grandfather clause, would provide the players union with the same 53 percent of the total gross, but eliminate much of the incentive for low-salaried teams to spend more money by going after available players.
The Knicks, backed by the Gulf & Western Corporation's dollars, are far from a financially needy team and one that would seem able to make good use of Maxwell, who was the most valuable player of the 1981 championship series and averaged 13 points and just under six rebounds per game in helping the Celtics defeat the Lakers in last season's finals. But instead of playing in the Garden, Maxwell finds himself planting one, and according to agent Ron Grinker, "He's not enjoying being at home picking out wallpaper, light fixtures and marble for the fireplace."
Perhaps it's just the spectre of Red Auerbach that deterred New York from making a play for Maxwell because otherwise the Knicks have been active. Besides signing former Mavericks' center Pat Cummings, there was enough money left to make offers to two guards, Detroit's Vinnie Johnson and Portland's Jim Paxson. While the offer for Johnson was nothing to sneeze at ($1.5 million for three years), the Knicks' potential deal with Paxson was simply asphyxiating.
Because the team could offer no more than approximately $250,000 in base salary, Fleisher, Paxson's agent, worked out an arrangement where the Knicks would give the player a $2.5 million bonus on top of a $75,000 base salary in addition to a $3.5 million dollar loan. The Trail Blazers remained undaunted and matched the New York offer, but in the process perhaps scared other teams away from similar attempts at creativity.
Attorney George Andrews has chosen to move his clients in the opposite direction from free agency, signing them to long-term pacts like the 25-year, $25 million dollar contract he negotiated for Magic Johnson with the Lakers in 1981.
Since then Andrews has made similar deals for Detroit's Isiah Thomas and Dallas' Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman, each for at least 10 years at close to a million dollars a year and each totally guaranteed against both injury and depreciation of skill.
Says Andrews, "Both parties win out because the players know that they're financially secure and the team is able to use them as a base to build around and promote to the public."
And despite the remaining internal financial squabbles, whether it's down in Big D or up in Detroit, promoting the players will be a piece of cake, says Stern, his 13-hour-plus days to the contrary. "Last year provided just a glimpse of what we hope to do. When we get down to business, our players will take care of the rest."
On Friday night they'll start to do just that.