Our first question today comes from M. Jordan, who asks, "I haven't been paying much attention. Who's in the NBA Finals?"
San Antonio and New York. Most people expect the Spurs to win easily. Don't be surprised if by Game 3 Jeff Van Gundy runs onto the court and starts gnawing on David Robinson's leg.
TV will make it into a morality play. The Knicks will be cast as outlaws, because everybody outside of New York loves to hate New York, and they have the perfect villain now in Latrell Sprewell. We will see so much footage of the scratches on P.J. Carlesimo's throat we'll think we've tuned into "ER". You'd hope that someone might mention that since coming to New York, Sprewell has been a candy striper. But that wouldn't fit into the script.
The Spurs, of course, will be cast as Boy Scouts defending the American way of life. Much will be made of how the San Antonio starters all went through four years of college ball. We might get interviews of Robinson's, Tim Duncan's and Sean Elliott's grade school teachers telling us what fine, clean-cut students and model citizens they were. There will probably be a big banner behind the Spurs bench saying, "Stay in School!" I wonder if anyone will mention that the starters the Knicks put on the floor in their clinching game against Indiana -- Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, Chris Dudley, Chris Childs and Sprewell -- played four years of college basketball as well. (And Dudley played them at Yale!)
Another central figure in the Good vs. Evil concept is Knicks boss Dave Checketts, who will be cast as a back-stabbing weasel. Some weeks back, when the Knicks were in a dizzy spiral, Checketts fired Ernie Grunfeld, the general manager, in desperation. Grunfeld's apparent crime was that the players he had brought in -- Sprewell and Marcus Camby -- weren't producing enough. In fact, they were hardly playing because Van Gundy was pining for John Starks and Charles Oakley.
Then, magically, as if electrical power had been restored to his head, Van Gundy began playing Sprewell and Camby, and the Knicks soared. So Grunfeld became a hero in absentia. And Van Gundy, who everyone in New York would have willingly thrown under a bus in order to get Phil Jackson, suddenly became a genius. When it was subsequently reported that Checketts had secretly contacted Jackson behind Van Gundy's back -- and then lied to the media about it! -- Checketts became evil incarnate. I'm surprised NATO hasn't bombed his office yet.
The good news for viewers is that Bill Walton and Snapper Jones won't be commenting. Talk about yentahs. I haven't seen men yap at each other like that since "La Cage Aux Folles."
Our next question comes from D. Stern, who asks, "What do you think of the plan to set an age limit on who can enter the NBA?"
I think it would lose in court.
The NBA will try to follow the path of the NFL, where they don't draft players until they are out of high school for three years. But the distinction is obvious: Mentally and physically, pro football is much harder than pro basketball. Teenagers aren't ready for the NFL. But teenagers can play in the NBA; at 19, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Moses Malone and Stephon Marbury were already promising pro players.
The three-year rule is easy to uphold in the NFL. Almost every entering college freshman is redshirted for a year, and it takes two seasons of college football to get ready for the NFL. A high school senior simply wouldn't get drafted. Plus, there are no guaranteed contracts in the NFL, so coming out too early can jeopardize your career. In the NBA, GMs are falling over each other to draft teenagers and throw piles of guaranteed money at them. The NBA's real Achilles' heel isn't the young kids, it's the personnel geniuses who pick them.
Stern won't have any trouble getting the NBA Players Association to go along with a ban on teenagers -- any restriction on incoming talent means more money for veteran players. But how will the NBA be able to convince the court that prohibiting players under 20 or 21 from using their skills to earn a living is legal? Baseball, hockey and tennis have long histories of teenage players. Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Wayne Gretzky and John McEnroe were all phenoms as teenagers, and the structure of their sports didn't collapse. In most sports the rule is: When you're ready to play, you play.
Granted, many young players are hurting their long-term careers by entering the NBA early. But this effort to keep young and otherwise qualified players from the NBA seems disturbingly paternal -- and it gets dicey if the people affected by any such ban are mostly of one race.
I don't doubt that the NBA is concerned for the welfare of the teenagers who are entering the league too soon. I also don't doubt that the NBA is concerned that its product is being diluted by kids coming into the league who have a lot of talent, but no refined skills. And where do those skills normally get refined? College basketball. The NBA and the colleges are in a symbiotic relationship. College basketball is the unpaid minor league of the NBA, and the NBA is the goal of college players. Both sides need to keep that chain linked. What has happened at Duke -- with Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette leaving school early -- sets the match to the gunpowder that has David Stern seeking this understandable but legally problematic new rule.
Our last question was postmarked two months ago -- clearly it was late being delivered. It comes from P. Angelos, who says, "I have always liked Cal Ripken. But he is making errors at an alarming rate, he isn't hitting his weight, and now his sore back has caused him to go on the disabled list. In light of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John Elway retiring, don't you think it's time for Cal to hang 'em up?"
Would you like to rephrase that?
Since coming back from his injury Cal is hitting about .850. He may get to 3,000 hits by Friday.
The people who called for his retirement, like he was some sort of porcelain doll, didn't appreciate that he had never been hurt before, and he deserved the chance to heal and see if he could still play. Which he can, thank you.
Ironically, the strong, rejuvenated way Ripken has come back from injury probably has some people on the Orioles wondering if Ripken would have posted better numbers over the past four or five years had he sat down for a week at a time earlier in his career.
CAPTION: There are no scratch marks on the neck of New York Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy.