-- In place of Shaquille O'Neal's hubris and humor, Rasheed Wallace's unsmiling mug and unsparing words starred at a podium placed on the SBC Center court Wednesday.
Exceptional at playing the bad guy for much of his career, the Detroit Pistons' all-star forward understood what his team's appearance in the NBA Finals against the small-market San Antonio Spurs meant: Miami vs. Phoenix, run and gun vs. stop and pop, was out.
Shaq vs. Tim Duncan, waging a duel in the paint to see who is the greatest pivot of their generation? Pre-empted by the Motown spoilers -- 'Sheed, Big Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups.
In a year of utter turbulence for David Stern and his league, the bad boys of the new millennium ruined the commissioner's ratings dream.
"Don't matter to me," Wallace said, unapologetically. "I know we're here to play. Bottom line, I don't care what none of you cats all think. Half of you all [are on the] bandwagon. The other half got the Spurs winning anyway, so it don't matter to us."
It's "The Series Nobody Wanted," except perhaps real connoisseurs of the game, who manage to eschew star power and realize that the two best teams will compete for the title.
"There's no question the average fan would have preferred Shaq in the finals, but the conspiracy was apparently called off," said Steve Kerr, the TNT analyst who won championships in Chicago and San Antonio. "We've got the two best teams. Give Detroit its due. It's not a marketing person's dream, but you've got the two best defensive teams and the makings of a very good series."
Kerr understood the magnitude of how many of his colleagues wanted to lay on South Beach rather than cruise Detroit's Eight Mile Avenue with Eminem. Along those lines, Marv Albert, Kerr's broadcast partner, said he was going to call Al Michaels, the announcer who will call the Finals for ABC.
"Marv told me he was going to ask Al Michaels whether he planned to stay at the Four Seasons in Houston and the Four Seasons in Chicago and then just commute to San Antonio and Detroit," Kerr said.
"That's okay -- last year people didn't want us in the Finals, either," said Lindsey Hunter, the veteran Pistons guard. "We're the team with the underlying statement after 'They're good, but they're boring.' We just deal with it."
So has Duncan and San Antonio for much of their championship run. On paper, the NBA Finals are indeed hurting for cachet. It's essentially the small-market Spurs and the game's most introverted superstar (Duncan) against a star-deficient, bump-and-grind defensive unit without an apparent future Hall of Famer on its roster.
But Spurs-Pistons is apropos in one way. Why wouldn't the NBA have a series this year that might drive the casual fan away from the television? The 2004-2005 season has been one drama or crisis after another, beginning with the brawl in the stands at Auburn Hills, Mich., between Pistons fans and Indiana Pacers players. Dubbed "The Malice at the Palace," the images of fans being cold-cocked by players forced Stern to institute more security measures for games and opened a national dialogue on the disconnect between insulated professional athletes and the beer muscles of some of their paying customers.
There was the Christmas Day animosity between O'Neal and his former teammate Kobe Bryant. And now Stern and his army of lawyers are battling Billy Hunter, the players union chief, and his most valuable litigators. They're going toe-to-toe over dollars, sense and a new collective bargaining agreement in a labor skirmish they hope to head off before training camp in October. With a possible lockout on the horizon, the league has endured one of its more pendulum-swinging years.
NBA television ratings receded on all four of the league's national networks (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and TNT) this past season. According to the Sports Business Daily, ESPN and ESPN2 experienced the steepest declines in viewers this season.
With the Lakers headed toward the lottery instead of the playoffs for the first time in years, ABC's playoff ratings this season dipped 35 percent. ABC hit a historic broadcast-television low for the league this past season.
The NBA is not in immediate danger of becoming a niche sport with almost a cult following -- like the NHL. But its inability to seize the interest level of the non-basketball fan may lead to more ratings slides.
"What happens when you're a casual fan is you want to star-gaze, you want to be in New York, you want to be in L.A.," said Jalen Rose, the veteran NBA guard who is working for NBA-TV during the Finals. "But the reality is, these are the two best teams. You got arguably the best player in Tim Duncan, you got the defensive player of the year [Ben Wallace], you got back-to-back opportunities for Detroit."
Said Will Perdue, the former NBA center, "A lot of that has to do with television. Everybody wants to see Shaq. He's the ultimate big man. Everybody wants to see Phoenix because it's run and gun. That's what everybody thinks the NBA is about. But I think this series is going to be a lot better than people anticipate."
Perdue and others believe it is a misnomer to call the Spurs "boring." "I don't know if there is a more exciting player than Manu Ginobili, in terms of what he's going to do, how effective he is. And he's so unpredictable. You don't know what he's going to do when he gets in the air."
Unfortunately for the NBA, Perdue added, the idea of the Spurs as a sexy team has yet to capture the masses, just as the NBA Finals seem to lack glamour.
"The biggest thing going on in San Antonio right now is Eva Longoria, because she's dating Tony Parker," said Perdue of the Spurs point guard and his television actress flame. "It's not about the Spurs and the Finals. Oh well."
Harsh but true: In supernova-starved San Antonio, a desperate housewife turns more heads than the teams.