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I Loathe This Game

Since the Los Angeles Lakers weren't distracted by the sights and sounds of northern New Jersey and the NBA wasn't desperate enough to extend this series and its accompanying ad revenues by replacing the regular officiating crew with a trio of hand-picked pro wrestling referees, the NBA Finals ended last night. And with it ended the 12-year relationship between the NBA and NBC. Next season, pro basketball coverage moves over to ABC, ESPN, and a cable property of AOL Time Warner, meaning we've likely heard the last of that jaunty John Tesh-penned "NBA on NBC" jingle.


Nothing against the good men and women of NBC Sports and all the hard work that goes into broadcasting Bill Walton's second-guessing to a grateful nation, but my interest in professional basketball began to wane about the same time the Peacock Network snatched away the NBA contract from CBS. And while I recognize that correlation is not the same thing as causation, I can't help but wonder if the two developments -- NBC starts broadcasting NBA games; the NBA suddenly becomes unwatchable -- aren't somehow connected.

Back in the 1980s -- a time, as the wits who penned That '80s Show reminded us, of enormous shoulder pads and even more enormous cell phones -- few sports commanded my love and devotion like basketball. I played the game (wretchedly, I should note), I watched it on TV, I even sat through many an evening of insufferably bad Golden State Warrior basketball at the Oakland Coliseum-Arena just so that I could see the great stars and teams of the era kick the life out of the hapless Joe Barry Carroll-led Warriors as they passed through town. I developed passionate, elaborately constructed opinions about basketball related topics -- everything from Michael Cooper (underrated player, vital cog in a championship machine) to M.L. Carr (towel-waving dullard) to the fast-break offense (I believe I was in favor of it). I wore a Lakers t-shirt.

But then, starting with the 1990-91 season, NBC started broadcasting the NBA. And before you could say "World B. Free," pro basketball, which once competed with baseball for my affections, had fallen below hockey, various and sundry college athletics, even World's Strongest Man competitions on that mental "Sports Worth Paying Attention To" list that every sports fan keeps. I restricted my crummy basketball playing to the occasional pick-up game. I stopped going to pro games. The elaborately constructed opinions were shelved. The Lakers t-shirt became faded and torn; I didn't buy a replacement. And now, I can't be bothered to watch pro basketball -- not on TV, not live and in person, not even if Shaq and the boys showed up at my apartment for an impromptu game behind the sofa.

There are many reasons for this startling development, none of which have anything to do with NBC. My favorite player, Magic Johnson, was forced into early retirement and suddenly the Lakers of Magic, Worthy and Kareem that contended for championships year in and year out became a collection of Sedale Threatts, Elden Campbells and Pig Millers that struggled mightily just to get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The NBA was suddenly teeming with players who left college early -- assuming they had even bothered with college at all -- and while the young'uns could dunk real pretty, they were remarkably unschooled in such trivialities as passing, dribbling and playing defense. Games seemed to devolve overnight from a fluid, dynamic offense that involved all five players into a deadly dull evening of watching four guys stand around while the ball-handler drove the lane to force up a five-foot brick.

NBC is relatively blameless in all this -- after all, the network's not the one advising kids to turn pro before they master the fundamentals or diagramming the ol' "just toss the ball to me and get out of my way" play on the sidelines. But NBC is the one relentlessly hyping today's players as the worthy successors of Russell, Chamberlain and Bird, in the same way that the network hype machine keeps insisting that Friends is as funny as ever, that ER remains a quality drama, that Saturday Night Live skits are as funny today as the first 33 times you see them. NBC keeps trying to tell us that the NBA is faaaaaaaaaaaantastic!, when it's obvious to me, you, and probably even Dick Ebersol, that it clearly isn't -- not by a longshot.

It began early on in NBC's NBA coverage, when the network stopped promoting games as a matchup of teams in favor of trumpeting them as a showdown of superstars. All of a sudden, a Chicago Bulls-New York Knicks game became "Michael Jordan and the Bulls take on Patrick Ewing and the Knicks" -- and soon enough, even that was shortened to just "Jordan! Ewing! The NBA on NBC!" That's effective enough when you're promoting stars in their prime. But when Jordan's on his second comeback with a team that has no business even thinking about the playoffs, when Ewing is riding the pine in Orlando, when the Robinsons and the Malones and the Olajuwans of the league drawing ever closer to the final tip-off, and the young stars are nowhere near ready to pick up the slack, NBC's "promote the superstars" approach only reminds the paying customers that they're watching a watered-down league.

NBC also decided to focus its coverage on major-market teams or franchises with big-time stars or, ideally, -- in those happy times when the fates and the NBA draft lottery converged -- both. So if you happened to tune into an NBA game on NBC any time during the last 12 years, you were likely to see the same teams week after week.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with that approach -- every other network does the same thing in covering every other sport, which is why you're more likely to see the New York Yankees and Detroit Red Wings on your TV than the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Unfortunately for NBC, it happened to be broadcasting NBA games at the same time the league's elite teams included the New York Knicks, or, as they're more commonly identified among sports fans in the know, The Walking Embodiment of Everything Wrong with Professional Basketball in the 1990s.

You remember the mid-'90s Knicks, don't you? Plodding offense. Thuggish defense. Scores routinely in the low 70s -- good if you're a professional golfer, not so good if you're playing for a league that's promising athleticism and excitement. I have no way of knowing this for certain, but I'm fairly sure that in the Ninth Circle of Hell, the 1994 Knicks take on the Washington Generals each night before a capacity crowd at the MolochDome. It's knotted up at 15 headed into halftime, but don't worry, Knicks fans -- John Starks has vowed to take more shots during the second half.

Patrick Ewing and the Knicks! Red Klotz and the Generals! The NBA on NBC! I love this game!

Well, no... no, I don't actually. Not when I turn on the TV and see the Knicks playing the Miami Heat for what seems like the 53rd Sunday in a row, and Patrick Ewing and Alzono Mourning are dry-humping each other up and down the court while Dick Ebersol and David Stern cackle and roll around in piles of money. I don't think I love that at all.

When it's not flipping on the hype machine and setting the level to "Hyperventilate," NBC must answer for other high crimes and misdemeanors committed during its 12-year NBA run. By making its lead play-by-play announcer, the network gave him a national presence, thus indirectly leading the nation to discover more about his social life than we might have cared to. Then, there's that damnable Tesh song, which has been tinkling around in my head ever since I mentioned it seven paragraphs ago. And now it's in your head, too -- and believe you me, it's not going to leave your head any time soon. Not until you bash your skull against a cement wall or jam a flathead screwdriver into your ear or something drastic like that -- and still, probably not even then.

NBC also unleashed Ahmad Rashad upon an unsuspecting world that had done nothing to deserve such punishment. Rashad, the sycophant to whom all other sycophants pay obsequious homage, broke new ground in broadcast journalism with probing questions like, "Michael, that was some game you played out there today," and powerful insights such as, "Marv, Michael was telling me as I drove him to the game today that he feels the Bulls really have a chance to win this afternoon." We shall likely never see his like again -- unless ABC goes out and hires Jules Asner as its sideline reporter.

Because they don't need sideline reporters at NBC, not any more. The loss of the NBA leaves the Peacock Network with a severely diminished lineup of sports offerings. No NFL. No baseball. No hockey. All NBC has to its name now is half of the NASCAR schedule, the occasional golf and tennis tournament, some thoroughbred racing and a slate of increasingly uneventful Notre Dame football games. Oh, and the Olympics -- but since NBC insists that those aren't sporting events, I don't see why we should pretend any different. So NBC is pretty much stuck on the sidelines until Dick Ebersol's good friend, Vince McMahon, hatches an idea for the XBA -- basketball the way it was meant to be played, with exploding backboards, teams comprised of junior college rejects, and cheerleaders sporting implants the size of basketballs.

Now that --- that I'd turn my head to see if a game broke out in my kitchen. Have the boys in program development get cracking on this one, Dick. XBA action -- it's fantastic!


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