IT'S PLAYOFF time in the National Basketball Association. And thanks to David Stern, the league's commissioner, the NBA has had another season of financial and popular success. Yet as a former referee who watched from center court as the league grew and changed, I wonder if the NBA hasn't become a victim of its own good fortune.
In some ways, it seems to have struck a Faustian bargain, trading artful basketball for big bucks. Before 1979, the NBA struggled to gain legitimate big league status -- and the lucrative national TV contracts that go with it. Fortunately, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan gave the league the personable and exciting stars necessary to help its financial ascent. Under Stern's guidance, these players were marketed to the hilt. The league's TV and gate receipts grew from $120 million in 1982 to $700 million last year.
But there is a downside. The NBA faces a vacuum of superstars. Magic Johnson retired. Larry Bird is reaching the end of his career. Many younger stars have committed transgressions that could hamper their roles as standard-bearers: Charles Barkley's tirades against everyone imaginable; Michael Jordan's gambling and his decision to remove his likeness from NBA products. On whose back will the league ride in the 1990s?
There are other problems. In its rush to capitalize on its good fortune, in 1988 the NBA increased the number of teams from 23 to 27. While the expansion has helped the league's bank account, it hasn't done much for the quality of play.
Before expansion, each team had several stars. This made for a better team concept and a more enjoyable game: Everyone was involved. Now, with more teams, there are fewer top-caliber players to go around. Consequently, many teams are forced to play a wide-open fast-break game. After all, everyone knows how to run.
But when that style doesn't work, teams have nothing to fall back on. Players are often ill-equipped for the slower half-court offense, which requires complicated set plays. The result: The mistakes pile up at an alarming rate. The turnover ratio reached a new high this year, with an average of 15 a game.
Similarly, the 82-game schedule doesn't do a lot for the quality of play. Players wear out and become disgruntled, uninterested and susceptible to injury. Contrary to what the league's marketing wizards would have you believe, at playoff time fans are deprived of seeing basketball at its best -- the players are simply too tired.
The NBA also lets too many teams into the playoffs. Sixteen teams made it to the first round of post-season play. Three had records under .500. Compare that with the 12 teams in football that play instant elimination games and baseball's four pennant winners. Would we really be worse off if four of those teams were left out?
It's an old story, of course, that many of today's players are motivated by salaries instead of pride. Most everyone knows that much has changed since the days of Dolph Schayes and Bob Pettit, both of whom played an entire playoff series with broken arms. This year, Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets did not play in several games after the team refused to renegotiate his contract: He claimed to have a pulled tendon.
There's nothing wrong with players making a lot of money. The problem is that the league seems to ignore the effects of a $650,000 average salary. Superstars make millions more. Coaches who earn a third of what their players do cannot command the necessary respect to do their jobs. Remember New Jersey Nets Derrick Coleman and Chris Morris balking at the request of their coach, Bill Fitch, to re-enter a late season game? The 1983-84 Lakers banded together to have Paul Westhead, their coach, fired.
The combination of this unruliness and expansion has also given the NBA the almost impossible task of finding qualified referees to fill out three-man officiating teams. Superstars continue to challenge referees' authority by using physical and verbal abuse. Idle threats by inexperienced referees are generally scoffed at by these players and they continue to do just as they please. The playoff series between the New York Knicks and the Detroit Pistons, which quickly became a Pier 6 brawl, is a case in point.
The NBA is one of the financial success stories of the last decade. But unless it addresses these problems, the league, like so many of the 1980s' high-flying institutions, could come crashing down to earth.
Earl Strom was a referee in the National Basketball Association from 1957 to 1990.