NBA on roll, but rebound goes to fans

October 28, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Now we know why Gary Bettman worked for David Stern, instead of the other way around.

Both were staring at daunting labor-relations obstacles. Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, found a solution that enabled the games to go on. Bettman, the NHL commissioner who used to work for Stern, found that he needed a bodyguard.

Stern's league now will have a monopoly on the sporting public's interest five nights a week, while Bettman's will sit idle, its momentum from last spring effectively hip-checked into the boards.

Which one is better serving his constituency? Do we have to answer?

Still, as much as yesterday's no-strike, no-lockout announcement a clear victory for Stern, whose threat of a lockout persuaded the players to put up with the status quo for another year, the real winner is me. And you. And anyone who happens to enjoy watching a ballgame now and then.

Because we needed some there there.

Somewhere.

Spare me the details about who wins and loses because the NBA players have to go through another season without a collective bargaining agreement. Who cares? To paraphrase Al Franken of "Saturday Night Live," the only thing that's important is what it means to me. And to me, you and anyone else who happens to enjoy watching a ballgame now and then, it means there will be one, as opposed to none.

Had there been no NBA season, three-fourths of the major professional sports world would have been shuttered. Paul "We're Just Smarter" Tagliabue would have been truly insufferable. The Sun sports section might have been remade into a pennysaver.

Except for football weekends, the sporting landscape would have been as barren as Bob Irsay's conscience.

Had there been no NBA season, we were looking at a long, cold winter with nothing to follow on a daily basis except monster truck races and college basketball. And college hoops, as exciting as it is, is one sport that doesn't hold up well with scrutiny. There are lots of questions whose answers you don't want to know. Believe me.

Had there been no NBA season, we might have actually had to take up the lost art of talking to each other instead of staring at rich jocks on TV.

Whew. That was close.

Without baseball and hockey, the "everydayness" that is the essence of sports' appeal was gone. Basically, the Great American Sports Routine had been killed. No daily hum of box scores, highlights and talking points. No games to surf by on the way to your cartoons and your "I Dream of Jeannie" reruns. (C'mon, admit it.) No numbers to crunch in the morning paper. Nothing to argue about.

But now the Routine resumes next week, when the NBA season tips off. Games every night. Box scores every morning. Winning streaks. Statistics. Playoff races. A daily continuum. The comforting hum of everpresence.

That is the triumph in yesterday's news that the NBA will play instead of pout.

Sure, the league still has all sorts of problems, ranging from an upside-down salary structure to a new generation of less-than-huggable superstars such as Derrick Coleman. And before we proclaim it an oasis in the sports labor desert, remember that the players and owners have just agreed to postpone their fight; they're no closer to a settlement. There could very well be a strike or lockout next season.

But there won't be one now, and that's cause for celebration in this climate of darkened arenas and stadiums.

Let's hear it for the NBA for having the courtesy not to spit on its fans, for realizing that following through on its pledge to determine a champion is more important than settling what is basically an in-house argument over the cutting up of the riches.

Without any competition, the NBA will own the news during the week. Between that and the death of last year's UglyBall thanks to a shorter three-point line and new rules limiting contact, the league should have good games, big crowds and increased interest.

It will quickly re-establish its supremacy over hockey, which had been on a roll.

No, the Bullets are no reason to get excited. But there will be other games to watch, other teams to follow, other stories to monitor. The exhausting Knicks. The combustible Sonics. The rising Nuggets.

It'll do.

Of course, it'll have to do.

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