Hey, gullible NBA fans, where's all your outrage?

February 15, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

First, no one cared about the NBA lockout that lasted for months and threatened to wipe out the season.

But now, no one cares that he didn't care.

Attendance and television ratings have dipped at times in the first fortnight of the NBA's truncated season, but not nearly as much as you would expect, given the apathy and outright rancor leveled at the game from "bitter" fans during the lockout.

And if the fans' payback is this minimal in the immediate wake of one of sports' silliest work stoppages, there'll clearly be no long-term payback. The lockout will quickly be forgotten.

Swell.

Is it any wonder so many pro athletes are arrogant and take the fans' idolatry for granted?

Is it any surprise that owners and players in all sports are willing to slap the fans in the face and take away games in the name of making more millions?

The fans always come back, no matter how much abuse is heaped on them.

But this instant comeback from the NBA lockout is a new low.

At least baseball's fans had a conscience after the great strike of '94 did the unthinkable and wiped out the World Series. Baseball has spent the past four seasons trying to dig out of that hole, and there's still more digging to do. A lot of baseball fans, bless 'em, have long memories.

Too bad we can't say the same about NBA fans.

Granted, the lockout ended just in time to avoid wiping out an entire season. Had that ugliest of scenarios occurred, the backlash surely would have been much worse.

Still, the NBA is force-feeding the fans a season that ranks as an embarrassment to the league's fine tradition -- a season that warrants outrage. And there's none.

It's bad enough that an entire off-season and preseason were crammed into a few weeks, forcing unfamiliar and out-of-shape teammates onto the court together for games that count. The rash of injuries that has occurred is hardly a surprise.

But the worst indignity is the schedule that was patched together, hustling each team through a 50-game season in just a few months. It's not uncommon for teams to play three games in three days in three cities or four or five games in a week. That's too much even for the world's best players. The overall quality of play is suffering.

Woe unto any fan who buys a ticket to see a team playing its third game in its third city in three nights.

Of course, fans don't seem to care about the quality of play, if the early part of this "season" is any indication. It's almost as if the public now views the NBA as another entertainment option more than a sport, a 150-minute action movie in shorts. The hype is what matters, it seems. The celebrity is what matters. That's what the fans want. The game itself? Secondary.

That's not to say it's pointless to watch any NBA games this season. Even with Michael Jordan gone, the league has much to recommend it.

The Pacers, for instance. With their old-school teamwork and attitude reflective of their coach, Larry Bird, they're a joy to watch. So is the Jazz. The Lakers' blend of high-priced egos is a fascinating soap opera.

Even the Wizards are interesting, with their lyrical backcourt of Mitch Richmond and Rod Strickland. And as always, if you really want to see a show, there's the 76ers' remarkable Allen Iverson.

But in spite of all that, there still are daily reminders that this season amounts to a practical joke perpetrated on the public. Just open up the sports page, go to the NBA box scores and check out the shooting percentages. It ain't pretty.

In fact, if you want to have some fun one morning, check the boxes and try naming your favorite "Bad Box Score" of the day, in honor of Dan Aykroyd's old "Bad Cinema" routine on "Saturday Night Live." There's no lack of candidates.

The season's best "Bad Box Score" so far was in Friday's paper, a summary of a game the Bulls and Knicks played Thursday night in Chicago. Just be glad you didn't pay $50 to see it. The Bulls made 21 of 79 shots. The Knicks made 26 of 71. The Bulls scored 10 points in the fourth quarter. The Knicks won, 73-68. And 22,194 fans were there to watch. Weren't they lucky?

That box score summed up everything that's going on. The game is suffering, but, for the most part, ticket sales aren't. And those sales are what should be suffering in the wake of the players' and owners' disagreement over how to carve up their billion-dollar pie.

The fans should be outraged at what's happening, but they don't seem to care.

Sure, they talked the talk during the lockout, flooding talk-show switchboards with promises to stay away -- empty threats, it turned out.

Keep that in mind when sports' next work stoppage cranks up, with absolutely nothing to lose.

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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