When did magic vanish from NBA?

November 20, 2001 8:01 AM
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After poring over the latest gaming figures, I was struck at how sports betting has suffered over the last few years. Noteworthy was the diminishing interest in the NBA, which has remained flat in gaming win, and given ground to baseball as a percentage of total amount wagered.

Now, I’ve always been an NBA fan, even though I haven’t been to a game in years. So, I decided to undertake a game-watching marathon to see how the season is progressing. But after just a handful of games, I immediately found the problem. The NBA stinks.

Where has the excitement of NBA basketball gone? I can flip the TV remote and find more gripping drama on the Food Channel. Good heavens, during one of the Laker games I was so bored I found myself flipping back and forth to Ally McBeal.

For starters, the games are plodding, slow-moving and low-scoring. If anything, they’re more like tractor pulls than athletic contests. This is supposed to be pro basketball, but they shoot in the 70s so much you’d think it was golf.

Even the resurrection of Michael Jordan hasn’t helped. In fact, his presence has added a kind of sideshow quality to Washington Wizard games, and all the media coverage has revealed how pitiful that franchise truly is.

Perhaps the NBA lacks freshness. In addition to a ho-hum Michael Jordan, the league from top to bottom is populated with the same, usual and anemic suspects. The NBA players’ union must have more clout than the teamsters to keep these has-beens on the payroll.

I use to love watching the Utah Jazz, but these are not the same guys I cheered for a decade ago. Of course, the names are the same, John Stockton and Karl Malone, but the 2001 renditions have all the vim and vigor of cardboard cutouts.

Another team that has suffered the geriatric blahs is the Miami Heat. You have to feel sorry for Alonzo Mourning because of all of his injuries, but the rest of the team looks sorely in need of a high colonic. And coach Pat Riley is beginning to creak like the staircase in a Victorian home.

Clearly, the league is in the midst of some type of transition. I hope a few exciting players emerge from the list of newcomers, which actually reads like a tasting menu with selections such as Kwame Brown, Pau Gasol and Speedy Claxton.

Maybe the players have grown too large for the court. After all, basketball was designed for men barely 6-feet tall. Today, we have 7-foot behemoths pounding each other for the right to drop in a 2-foot lay-up. Maybe the court should be expanded and the hoop raised. Perhaps then we will have the kind of basketball that demanded passing, dribbling, shooting and play-making. Today we have a kind of sumo wrestling match where players try to knock each other off the hardwood floor.

Whatever the problem, it has been coming for quite a while. In fact, basketball seems to have lost its magic when it lost, well, Magic. And while Magic Johnson may not be the greatest player in NBA history, he was definitely the most inspiring. Inspiring for his teammates in that they caught his fever, his enthusiasm, and elevated their play, often to championship levels.

Magic was also inspiring to the fans. You could always see in his smile, in his determination and in his joy of competing how much he enjoyed playing the game of basketball. You don’t see that radiance in today’s players.

I recall sitting in the press section of the old Forum, watching Magic’s Lakers in the 1980s. These weren’t games, they were events. From the basketball players, to the Laker Girls to Dancing Barry and to the appreciative fans ”” all 17,505 of them ”” there was an electricity, an excitement that made just being in the arena a special occasion.

Maybe there’s excitement yet to come in the NBA. But which player will be able to move the Excitement Meter, let alone register on it? Today’s players may be talented, but they don’t inspire show biz, which is the shot in the arm the NBA needs right now. Did I say a shot in the arm? Maybe a full-blown transfusion is more like it.

Either the NBA finds its game or it’s back to the remote. And I don’t think I can stomach another episode of Ally McBeal. Watching someone as anorexic as Calista Flockhart is disheartening, especially when you’re a couch potato, wolfing down nachos and Miller Genuine Draft.