Los Angeles Times

Stern Ponders State Of NBA At All-Star Break

Tribune Staff Writer

David Stern is pacing in front of Shaq-sized windows in his NBA corner office. Over his shoulder is a breathtaking view of glittering Fifth Avenue with Tiffany's, Saks, Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick's Cathedral. The twin towers of the World Trade Center are in the distance.

Stern is commissioner of a league that had glittered like a diamond for many years with the brightest stars in the sports world -- Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. If their NBA wasn't the most successful sports league, it was the best looking and most fashionable, home to players America and Madison Avenue most admired. Their appeal and Stern's marketing genius combined to produce a stunning run of success that peaked in the late 1990s with the NBA Finals outdrawing baseball's World Series on television and revenue surpassing $1 billion annually.

But as sports' most successful commissioner ponders the expensive world below, the Magic-Bird-Jordan decades are beginning to seem like the good old days.

"Yes, I am concerned," Stern acknowledged in an interview with the Tribune last week. "I'm concerned about the perceptions and whether they are accurate. The one that is most accurate has to do with the absence in many games of movement. And as a result of a kind of slowdown of offense, people are scratching their heads about this great, fast-paced game showcasing the world's greatest athletes. I'm concerned the extraordinary talents of our players are not getting showcased."

Stern's second concern is "the alleged character" of NBA players. He cited the disciplinary suspension of Seattle's Gary Payton and the recent arrests of three Phoenix Suns, including All-Star Jason Kidd for domestic abuse.

"While I'm not excusing the underlying facts, the stringing together and happening within a short time of one another gives a broader impression about our players that is the ultimate in stereotyping," Stern said.

Like most people in pro basketball, Stern is mystified by the Los Angeles Lakers' internal squabbling.

"[After the excitement of last year's Finals], with Reggie Miller and the Pacers going against Kobe [Bryant] and Shaq [O'Neal] ... if the next year the two are like a couple of petulant kids who are more interested in some real or imagined fight over leadership instead of helping the team win, it not only hurts them and the Lakers, it allows people to make more general statements about who is playing in this league," he said. "Whether those statements are true or not, it is fair game based on the behavior of the individuals involved.

"The reality is, it's happening. The perception is that's the way the quote 'average' NBA player is. But that's the price you pay when you are under the ultimate media microscope. Truth be told, that's good. That's our business. All the shining armor and all the warts."

As Stern prepares to go to Washington for the league's annual All-Star weekend, some of those warts have grown to a size requiring attention. Overall, the NBA remains strong with a long-term labor agreement, an excellent TV contract, growing international exposure and increasing franchise values. And Stern has become one of the most powerful and effective commissioners in the history of American team sports.

But the great boom he presided over and nutured through the 1980s and '90s is over. Attendance is flat -- about 85 percent of capacity paid -- and no-shows are increasing, giving many arenas an empty look on the highlight shows.

Players have grown more distant from fans and media, leading to a cooling of the previous ardor. Police-blotter statistics seem to have proliferated while the action on the court has diminished, leading to a less entertaining product for all but the most dedicated fan.

So the nation's capital will serve as an appropriate backdrop today for a kind of summit meeting, where the league's competition and rules committee will begin talking about changes in the game. Allowing all types of defenses, including zones, heads the list of suggestions, which includes changing the 24-second shot clock and the three-point line.

Stern also will meet with players to discuss a deteriorating partnership between the league and its talent. That relationship, which led to an innovative drug policy and a salary cap, was the underpinning for the league's boom in the 1980s.

And there will be meetings among owners, all leading to potentially major changes when the owners hold their regular meeting in March.

"We will talk about the state of the league and how we can work together to improve things," Stern said.

The "summit," Stern explained, is mostly happenstance because all the parties will be in Washington this weekend. But there is a sense of urgency as well. Stern knows that perceptions can lead to reality, and the reality is the game is slower now.

"The true aficionado can enjoy the traps, the disguised zones, the double teaming and swinging the ball, but at the end of a great game our committee has to deal with the issue of it being 79-72," Stern said. "It isn't that on a regular basis, and it's not exactly like the sky is falling. But I don't think we should hide from the issue."

The problem, Stern concedes, is a lack of consensus from experts within the game. Some top coaches lobby for permitting zone defenses to help emphasize passing and movement. Others say that will slow the game more by allowing teams to plant 7-footers by the basket and leave them there, discouraging drives to the hoop.

There is some sentiment for moving the three-point line closer and some for pushing it farther back or eliminating it. The shot clock inspires similar debate. Some say to change it from 24 seconds to 18 to promote more action, while others say to stretch it to 35 seconds so teams can get better shots.

"There's going to be discussion," Stern acknowledged.

A savvy marketer and promoter, Stern realizes that the talents of the players are the NBA's greatest asset. He wants to remind the players that isolating themselves from the fans diminishes their popularity.

"In the early 1980s we were the opposite of Groucho Marx not joining a club who would have us as a member -- we would talk to everyone who would listen," he said. "Our players caught that passion as well. We participated in the growth together."

Citing various factors, most notably the expansion of the media through the Internet, talk radio and other outlets, Stern said there has been a harder edge to NBA coverage and more competition for tougher stories.

"That has caused our players to go into a little bit of a shell," Stern said, adding that players also have grown "wary" of management after the lockout of 1998.

He's also aware that many players believe they don't "need" the media anymore.

"Their financial success has come from shoe companies, from agents directing them in other ways, and perhaps there is not the same welcoming sense to the media there once was," Stern said. "And the media has reacted in a way you might expect -- turned on them as a general matter and been less forgiving of some of their foibles. So there is a serious sort of disconnect."

At Stern's level the NBA appreciates media coverage, and he understands the necessity for reporting the news.

"Like if Ray Lewis is involved in a criminal case and he's going to the Super Bowl, he cannot say, `I don't want to talk about it' -- you have to talk about it," Stern said. "If player X has a rap album or carries a gun or gets stopped intoxicated or gets into an altercation, the media is entitled to ask about it because player X has been put into the public eye through his employment. So all of that makes for an interesting mix."

One that often can be bitter to digest. Stern wants to make sure it doesn't become poisonous. He knows his league has been hurt somewhat by the failure of budding stars such as Vince Carter and Kevin Garnett to advance in the playoffs, one result of free agency and easy player movement.

"When there is a Michael, a Magic, a Bird or an Isiah in the Finals, it does take it from being a sport to some special event and bring an audience that doesn't usually focus on sports," Stern said. "But fans know Ray Allen and Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Jamal Mashburn, Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, and they know Dirk Nowitzki may be the best foreign-born player if it's not Peja Stojakovic. There are too many stars to wonder which gets into the Finals.

"And does it hurt the league when a team from one of the major markets, like Chicago, isn't successful? I suppose there might be some measurable media impact, but it's a non-issue now with the way the media is moving with satellite, digital cable, laptops. There may have been a time despite our constant denials when one could have made a case, but we've had Utah, San Antonio and Indiana, and they were great Finals."

Stern "hoped" attendance would be better this season, but there have been significant dropoffs for such franchises as New Jersey, Charlotte, Boston, Houston and Atlanta. No-shows and their empty lower-level seats make the problem look worse than it is, Stern claimed, and he's astonished when people have $200 seats and don't use them. "It may be a broader statement about our economic climate," he said.

In summary, Stern believes the league may have problems, but none of them is insurmountable.

"This is not even close to being our most challenging time," Stern said. "There was a time when Rick Barry was the only white person sitting in the middle of a Golden State Warriors photo and I was being told America would not pay to see black players in Afros -- not cornrows -- and there were about 2,000 people at Chicago Stadium and Rudy Tomjanovich [getting punched] was the major story along with the NBA being the only league whose players used drugs.

"Now we're in 206 countries and our players are household names and we're talking about where are TV ratings going? But we know we have some work to do."

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