Stern Says Finals Are the Real Deal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comparing the early-season personality clashes between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers to the conflicts on reality-based TV shows, NBA Commissioner David Stern said Wednesday the bond forged between O'Neal and Bryant--as well as the emergence of Allen Iverson as a leader for the Philadelphia 76ers--added intrigue to a season he declared terrific.

"I said to somebody today that sports is the original reality-based programming," he said during a news conference at Staples Center. "The reality is that Kobe and Shaq decided they wanted to be on the island together. Allen decided he just wanted to be on the island. What we saw wasn't a soap opera but real-life maturation and development.

"Here they are. Shaq and Kobe on the one side and Allen and Dikembe [Mutombo] and a cast of others on the other. We've seen them work at it. We've seen some of their growth, some of their heartache. That's why sports is so special. Obviously, we have a matchup of two great teams, and, I think, two extraordinary young players in Allen and in Kobe. But I don't want to leave out either Shaq or Dikembe, both of whom are much larger than I am."

Stern was generally jovial, even when faced with serious questions on topics such as the rejection of an arena referendum in Charlotte that jeopardizes the Hornets' future, and about the federal trial in Atlanta of a strip-club owner whose business attracted many NBA players. Players might be called to testify in the case, which has already produced some graphic testimony, and Stern was asked whether the NBA warns players about becoming involved in questionable activities.

"Wouldn't you rather talk about declining ratings and attendance being off?" he said, jokingly.

In a more serious vein, he said the NBA takes seriously players' interests and security. "The notion of telling adults what kind of establishments they should drink at or whatever or socialize at is a little bit . . . we're somewhat past that," he said. "I think the Yankees tried that with Babe Ruth.

"But that's not to make light of the fact that we have to do a better job of gathering information so that we can say at a particular time that we now have adequate information to fairly warn you."

He also said he hopes the Hornets and the city of Charlotte "find a way to do what has to be done down there, and that's to build a new building." A vote is scheduled next week in Memphis, Tenn., on a new arena, and Stern said if that is approved, he anticipates the NBA would approve the transfer of the Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis.

In addition, Stern indicated he has--at least for now--given up on trying to set a minimum age for players entering the NBA. One key reason is the players' union has indicated it would oppose any such attempt.

"There are very good arguments on both sides of the discussion. In fact, I used to make the arguments on the other side of the discussion," he said. "I don't think in balance at this point in our development and the development of our sport and all the things surrounding it, that our current rule would be as good as something which strongly discouraged players or kept them from coming out of high school. I say that fully aware that we're liable to have five high school players taken in the first round."

He's not inclined to change the best-of-five format in the first round to conform to the subsequent rounds, although he said he would like to see fewer days between games in the future. However, much of that is dictated by the league's TV deal.

Finally, Stern was asked if Michael Jordan had sought the NBA's advice on how to divest himself of his ownership stake in the Washington Wizards as a prelude to a comeback. Stern said the rule prohibiting a player from owning any portion of his team would be enforced, as it was when Magic Johnson returned to the Lakers, but said Jordan hadn't approached the league about selling his ownership stake. "If he needs help on the subject, we could help him structure a transaction," Stern said, smiling.

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