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Linking Dress With Success

The NBA’s real battle is not the one that’s fought each spring over its championship, but the one for the hearts and minds of a national audience it dazzled, then lost and now yearns for.

Late in the 1990s and Michael Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls, the NBA was the alpha and omega of sports marketing, with its Finals beating the World Series’ TV ratings three times.

Then, with Jordan gone, the league went back to what it had been before, No. 3 on the hit parade, behind the NFL and baseball, as confirmed by the same TV ratings, even if it often seems lower than that.

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At first, the NBA was measured against its own standards, which was fair, but when the pendulum swings, it keeps on going; now the league is the one that is ritually bashed.

Last spring, when the San Antonio-Detroit Finals became the second-lowest rated in league history, Sports Illustrated noted on its cover, “The Spurs and Pistons Made It a Fight to the Finish (but America Didn’t Tune In. Did the NBA Learn Anything?)”

However, the same emphasis on how many people watched doesn’t apply across the board.

In 2002, when the Angels and San Francisco Giants drew the lowest World Series rating, and in 2003 when the Florida Marlins and New York Yankees drew the third-lowest, Sports Illustrated didn’t mention the ratings on either cover -- or anywhere in the magazine.

The NBA has had several problems in the post-Jordan era. No one else could follow the transcendent Jordan, who was photogenic and dedicated to his image, as well as the game’s greatest player.

The league had a new glamour team, the Lakers, but there was never a worthy opponent from the East so they stormed to one-sided triumphs en route to their three titles.

As much a problem as these, or more, is the one no one wants to talk about, the rise of hip-hop fashion with its tattoos and cornrows. The NBA was the one that always had the advantage of intimacy with TV cameras zooming in on players, who aren’t wearing caps, helmets or pads and the league’s stars thus are sport’s leading models of urban chic.

Last season’s melee at the Piston-Pacer game at Auburn Hills, Mich., took the urban myth to new heights. A story in this newspaper asked whether the NBA was a “thug league.”

Because the NFL had recently had two players on trial for murder at once, this might have been a distinction the NBA hadn’t really earned yet.

The NBA’s ascent in the 1980s and ‘90s can be seen as the time when the predominantly African American league finally surmounted the problems of appealing to a predominantly white audience.

Today’s reaction against hip-hop may be more generational than racial, but the bottom line is the same. Allen Iverson, who’s photogenic and often endearing, is seen -- and deliberately marketed by his sneaker company -- as an outlaw icon.

The NBA is caught in between. Commissioner David Stern liked it a lot better when his players adopted boardroom style to get endorsements but can’t disown today’s stars.

In a telling episode when Iverson was new to the league in the 1990s, the Washington Bullets air-brushed his tattoos out of a picture of him on the cover of their game program. The league office was obliged to tell the Bullets and the other teams they couldn’t do that.

Once admired and copied for their marketing acumen, NBA officials have looked ever more anxiously for ways to turn the tide of perception, with some memorable tumbles into the surf.

Last spring, word got out that the NBA had hired former Republican campaign strategist Matthew Dowd, Karl Rove’s old lieutenant, to run focus groups to see how the league played in the red states.

This was a bombshell among league staffers. The NBA office is made up predominantly of Democrats, starting with Stern, who once answered questions about suspending Kobe Bryant before he went to trial by noting, “No Patriot Act here!”

In the NBA subculture, Dowd might as well have been Darth Vader.

Bringing the mini-furor to a halt, league officials said that Dowd had only been retained for “special projects,” which were over.

Actually, there was some suspicion that Dowd had been the one who leaked the news that the NBA had hired him, which wound up embarrassing Stern into axing him.

That episode was followed by this fall’s lulu, Stern’s new dress code.

Thinking it would lend a nice professional touch, Stern ran it by Players Assn. officials last spring and they weren’t upset by it.

Stern didn’t dream it would spark an uprising among the union’s “rank and file,” but it did.

“I don’t see it happening unless every NBA player is given a stipend to buy clothes,” Denver Nugget center Marcus Camby, who will make $7.2 million this season, told the Rocky Mountain News.

“Guys who haven’t been wearing suits and don’t own suits, it will be really hard to get them in time for the season.”

It was a joke all around, with everyone laughing except the league and the players. Players are actually only visible when they’re on the bench and not in uniform, or if a television camera follows them as they walk into the arena.

Otherwise, the public barely gets a glimpse of them as they’re ferried from Four Seasons to Ritz-Carltons in chartered airplanes and buses.

Before the embarrassment got any deeper, or TV caught Iverson arriving in a suit and tie with a baseball cap pointing over his ear, Stern scaled the dress code back to “business casual,” which even his players can accept.

As issues go on the NBA frontier, it wasn’t much, but until the next Jordan comes along or everyone chills, every day is a challenge.


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