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Original Issue


The last thing the NBA needed was four new franchises

The gratifying arrival of—all together now—"playoff intensity" allows us to forget, if only for a moment, the sad reality that, in the regular season, the Los Angeles Clippers play the Sacramento Kings five times a year. Such uninspiring matchups remain one of the biggest criticisms leveled against the NBA. Nevertheless, it was damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead (with that allusion, we hereby honor Ensign David Robinson, who may be headed—eventually—for San Antonio now that the Spurs have won the top pick in the league's draft lottery) for the NBA when it voted last month to add four expansion teams by 1989. Since that all but ensures a further batch of unappetizing NBA matchups, it seems fair to raise some questions.

With the NBA Players Association rattling sabers before the start of what promises to be a bloody round of negotiations on a new labor contract this summer, one wonders if the decision to accept the new franchises, each of which paid a hefty $32.5 million entry fee, was a hedge against possible losses at the bargaining table. After all, each of the 23 existing teams will realize a windfall of $5.6 million from the $130 million paid by the Miami Heat and the Charlotte Spirit (a temporary name; a contest will be held to pick a permanent one) in 1988-89, and from the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic the following season.

Commissioner David Stern insists that isn't the case. "The days of financial quick hits are over for the NBA," he says. "But what the owners did realize is the value of their own asset." Meaning that if a new franchise is valued at $32.5 million, then most existing ones must be worth quite a bit more. Based on their current stock price, the Boston Celtics, the only publicly traded NBA team, are worth $91 million.

But what about the San Antonio Spurs or the Los Angeles Clippers, whose owners were, for a while, making noises about moving to other cities? Are they worth $32.5 million apiece? And will values continue to appreciate with four additional teams thrown into the equation?

And why expand so suddenly? Just seven months ago Stern was sending forth messages that one or, at most, two franchises would be added. Only four or five years ago some teams, including Utah, Cleveland, Indiana and Denver, were available for $12 million each, and the NBA couldn't have sold them if they had strapped a sandwich board to Magic Johnson's body and sent him crosscountry. Why take such a major risk when the NBA is just beginning to taste the fruits of revitalization?

Answers Stern: "Because we're trying to balance the needs of the league—which I suppose could be served by, say, 12 teams—with a keen appreciation of the fact that when you present yourself as a major league, and bona fide cities request to join your league, you had better take them seriously."

So the NBA did. Though the expansion vote of the board of governors was a hunky-dory 23-0, several teams had reservations. The most serious concerned selling tickets in the '90s for lackluster games, of which there have been quite enough in the '80s.

The larger aesthetic question is this: To what degree will the NBA horizon be blighted by four more potential Clipper ships? It's not so much the old "dilution-of-talent" argument (why are we supposed to believe that the NFL can find 28 X 45=1,260 players, while the NBA has to scrounge to find 27 X 12 = 324?) but a new one, that the further dilution of the pool of marquee players will produce a lack of excitement in too many NBA cities on too many winter evenings.

More than any other league, the NBA relies on individual superstars. Still, only a handful of clubs can light a spark throughout the land. The Los Angeles Magics, the Boston Birds and the Chicago Jordans qualify. The 76ers (Doc steps down, Charles Barkley steps up) are clinging to that status, and the Atlanta Hawks, with a Dominique and a Spud, are probably on the verge of reaching it. But how many hearts are set aflutter by, say, the Utah Jazz, a solid team with solid players and 48 minutes of stand-up comedy for a coach?

After the NBA's expansion announcement, more than 50,000 citizens mobbed downtown Charlotte for a ticker-tape parade celebrating the city's new team. "Yes, I can make money," said principal owner George Shinn. "This isn't a toy for me." Similar pledges are wafting in from Florida and Minnesota, too. All four teams have sold more than 10,000 season tickets apiece, with gung-ho Charlotte checking in at 15,000 and counting.

However, regional support alone won't win the day, not with a 27-team league flung from Seattle to Miami. Mickey Mouse will be playing in the NBA, but one hopes the NBA doesn't become Mickey Mouse.