A number of observers, including this one, are predicting that the Lakers will not meet the Celtics in the NBA finals. This would be disquieting for many of America's sports fans, who know nothing about the NBA except that Magic Johnson is the black one with the smile and Larry Bird is the white one with the moustache. That's not quite true. Americans also know something about the Bulls' Michael Jordan. He's the one who designs sportswear.
CBS, the NBA's noncable national TV purveyor, certainly knows who counts. Only twice during the 16-game regular-season TV schedule (Pistons vs. Knicks on Christmas Day and Hawks vs. Mavericks on Jan. 16) will the Big Two or the Chicago Michaels not be on the bill.
Well, I would like to suggest that the NBA has other things going for it besides the Big Two and a Half. Aficionados of the sport, those people who can name three or more members of the San Antonio Spurs, already know this, but it's a well-kept secret otherwise. Herewith five sound reasons why one can be interested in the NBA even when the L——and the C——aren't playing:
1) Court jesters. Occasionally a baseball player will do something funny, like sliding around on a wet tarp. The NFL has some zany guys, but they're not much in evidence on Sunday afternoons, unless we count the collective performance of the Dolphin secondary. The NBA, on the other hand, has many hilarious guys who play to the crowd. And the best of them is Philadelphia's Charles Barkley.
When Barkley is in an antic frame of mind, which is most of the time, a courtside seat is like a night at the Improv. Barkley is forever patronizing referees, patting this one on the butt or putting his arm around that one like a father counseling a wayward child. He flies into the crowd with some frequency, and during one such sojourn last season he destroyed three chairs. Even uncalculated funny things happen to Barkley, as when his own dunk shot bounced off his head and ricocheted back through the basket. No goal.
2) Sideline jesters. The NBA has more funny coaches than any other sport, too. Utah's Frank Layden, the Jackie Vernon of coach-comics, is the best known, but Denver's Doug Moe is just as entertaining. Tie askew, hair tousled, shirt unbuttoned, Moe always looks as if he has just walked fully clothed through a car wash. Most of his best stuff is too blue to report here, but he can be clean-funny, too. Recently he was asked for a status report on one of his players, Bill Hanzlik, who was returning from off-season back surgery: "Hanzlik? Hanzlik's a vacuum from the neck up. He's a very sick man, mentally. He's stupid enough to want to come back, so he's back." Moe and Hanzlik get along fine, by the way. It's a pity that America never gets to hear from Doug Moe. The other day, though, I did catch a TV interview with Marty Schottenheimer. He was kind of serious.
3) The best passion play in the world of sports. You don't have to live in New York to follow the travails of the Knicks, the once-proud franchise fallen on hard times. Be like a New York cabbie and just pick a side: Things are looking up for the Knicks. You're crazy, they stink. There's a new cooperation between corporate ownership and the ball club. You're crazy, Gulf & Western stinks. This will be the season that Patrick Ewing really asserts himself. You're crazy, Ewing stinks.
The scenario has become more intriguing with the arrival of two guys you can root for: coach Rick Pitino, a fiery, spirited former college coach, and general manager Al Bianchi, a popular pro hoops lifer. Now it's Gulf & Western, the gray-suited conglomerate run by guys who don't know a fast break from fast food, riding herd over this confused but gritty band of overachievers.
Personally, I think the Knicks are going to be a lot better this year. Unless they stink again.
4) The best sideshow in pro sports. This is the season in which 7'6¾" Manute Bol and 5'3" Tyrone (Muggsy) Bogues play together for the Bullets, on the same floor, with the same rules.
Unfortunately, you won't catch The Muggsy and Manute Show on CBS this season. But if you're lucky, maybe you'll run into them in a hotel lobby.
5) Akeem Olajuwon. The Houston center is the best bargain in sports because he's about seven sports in one. His footwork in the pivot comes from soccer. He feints and head-fakes like a boxer. He runs the floor like a track man. He goes to the basket like a fullback. He has the heart of a matador. He's as agile as a gymnast. He can play basketball, too.
You can see Olajuwon twice on CBS this season, once on Dec. 12 against the Chicago M——, and again on April 17, when he plays the L——.
PETER READ MILLER