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Fear Not, Paula Abdul

To learn more about the NBA's dance squads, a writer infiltrates their ranks

First a confession: for too long I've sat back without protest and witnessed the decline of professional basketball. I have watched NBA games devolve into a Club MTV of sorts, with dance squads and music occupying every break in a game's action. This season, with the addition of new dance teams in Houston, San Antonio and Salt Lake City, 25 of the NBA's 27 teams have their own dancers. Boston and Detroit are the only teams that have not been led down the path of show-biz glitz.

It would have been unfair to criticize the league's dance squads without taking a firsthand look at one. So I decided to set off on a distaff Paper Lion quest of sorts—no doubt George Plimpton did not prep for any of his stories by investing in hair spray, an assortment of make-up that would be the envy of Tammy Faye Bakker, and Lycra leggings. When I ran across an ad in my local paper that announced tryouts for the Nets Girls dance squad, I knew it was time to stand up and be counted—or in my case, swivel my hips and be embarrassed.

I can almost accept NBA dance acts in Los Angeles (the Laker Girls were the league's first squad, in 1979) and in New York City (the Knicks City Dancers made their debut last season), but in East Rutherford, N.J.? Alas, my beloved Nets are just like the rest of the NBA. The Nets Girls, about to begin a 10th season, are echoed by the Pacemates in Indiana, the Luvabulls in Chicago, the Honeybees in Charlotte....

"The trend is to create more entertainment," says Randy Hersh, the NBA's manager of team services. "You can't control whether a game will be boring or not, so you try to control everything else that will provide excitement. It's all about family entertainment." Family entertainment? Hey, look, kids, get a load of those women in the skimpy tops gyrating on the court. Let's face it: While family values may be a current political catch phrase, dance squads aren't what the Republicans have in mind.

About 70 women arrived at the Sheraton Meadowlands Hotel in East Rutherford on Aug. 25 for the four-hour Nets Girls tryouts. I picked up an application and read it. One requirement was: "Must present oneself with poise and in an attractive manner." I wasn't sure what they meant by "an attractive manner," but it certainly sounded like something to strive for. The application made it clear that Nets Girls were expected to make a major commitment to the team. Over an eight-month period there would be three hours of practice on both Saturdays and Sundays, one additional weeknight practice and 41 regular-season home games to attend. Under the heading "remuneration" it was stated that all Nets Girls would receive two tickets for selected games and a stipend—about $25 a game. Typically, 12 dancers on the 16-member squad perform four 90-second routines a game.

The essay question on the application was "What would make you a successful Nets Girl?" I was tempted to earn some brownie points by claiming to have both poise and an attractive manner. Instead I wrote of my enthusiasm for the team and about how I had been a Net fan as a kid, going regularly to games when the team played at the Rutgers Athletic Center from 1977 to '81. I told the story of my brush with Net greatness: the time in high school when I served Darryl Dawkins a bacon cheeseburger while working at a Roy Rogers on the New Jersey Turnpike. I have the autographed receipt to prove it. After I handed in my application, I was given a white card, with the number 80 written on it, to attach to my leotard. (Earlier in the day, after purchasing my $20 leotard, I called an aerobically inclined friend and asked, "Do the tights go over or under the leotard?" I believe her response was "Give it up now.")

Everyone met in a large conference room, where Tim McLoone, "of the fluff department," who is also the P.A. announcer for the Nets, acted as the M.C. "Three years ago, when the Nets won only 17 games all season, the Nets Girls were about the only thing to cheer about," said McLoone. In the Nets Girls era the team has a 327-493 record. McLoone said he is very conscious of "downplaying the T and A," and he stressed how the dance squad has helped revive the "once moribund" Meadowlands Arena. McLoone thanked everyone for coming to the audition: "You're all 90 percent better than the rest of the world for just being here and having the guts to get out on the dance floor." If McLoone only knew that my guts were already doing cartwheels.

I started to second-guess myself and scanned the room for the nearest exit. My athletic life passed before my eyes. I recalled the conversation that I had had with my father earlier in the day. After I had told him about the audition, there was silence at the other end of the phone. Where did I go wrong, my father must have been thinking. He had bought me my first glove in second grade, my first soccer ball in third grade, had taken me to my first Net game when I was 10 and watched hundreds of my games in the years that followed. All of this, only to realize his worst nightmare: "What if you make the team?"

We were divided into three groups to learn the 45-second routine to Jam in about 15 minutes. I strategically positioned myself in the rear of the room, sandwiched between a dancer in a lime leotard and one with legs as long as Manute Bol's. The team captains, Nicole Hosbach and Lauriebeth Mann, demonstrated the moves ("One-two-three-four. Does everyone have the count?").

Needless to say, when the rest of the group was on four, I was still on one. When it came time to do the twirl, I inevitably twirled into lime spandex. When it came time to do the kick part of the routine, my kick came about as high as Manute's kneecaps. My father had nothing to worry about. When McLoone announced who had made the cut, number 80 was not on his list.

Another confession: I half-expected to encounter dancers with the IQ of an air ball, but I was way off the mark. "Most of the girls on the team are in college or have graduated from college," says Michelle Connolly, a senior geology major at Rutgers. "I don't tell people at school that I'm a Nets Girl, not because I'm ashamed but because they ask stupid questions like 'Is Paula Abdul your idol?' or 'Do you get to meet the players?' "

So why—given the unflattering stereotype, the long hours and the low pay—would anyone want to be a Nets Girl? "Every dancer has Paula Abdul disease," says McLoone. "Deep down they hope that someone discovers them just like Paula Abdul was discovered when she was a Laker Girl."

The only member of the team without dance training is Mann, a former varsity gymnast at Rutgers, who at 31 is the senior member of the squad. "I'm the tomboy out there," says Mann. "I love basketball. Half the time I'm not paying attention to what routines we have to do next. Instead I'm second-guessing a bad pass or cheering a good shot. It's great being out on the court, seeing everybody get excited, celebrating and yelling 'Go, girlfriend; go, girlfriend' at me. But the best part about it all is the game itself."

Ah, yes, what about the game itself?

McLoone admitted that at times even he mourns the loss of an evening of unadulterated hoops—sugar-free, with no artificial additives. "Sometimes I don't like what we do," he says. "But there's been more and more of an obligation to put this extraneous stuff in. I mean, look at Chicago and what they do. They have a rock star of their own in Jordan but still feel compelled to have that indoor blimp and turn the lights off and announce the players with the spotlight. Maybe in 25 years we'll look back at the music and the video screens and say, 'My god, what have they done to my sport!' "

One final confession: When Plimpton wrote Paper Lion, he explained that the notion behind participatory journalism was to gain "firsthand knowledge of the professional athlete...and to play out the fantasies, the daydreams that so many people have." As for my own firsthand knowledge, I left the Sheraton that August night impressed with the dancers' talent. But my paper Nets Girls experience certainly didn't fulfill a childhood fantasy—as a kid, I would have dismissed the dance squad as sissy cheerleading stuff. And during the course of the evening I did not contract the Paula Abdul disease, with its dreams of Diet Coke commercials and MTV awards.

Apart from a heightened awareness of my inabilities as a dancer, what did I gain? Well, I'm more convinced than ever that the NBA's entertainment concept is silly. A parquet basketball court is not the proper stage for a dance routine—imagine a little three-on-three during the intermission of a Broadway musical. After all, the show is the excitement in the paint and above the hoop. And that should be enough entertainment for most fans. Right, girlfriend?