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Original Issue


"Write something about the 100th anniversary of the league,"
someone suggests. "What will the NBA look like 50 years from

I am supposed to be funny.

"Players will be dipped in body paint before each game," I
write. "Vibrant colors. Warmup jackets will be feather boas.
Each player will be carried onto the floor by Nubian slaves. No,
each player will be driven onto the floor in some chrome,
growling vehicle that has not been invented yet.... "

This is not funny. This is what I think will happen. The future
of the NBA is Dennis Rodman. I cannot get this thought out of my
head. The aberration will become the norm.

With each passing season the actual basketball game means less
and less. The balance already has been tipped in a way no one
ever could have expected a dozen years ago, much less 50 years
ago when the league was started. The package already is far more
important than the game itself.

I mean...the Laker girls!

I mean ... Inside Stuff! Ahmad Rashad, confidant to the rich and
famous, is telling us what the people on the floor really think!
Telling Willow Bey! Willow smiling that prom-queen smile! Back
to you at NBA Central!

I games, chat rooms, dribbling across the Web.

I mean...merchandising. Buy the burgers, buy the shoes, buy the
cologne, buy the underwear, buy the book, buy the records. The
games are commercials for the commercials, which are commercials
for the games. There is a grand, circular synergy. The games
sell the shoes that sell the game that sells the shoes that sell
the game.

I mean...introductions from outer space, music turned as loud as
possible, smoke, fireworks, laser beams cutting through the
darkness, animation rumbling across the Megatron scoreboard. Am
I the only one who watches the introductions, then finds an odd
quiet when the basketball begins?

I mean...the timeouts are more exciting than time in! Strangers
from the crowd try to make half-court shots for a billion
dollars or a trip to Paris! Gorillas and Timberwolves and other
strange animals flip through the air from catapults! And dunk!
Bzzzzzzzzz. Then the game begins again.

The players already are above mere basketball. They are
personalities, characters in a story line that runs through our
heads as if it were a stock ticker filled with exclamation points.

Michael is Superman, plain and simple. Who is his favorite
teammate: Bill Wennington, Bill Murray or Bugs Bunny? Which is
real? Which is cartoon? Where do the special effects end and the
normal effects begin? Can this man really fly? If so, how far
and how high? Which film clips show reality and which do not?

Shaq is the amiable giant, the genie....

Charles is the villain with the heart of gold....

Larry Johnson is Grand Ma-Ma....

Penny is Penny, and his best friend is this little wise-guy
claymation replica of himself....

Lights! Makeup! Camera! Basketball is not involved in any of
these personality stories, except as a backdrop, the way New
York is a backdrop for Seinfeld or the Korean War was a part of
M*A*S*H. The points that are scored, the rebounds that are
grabbed, the games that are won or lost, are padding, filler,
simple dialogue. The personalities are the thing.

David Robinson is the Christian....

Hakeem is the Muslim....

Rodman is the Wayward Youth, feared by moms, beloved by Wayward
Youth. Take a kid to a game, and he will talk far more about the
tattoos, purple hair and pierced body parts than he will about
any second-chance rebounds....

No other league in mainstream sports has been as fast to adjust
to the showbiz realities of today. No other league has tried as
hard to stay linked to the culture of the teenage consumer. No
other league has learned the values of Shock, of Promotion, of
Flash and Dash, nearly as well.

The future can only be an extension of all of this. Fifty years
ago the league was a collection of anonymous pituitary cases
wandering across the country in short pants. Now action heroes
fight intergalactic battles two nights a week, on a network with
the explosive initials TNT. Michael vs. Shaq! Be there!

Advances in fiber optics will be more significant than any new
off-the-dribble moves that may be developed. Scripts will be
more important than playbooks. The search will be for the
extreme, the captivating, the outrageous. The future will be
something from science fiction. The NBA is a marshmallow that
will grow larger and stickier with each succeeding annual report.

We will look at the picture of a man in a blond wig, makeup and
a wedding dress with the same nostalgia we have now for a
picture of, say, George Mikan in knee pads. We will remember
today as a time of innocence and simple charm. A start.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of Shaquille O'Neal, Bugs Bunny and Dennis Rodman]