Pro basketball urgently needs an Urkel, what TV types call a
"breakout character," an individual who emerges during this
long-running series of NBA playoff games as the league's Fonzie
or Frasier or Flo. Otherwise, David Stern can kiss my grits
good-bye. His ensemble of "stars," assembled from spare parts to
replace Michael Jordan, doesn't work in today's telemarketplace.
Television viewers need a single outsized hero or villain. In
the calculus of Q ratings, J.R. Rider plus Patrick Ewing does
not equal J.R. Ewing.
Fortunately, TV breakouts--like prison breakouts--can happen
overnight. Or they can require years of tunneling with a
teaspoon. But they are inevitable. One cannot hide a blazing
lamp beneath a bushel basket forever. Eventually the
turbocharged talent of an Abe Vigoda will pull away from the
pack on Barney Miller, giving a grateful public its Fish.
The relevant question here is, who will be basketball's Fish
(presuming it isn't journeyman Matt Fish)? Certainly not the
tiresome twosome, John Stockton and Karl Malone: TV couples have
always been too self-canceling for true superstardom--Huntley
codependent on Brinkley, Lenny leg-shackled to Squiggy. What
about Allen Iverson? Too WB. Allen Iverson's mom? Warmer, but
no. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, Jason
Williams--do any of these Sweathogs want to be our Barbarino?
That, more than the quest for a championship ring, is what these
playoffs are about.
Many are casting-called, only one will be chosen. Once upon a
time the NBA could be supported by a tripod of Bird, Magic and
Jordan, and the league was brilliant, like the early M*A*S*H of
Hawkeye, Trapper and Henry. But soon we were left with just
Jordan, and the league resembled the lamer,
still-often-inspired, more commercially successful M*A*S*H of an
overworked Hawkeye, barely abetted by Winchester and Potter.
Everyone else--B.J. Armstrong (Bulls), B.J. Hunnicutt
(M*A*S*H)--was a bit player. The post-Jordan NBA is now, it
pains me to say, AfterMASH, the shapeless, unspeakable spinoff
that was, if memory serves, canceled during the first commercial
When pro sports became mere programming for the world's Disneys
and Murdochs and Turners, the games became as beholden to TV's
formulas as Three's Company ever was. If Norman Fell folds his
seminal Stanley Roper character, the public demands, as
replacement, nothing less spectacular than Don Knotts in an
ascot, playing leering landlord Ralph Furley. Historically, all
the NBA's Bill Curleys and Bob Hurleys exist to revolve around
its Ralph Furleys. Sosa and McGwire can coexist in the
convoluted daily soap that is baseball. But basketball--with its
iso plays, its jazzlike solos, its playground ethos of
one-on-one--craves a single super-duper-star. In today's NBA,
one's company. Two's a crowd.
The most popular series currently on television has an ensemble
cast, but even ER had to offer up Dr. Doug Ross to the stardom
gods. Which is not to say that Jordan is irreplaceable, any more
than George Clooney will be. To the contrary: When Shelley Long
left Cheers, when David Caruso left NYPD Blue, when Mr. Hooper
prematurely departed Sesame Street, each show hit its creative
Not so the NBA, whose early postseason ratings were down from
those of a year ago. Jordan was exactly right, it turns out, to
have called his teammates "my supporting cast." Without him,
Pippen has proved himself a Potsie, Ron Harper a Ralph Malph,
Toni Kukoc a mere Shortcake Cunningham.
That's the problem with these playoffs: too many Chachis, not a
single Fonzie. Too little "aaaayyyyy" in the NBA.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO