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Until teams can control or unload players who behave badly, the league will suffer in the public's eyes

THE NBA has lost touch with the red states, commissioner David Stern told team executives during a meeting last month. Stern realizes that people in the heartland view today's players as overpaid and out of control; the brawl between the Pacers and fans in Detroit on Nov. 19 only validated those feelings. That's why many team executives are urging Stern to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement (to take effect next season) in which the guaranteed contracts have lower maximum salaries and are limited to three or four years instead of six or seven. Teams want to be able to rid themselves of problem players more quickly, as a way not only to reestablish discipline but also to show fans that irresponsible behavior won't be tolerated.

"We need to be able to manage our own business," says one team executive, who criticizes the NBA's leadership for allowing shoe companies and other merchandisers to "hijack" the image of the league. True, the NBA has profited from this ancillary business, grossing $3 billion from sales of league merchandise worldwide last year, but it has created a mixed message. Many of the young people who buy jerseys and sneakers embrace Latrell Sprewell, who despite choking his coach in 1997 received a five-year, $62.8 million contract from the Knicks, then griped in October that the Timberwolves' offer of a three-year, $21 million extension wouldn't be enough, saying, "I've got a family to feed." Yet such outbursts alienate the middle-aged breadwinners and corporate executives who buy most of the expensive seats. And make no mistake: Ticket sales still account for the majority of NBA revenue.

Another stark example of how bad behavior can be bad for business is the Trail Blazers. In the happier 1980s and '90s Portland played to full houses, serving as a model for all that was right in the NBA's bullish world. But this season, through Sunday, the Blazers had sold slightly more than 10,000 tickets per game at the 19,980-seat Rose Garden, ranking them ahead of only the Hawks and Nets in paid attendance, a category that most owners consider more important than wins and losses.

What's turning off the faithful? A litany of suspensions, arrests and convictions by various Blazers. Take an ugly Jan. 28 argument during a film session between 23-year-old forward Darius Miles and popular coach Maurice Cheeks, after which management suspended Miles for a paltry two games. ("I might as well pack my bags," Cheeks would later say.) A proposed side deal, leaked to The Oregonian, revealed that the team was negotiating to reimburse Miles his $150,000 in missed salary if he displayed good citizenship for the rest of the season by not arguing with the coach and by making a better effort during private workouts. These side agreements are common practice in the NBA because long-term guaranteed contracts--like the six-year, $48 million deal Miles signed last summer--leave teams with little leverage. Salary-cap restrictions make Miles virtually untradeable; Portland's only hope is to encourage him to act better.

Like many executives, Blazers president Steve Patterson and G.M. John Nash are complicit in this sense of player entitlement. On the one hand they're pleading with Stern to negotiate financial reform; on the other, they re-signed Miles, forward Zach Randolph and center Theo Ratliff to overpriced, long-term deals since last summer, ensuring that Portland will be unable to immediately exploit any reforms. Owners are as responsible as anyone for turning the NBA into a profligate league: There are 57 players making $8 million or more this season, and at week's end 25 of them failed to rank among the top 50 in points, rebounds or assists.

Football teams are rife with discipline problems too, but their fans love that a malcontent like Jeff Garcia can be dumped because NFL contracts are rarely guaranteed. Much of the NFL's popularity is drawn from its simple value structure of authority and discipline. The NBA is a much more complicated reality show, a bruising ballet addressing many of the hot-button issues that divide our nation culturally--race, immigration, personal responsibility and pursuit of the almighty buck. Only when the players and coach blend fluidly and bond selflessly, this year in places like San Antonio, Phoenix, Miami, Detroit and Seattle, are fans rewarded with inspiring theater. --I.T.




Long, guaranteed contracts make troublesome players such as Miles difficult to deal.