The Knicks'season was mercifully put to rest weeks ago, but at Standings, a popularManhattan sports bar, the NBA is still so alive and well that owner Gary Gillishas been staying open late to accommodate patrons who want to watch the end ofthe Western Conference playoff games. The postseason has also kept eyes gluedto the big-screen televisions at Major Goolsby's, a Milwaukee watering holewhere the fans don't care that the only shots the Bucks are taking these daysare with golf clubs. "The games have been so exciting it's a joke,"says owner Jon (Bingo) Berta. "One customer said, 'I don't even like NBAbasketball, but these games are changing my mind.'"
After years ofbashing the league for being boring, low-scoring and short on charismaticplayers, viewers across the country are rediscovering the NBA, thanks to themost entertaining postseason in the post--Michael Jordan era. All threenetworks televising the playoffs are enjoying a healthy bump in viewershipcompared with last season. Ratings for ESPN telecasts are 16% higher, ABC'shave increased by 13%, and TNT's are 7% better.
Clearly, word isspreading at the grassroots level that the NBA is watchable again. The playoffshave provided such compelling theater that suddenly it doesn't matter that thepostseason lasts longer than a Hollywood marriage. Although it's too soon tosuggest that its popularity is back to the level of the 1980s and early '90s,the league has at least reversed the trend of the last several years, when itseemed that the only passionate fan discussions about the NBA centered on howfar it had fallen.
The playoffs havehelped the league reconnect with fans in a way that marketing strategies andimage-cleansing attempts like the dress code for players haven't. Concerns thatinked-up, bling-heavy African-American players were driving white fans awayfrom the game have been, if not erased, at least temporarily lessened. "Thegame has always been the thing," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Youdon't have to worry about ad campaigns or how many tattoos the players have. Ifyou put a quality product on the floor, the fans will be there."
The dramaticallyincreased Nielsen numbers have been the result of a perfect storm ofattention-getting factors. Start with drama: 24 of the 78 games played throughSunday have been decided by five points or fewer, including 14 in which thefinal margin was under three points. Five series went seven games, includingthree of the four second-round matchups.
Star power hashelped too. LeBron James's first playoff appearance undoubtedly caused morefans to tune in, and he didn't disappoint them. James had a pair of buzzerbeaters in the Cavaliers' first-round victory over Washington before he nearlytoppled the Pistons in Round 2. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant, meanwhile, made hisreturn to the postseason after missing it a year ago. Along with the suddenlyhighly entertaining Clippers, he helped bring the Southern California marketback into the NBA fold.
Of course, tightgames played by big-market teams led by household names won't happen everyyear, but the brisker pace of the game promises to keep fans from drifting awayagain. Gone for the most part are those tedious affairs in which defensesclutched and grabbed, offensive players stood around watching isolation playsand the winning team was lucky to break 80 points; they've been replaced bygames with a more fan-friendly style. "It's taken some time, but theelimination-of-the-illegal-defense guidelines have been helpful," sayscommissioner David Stern. "The game has become a little bit faster, with abetter flow to it."
The seeds ofchange were planted in 2001, when Stern charged Jerry Colangelo, then the Suns'owner and chairman of the NBA Board of Governors, with putting together a panelof experts to revitalize a stagnant game. The resulting rules changes reducedthe amount of hand checking and bumping defenders could use to impede cutters,dribblers and shooters. The benefits are on display every night, especially inthe West, where the Suns are a fast-breaking, three-point-shooting delight.Phoenix's three playoff series, against the Lakers, the Clippers and theMavericks, have been high-scoring, must-see TV. In the Eastern finals even thePistons have added zip to their defensive style with crisp ball movement onoffense, and the Heat stresses slashes to the hoop by Dwyane Wade over low-postbanging by Shaquille O'Neal.
There's noguarantee, of course, that the spike in popularity will last. But the leaguemight have learned something from this postseason. Its prodigal fans weren'twaiting for the next Jordan, the next ad campaign or for the racial compositionof the league to change. They were just waiting for the next good game.
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''The tennis players were gunned down after Islamicradicals warned against wearing shorts.'' --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 1
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO