- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

The NBA is stuck in the first round of the playoffs.

Many marriages don't last this long.

The players used to talk about needing rest in the playoffs. Now rest is all they do.

No rest for the weary?

Rest can be wearying, too.

God rested on the seventh day. The players work one day, rest the other six.

The only body part getting a workout from the players now is the jaw. All they do is talk, and since there are so many days between games, the talk becomes trite.

The players are starting to sound like vacationers. To entertain the media between games, they are pulling out their home videos and family photo albums.

John Stockton was a couple of years beyond old at the start of the playoffs. At this pace, he will be playing with a cane before the Jazz and Sonics meet again.

This is not basketball. This is an exercise in tedium.

Sixteen teams qualified for the playoffs. Only two, the 76ers and Hornets, were required to play last Friday night.

The NBA adopted this format at the request of NBC and Turner Sports. The NBA was persuaded not to compete against itself. Instead, it is competing against indifference.

It is hard to build momentum in this format. It is hard for the teams. It is hard for the viewers.

The NBA puts on a pretty good laser show. It sells T-shirts with the best. When it comes to marketing, the NBA is as good as it gets.

But sometimes, marketing is unnecessary. Sometimes all that is necessary is this: a ball, a court and two teams. You stage a mini-offseason between games and you tend to suck the drama out of what has been established.

The way it is, the players don't just need strong bodies in the playoffs. They also need strong memories.

The NBA is struggling to redefine itself in the post-Michael Jordan era. The NBA is desperate to win back the casual fan, and the desperation is showing. No matter how hard the NBA hyperventilates in honor of this or that player, no one has exhibited Jordan's transcendent appeal yet.

The most significant development in the NBA this season did not even involve a player. It involved a coach, Phil Jackson, the so-called Zen master.

The Lakers bought into the Zen master's incense and have distanced themselves from the rest of the playoff pack. The question is not whether the Lakers will win the championship. The question is whether they will be stretched to six or seven games by an opponent.

Unfortunately for the NBA, Zen does not inspire passion the way a dunk by Vince Carter does. The NBA could stick a line of the Zen master's incense in its stores, but it's doubtful it would be popular with the masses.

You see youngsters wearing the jerseys of NBA stars in gymnasiums. You don't think the same youngsters would burn the Zen master's incense in gymnasiums or pack his special rocks in their gym bags.

The Zen master's Lakers, meaning Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, have the potential to eventually lift the NBA out of its post-Jordan doldrums.

O'Neal, though, must lose the postgame monotone and Bryant must continue his quest to be a complete player.

The Lakers are in a position to be the first dynasty of the new millennium, and dynasties set standards and prompt an equal amount of delight and contempt. Either reaction is good for the game.

What the NBA fears is no reaction at all.

Dennis Rodman used to take the anti-hero concept to the extreme. You didn't have to like him. You just had to react to him.

The NBA may be sparing Turner Sports the ratings-killing prospect of airing two playoff games at once, one on TBS and one on TNT, and hard-core viewers may be able to watch every playoff game in its entirety. But the NBA is losing something, too, with this interminable first round.

The NBA is losing its bang-bang power to sweep you into its vortex. There is no sense of urgency, no continuity, no rhythm.

By the time the Jazz and Sonics play again, Jeff Hornacek probably will have recovered from his knee-replacement surgery.

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