- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2004

The NBA lacks a transcendent figure along the order of Michael Jordan, not necessarily a white one, as Larry Bird suggested in an interview that aired last night on ESPN.

There is nothing wrong with the NBA that higher quality fare could not solve.

Too many of the playoff games have been close to unwatchable, in the fundamentally challenged company of the WNBA.

The racial composition of the NBA, with blacks largely fixed in the 77-78 percent range the last five years, is incidental to the ratings slide. The NBA could be 100 percent black, of no interest to this space, and it would rise or fall on the worthiness of the entertainment.

Bad basketball is bad basketball, regardless of the hue of the participants.

The guardians of the basketball flame insist that the preponderance of ugly proceedings is the product of incredibly gifted defenders, which is the first retort of plausible deniability.

This conflicts with one of basketball’s undeniable axioms that great defense never stops great offense, as Kobe Bryant demonstrated anew in the waning seconds of regulation in Game2 of the NBA Finals.

Richard Hamilton was as close to Bryant as legally permissible, and yet Bryant still managed to bury the game-tying shot.

The unmistakable truth is that there is just a dearth of offensively capable players in the NBA, thanks in part to expansion and a steady flow of high school players and unprepared collegians.

The NBA is an awful place to learn the basics, given the 82-game schedule, the travel burden and the urgency of the next game. The highest priority of an NBA coach is to win the next game, as opposed to nurturing the development of a youngster.

This is not unwise, given the attrition rate of coaches. The Wizards are still waiting on Kwame Brown to be the All-Star once envisioned in 2001. The two men who expressed that view, Michael Jordan and Doug Collins, are now mere footnotes to the Wizards.

Bird’s contention that the best basketball players are black, and always will be, is half right. Basketball is emphasized in the black culture at this time in history, but with no guarantee that it always will be so.

Blacks are the premier players in the world for now, but the rest of world is closing hard. The U.S. could receive that message in two months in Athens.

Bird, in thinking the NBA could use the marketing boost of a white face, is showing his 47 years and the thinking in 1979, when he entered the league. It goes against the two most powerful marketing forces of the last decade: Jordan and Tiger Woods.

Jordan had that special something — the bright smile and eyes to go with a smooth manner — that fit the dot-com ‘90s. Woods has it as well, although with a more distant and reserved manner, which goes with the gentlemanly pursuit of golf.

Bryant might have ascended to that marketing level in time if not for his messy legal matter in Colorado. The fallout is still being calibrated in his case, with his off-court recovery dependent on the outcome of the trial and the public’s perception of it.

Counting the number of black faces in various corners of the sports world is one of the leftover pastimes of an element of a national press that clings to the “quagmire” of the ‘60s out of habit. Like old dogs that know how to fetch and sit, these relics have only a few, out-of-date notes.

The generation gap was abundantly clear in the sit-down interview that featured the pairings of Bird and Magic Johnson and LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

James and Anthony reacted to Bird’s observation with bewilderment.

They come from a different America than Bird and Johnson.

The NBA undoubtedly has lost some of its panache with America since Jordan’s retirement from the Bulls in 1998.

Yet there should be no great mystery to the reason.

The reason is bad basketball, coupled with the absence of a truly compelling figure.

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