- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 2001

The NBA's 56th season perhaps could be subtitled "The Michael Jordan and Friends Show," judging by the fan, sponsor and media hysteria caused by the 38-year-old's celebrated exit from retirement to join the Washington Wizards. Few fans these days are talking about injuries to Allen Iverson and Shaquille O'Neal, the last two most valuable players, or the return of Orlando's Grant Hill.
But not so fast, said league boss David Stern. The commissioner yesterday pledged Jordan's return while a significant shot in the arm to a league still seeking to regain its early 1990s level of popularity will not obscure O'Neal, Iverson, Kobe Bryant or any of the NBA's other top stars.
"It can't be just a Michael Jordan story," Stern said. "The bigger question will be whether the Lakers can repeat, whether Vince Carter and [Hakeem] Olajuwon will be able to continue their success. Whether Philadelphia, with Allen Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo, will challenge more. Whether Indiana's youngsters are ready to step up big. We have a very exciting series of stories."
The Wizards' Oct. 30 opener at New York, to be aired by TBS, promises to be one of the most widely watched basketball games ever on cable. And Washington will likely remain a prominent part of national broadcasts this season on TNT, TBS and NBC. But among those networks, NBA.com TV, and the league's myriad of other television and marketing ventures, Stern said there are plenty of avenues for all of the top teams and players to get their time in the spotlight and be used in league promotion.
"We have a multitude of television shows, a multitude of media contacts, a multitude of international games. You're going to see everything from halftime features to specials, really one of the most significant array of assets that any league has ever had," Stern said. "And if you go back and look at what we did when Michael was playing last time, you'll see there was very little promotion of Michael Jordan. Michael, in effect, did it himself because he was such a compelling figure."
Jordan's return comes at a critical crossroads for the NBA, and Stern must walk a fine line between capitalizing on Jordan's return and not becoming dependent upon it. Deputy commissioner Russ Granik acknowledged yesterday that Jordan returning even a year ago could have presented problems.
"I do think a year ago, we might have had more mixed feelings [about a comeback] because at that point the impression might have been, the league needs Michael or Michael is here to save the league," Granik said. "But I think now what's happened after last year is that the story more is how is Michael going to do against a lot of the great players that came forward last year."
After the double stumble of the 1998-99 owner's lockout and two post-Jordan years marked by sluggish, isolation-based play, last season was the league's most entertaining in recent memory. Iverson finally delivered in full on his immense promise to become league MVP. The playoffs featured scintillating competition involving Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Toronto and Charlotte, and Los Angeles successfully defended its title in grand fashion. The growth in fan interest was reflected by 8 percent increase in playoff attendance, and a 4 percent rise in TV ratings for the Finals from the season before.
The road back to full prosperity, however, is far from over. The league is now seeking a new TV network deal in a sagging economic climate where even advertising for NFL games does not always sell out. Despite the growing fan interest in the NBA, concern remains over an average ticket price now approaching $55, flatlining regular season attendance, increased no-shows, and overall national TV ratings last year that fell 13 percent from 1999-2000.
"We're going to have to be collectively imaginative to continue our strong network revenues ($650 million per year) in light of what current [economic] conditions seem to be. Literally on a daily basis they seem to be changing, and I would say not necessarily for the positive," Stern said.
Jordan already has helped significantly with TV ratings and ticket and merchandise sales. But Stern said Jordan's greatest contribution, along with the rest of the league, could be playing a small role in giving a grieving, warring United States some diversions.
"Our fans look to us for perhaps for some sense of normalcy," Stern said. "We present an opportunity to demonstrate that the question at the NBA is whether you got game, whatever you happen to be, whatever your race or your religion is, which is a pretty interesting lesson for the world to learn, in terms of making sure that we focus on what the important things are."

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