- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2003

The 2003 NBA Finals has no Shaq, no Kobe and — for the first time since 1995 — no Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls or New York Knicks.

But even considering the absence of megastars or major market glamour franchises, ABC remains bullish on the matchup between one-time ABA powers New Jersey and San Antonio that starts tomorrow night in San Antonio.

“I think this is going to be the most exciting finals in quite a long time,” said ABC analyst Bill Walton, showing as much confidence in the series as he did last fall in the Washington Wizards, whom he called “the second-best team in the East” behind New Jersey.

“For the first time in quite a while, nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Walton said. “Unlike so many other finals, you don’t automatically know who’s going to win going into this.”

ABC executives clearly hope that translates to ratings. Last year’s Lakers-Nets matchup generated the worst ratings and viewership totals since Nielsen Media Research began tracking the event and greatly eased NBC’s decision to not renew another NBA contract. Regular-season cable ratings for the NBA on TNT and ESPN were quite solid although the war in Iraq prevented ABC from matching the network numbers posted last year by NBC.

The playoffs to date have been more of a mixed bag. Overall ratings are down about 20 percent, but much of that change owes to a heavy shift of coverage from network to cable in the NBA’s new six-year, $4.6billion TV deal. Individually, TNT and ESPN reported strong audience growth during the first three rounds.

Foreign interest in the playoffs also continues to surge, but now comes a much larger and more visible test of the league’s vitality.

“The obvious, broad-based goal is to hold as many people as possible, both casual and hardcore fans,” said Jamie Reynolds, senior coordinating producer for ABC and ESPN. “We think we have a great series with plenty of storylines in front of us.”

Like NBC before it, ABC will pull out all its bells and whistles for pro basketball’s showcase. Thirty-one cameras will line both the SBC Center and Continental Airlines Arena to document the action, including the “free flight” camera hanging on cables above the court. The camera total is believed to be the highest ever for any basketball game. The entire series also will be broadcast in high-definition TV. Halftime entertainment, introduced during the NBA Finals two years ago by NBC, will also continue, starting with Lisa Marie Presley tomorrow.

The production plans are a major departure from 1973, the last time ABC aired the NBA Finals. Then ABC used just four cameras, replays and graphics were minimal and the coverage required a technical staff of 13 — less than a tenth the size of the current crew of 150 to 200.

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