It doesn't take a deep reserve in the memory bank to recall a time 15 years ago when the NBA wasn't so "fantastic," when its reputation was clouded by allegations of indifferent, drug-influenced play, when its championship games, instead of posting healthy ratings in prime time, were relegated to tape delay after the late local news and when the league's future looked troubled.
Well, as anyone who's been paying a little attention would know, the league is on firm ground, as probably the fastest-growing sports organization on the planet, thanks to the fortuitous arrival of great athletes like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan and the shrewd and relentless marketing vision of commissioner David Stern.
But maybe the time has come to ask if Stern and his henchmen haven't, in the name of building the perfect made-for-television beast, gone a long way toward destroying the very essence of the NBA, the passion of the game and its athletes.
For instance, listen to tomorrow's telecast of the fourth game of the championship series and count the times you can actually hear the squeaking of sneakers or the bouncing of the basketball on the floor or the grunts of the players. Probably not many, because the music in the building will be so loud as to drown out all but the cheering throng.
Sadly -- with dance teams and loud music in virtually every arena, videos and commercials for so-called stars, who, by the way, are all known by one name (Shaq) or a nickname (Penny) and an all-important television-friendly format -- the NBA now looks and sounds more like the World Wrestling Federation or an indoor soccer league than a place for the best athletes in the world to showcase their talents.
"This is the way the league has done it," said Matt Guokas, NBC's lead NBA analyst. "The so-called traditionalists . . . like to think, 'Let's roll out the ball; let's go play,' and the game will stand on its own. I think those days are behind us. Promotions and all those other things are important to the league."
And television, primarily NBC, is a willing accomplice. The peacock network gives 30 minutes each week to the league's promotions department, NBA Entertainment, to produce "NBA Inside Stuff," which extols the virtues of the league to children and adolescents.
In addition, NBA Entertainment has produced other league-friendly shows for NBC during the playoffs that endorse the wonders of the game but gloss over any negatives.
Even during NBC-produced game coverage, the league and any potential rough spots get a relative pass.
For instance, there have hardly been any updates on the labor talks between the NBA and the players union that threaten the first lockout/walkout in league history. We were also treated to the recent spectacle of NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol dressing down reporters for criticizing Jordan for his haughtiness, something his commentators have failed to do.
In the touch phrase of the day, NBC and the NBA describe themselves as "partners," which might provide a partial explanation of why Stern and Ebersol were seen walking together out of a monster pick-up truck, bathed in colored lights and amid showers of flames at an Orlando amusement park.
Tellingly, Stern and Ebersol were deposited among a group of people costumed as giant cartoon characters. Those who truly love the game can only hope that these two men don't continue to reduce the players to that.