NBA's shot at greatness rejected by its ugly side


IF PRO BASKETBALL could only be as made of Teflon as pro football is. If only the world was as forgiving of the NBA as it is of major league baseball.

However, you know what they say about "ifs" and "buts." Suffice it to say the NBA won't be having a merry Christmas - not even with the must-see doubleheader of the millennium airing on that festive day.

In fact, the reason fans all over America will be digging through the wrapping paper for the remote two Saturdays from now is the same reason the NBA is in for a season's worth of hurt. It won't be a crucial Eastern Conference matchup between the Pistons and Pacers fans are hoping for - they're hoping for Round 2.

And the way things are going in the league this season, they might get it. The criticism heaped on the NBA in recent years has been way out of proportion, especially compared to other sports. But this year, the game and its players have heaped more dirt on themselves than anyone else could.

They picked a rotten year to do it, too. Anyone who has watched NBA basketball this year recognizes how much the quality of play has improved, how fun it is to watch, how much more competitive the teams and conferences are, and how many good story lines have surfaced. Inspirational, surprising, even melodramatic - and they're putting the ball in the basket.

Yet every last one of the positive plot points has been buried under an almost unprecedented stream of negative ones. In other words: can these guys go a whole week without someone getting suspended, denounced or investigated for something seamy, sleazy or unsavory?

Even the story that arguably is the most encouraging in the entire league so far - the Lazarus routine being pulled off by the Wizards - is tainted with the unconsciously immature actions of Kwame Brown. The nation had just begun to take note of Antawn, Gilbert and Larry's reunion, Eddie Jordan's fulfillment of his coaching promise in his hometown, and the awakening of a long-dormant franchise. Then, into the spotlight barges an underachieving, sulking, injured player who hardly had been missed during his rehab, and who will be missed even less now that he's lobbed a mini-grenade of dissension into the Wizards' harmonious world.

It's a microcosm of the entire NBA this season. Dig deep enough, and you'll find Grant Hill, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, the Sonics, the Spurs, the Suns, the Clips, the Czar. Not to mention the multi-level, cross-conference, nonstop soap opera featuring Shaq, Kobe, the Zen Master and now, the Mailman. (Hint: They all think Kobe is a pig, and for good reason.)

But look at what you have to dig through to get to that. The fight. The suspensions. The arbitration. The lawsuit (it's a sure thing, no matter which side the arbitrator takes). The criminal charges. That story will be with us all year, there's no more deluding anyone about that. Seven years and one week ago, Latrell Sprewell got kicked out for a year for choking his coach, and that didn't all get settled for good until more than a year had passed.

And speaking of Spree ... with Ron Artest largely out of the public eye, Sprewell is the NBA's designated lightning rod. He's worn the mantle well. Nothing quite like a three-word vulgar retort shouted toward a female fan with open courtside mikes around to send a message that the NBA is trying to mend fences. Of course, the stream of foulness from the stands has only increased since The Fight, and one can only hope new league-wide security guidelines will help when they're implemented next month.

Yet Spree personifies the paradox: he's said and done more crazy, knuckleheaded things in the past two months than most pro athletes manage in a career, but he's playing great, and so are his Timberwolves. Who even notices, though? How can you, with epithets, cups, chairs, subpoenas and players - not to mention underground DVDs and letters from congressmen - flying about?

What makes it all worse is that the NBA, historically, fares poorly during times of crisis in comparison to other sports. Despite all the hand-wringing over the latest steroid revelations, no one truly believes baseball is dying. Soon, someone will say the magic words that will make it all go away and turn the currently enraged fans giddy with nostalgia and anticipation: 65 days until pitchers and catchers.

The NFL? Please. Wasn't America having a conniption over T.O. and the Desperate Housewife a few weeks ago? Forget that, there are playoff berths to be won.

Baseball won't be defined by BALCO, just as it wasn't defined by cocaine scandals and the cancellation of the World Series. The NFL won't be defined by its numerous indiscretions, hypocrisies and criminal characters. The NBA, however, continues to be defined by its worst elements. It's an ugly perception problem that has deep, disturbing and illogical roots.

But the league and the players knew it going in. This year, they can't blame anyone but themselves. This time, they asked for it.

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