From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 13, 1999

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / January 13, 1999

After six months of bitter feuding, it is finally over. Last Thursday, theplayers’ union and the owners came together to end the NBA lockout, one of the ugliest work stoppages in sports history.

And while balls will be bouncing in NBA arenas once again in another month, the stain the lockout left on the game will take much longer to wipe away.

The league already had an image problem before the lockout. It only gotworse when billionaire owners and millionaire players could not find a way to divide up a billion dollar industry.

The players complained about money and salary caps but many of them make more per game than many people will make in their lifetimes. Andthis for playing a game. And the owners were complaining about escalatingsalaries, not wanting to admit it was a monster that they themselves created.

Now that the lockout is over, the owners and players will go back to making their millions. And as usual in these cases, it is the fan that willsuffer. The NBA has long promoted itself as being “FAN-tastic.” Yet, theaverage fan cannot afford to attend a game. And the youngsters, those whomost look up to those players, will probably never get a chance to see them except on television.

Now the fun begins. Teams have one month to sign rookies and free agentsand hold training camps. That will be especially difficult for teams likeChicago and Houston who have only four players under contract. Preparefor some bad basketball as players will show the effects of a six-month layoff. Sure, they have been practicing on their own but game time is quitedifferent than practice time. For the first month, it may look the playersjust got finishing reading “The Idiot’s Guide to Basketball.”If one good thing can actually come out of this work stoppage, it is that games in March and April may actually mean something this year with a 50-game schedule. And here is a suggestion, how about cutting down thenumber of teams making the playoffs to four in each conference. Thatwould help to ensure that the finals would not be played in July.

The league will have to recover without its marquee player and one of its goodwill ambassadors, Michael Jord-an, who is scheduled to announce his retirement today.

Other than Jordan, the NBA does not have someone like baseball did with Cal Ripken Jr. to bring the fans back. And it is not known whether theleague will ever have a season like baseball did in 1998 to wipe away the stain of the strike of 1994.

The fans will come back to the game. They always do. The league needs todo a few things to help draw them back, however. Cleaning up an imagethat was soiled before the lockout will be a big step. It will not be an easyjob but then it should never have gotten this hard in the first place.

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