JULY 28, 1996, SPORTS
Copyright 1996/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Plenty of Bread In NBA’s Circus
You know, it was not too long ago — I’m old enough to remember — when, if you were seven feet tall, the best you could do with your life was join the circus. Or get a fur hat and open cab doors for rich folk outside a New York hotel. Now you get $17 million a year and all the Rolls-Royces you need. People open cab doors for you.
And you get it while you’re young and can enjoy it. It’s not as though you have to work your way up the business ladder or plug away at Wall Street as J.P. Morgan had to do. You don’t have to invent the elevator or electric light. All you have to do is post up, whatever that means.
I can remember when if you were seven feet, you couldn’t play basketball. For one thing, you had to bounce the ball on the floor if you went to the basket, and seven-footers were too slow and too clumsy to do that. Today, you can go to the basket like a guy running for a bus and everybody scatters out of your way. Also, seven-footers aren’t pituitary freaks anymore. They’re perfectly proportioned.
Dr. James Naismith invented basketball precisely so you couldn’t carry the ball like a fullback. He wanted a sport in which brute strength didn’t count so much as finesse and grace.
You think Naismith ever envisaged the dunk shot? You think he ever envisaged anyone signing a $120-milliion contract to play his game?
Of course, it’s the oldest con in the world, as old as the Roman Empire. Juvenal first called attention to it in the 1st century A.D. when he wrote, “Two things only the people require — bread and circuses.” The Roman emperors gave it to them. Chariot races, Christians vs. lions. Only, the best the Christians could get was their freedom; the best the lions could get was a Christian for lunch.
Nothing changes. To keep the citizenry from becoming mutinous, you give them the circus — something that lets them paint their faces blue or red and jab their forefingers in the air and scream “We’re No. 1!” on television. Nero would have understood.
You think basketball fans aren’t high-fiving each other over the capture of Shaquille O’Neal by the Lakers? Get real.
You think the public cares what Shaq cost? They think it’s somebody else’s money. Television’s, maybe.
It isn’t. It’s their money. Even if they don’t pay the $600 per game for the courtside seats, they pay for the dunk shots, the sky-hooks, the fast breaks. “Free TV” is an oxymoron. Every time you buy a Ford or Toyota or can of Pepsi or pair of Nikes, you’re paying for what they sponsor. The cost of the ad is factored in the cost of the car. You’re paying for your circuses.
Sometimes it’s difficult for us old-timers to comprehend what’s happening in the counting houses of sports these days.
I’m also old enough to remember when Bob Short first brought the Lakers to Los Angeles. They were going broke in Minneapolis, where the games were played in relative privacy.
They didn’t exactly have SRO, either. Basketball was far from a sports-page staple. Baseball was America’s sport of choice. Football. Boxing. The highest salary in the NBA those days was $19,000 a year. Plumbers did better.
I went to a playoff game once — a playoff game! — at which there were 2,800 paying customers.
All that changed. I helped. I had the sport almost to myself. And what a sport! Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain. The Big O. I was like a kid in a candy store. I traveled with the Lakers. What a cast of characters! They almost wrote themselves.
But modesty dictates I must confess it was Chick Hearn who did the most to make the Lakers household names in L.A. First on radio, then on TV. Television was slow to pick up on the sport, but basketball, like football, was uniquely suited to the TV screen, a rectangular sport with a large ball.
The pro game didn’t even have a radio contract at first. Teams played league games in places like Sheboygan, Morgantown, Peoria. A league game was a prologue to a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition. The Globies drew the people, not the Knicks or Lakers.
The graph grew. Smart entrepreneurial owners such as Jack Kent Cooke moved in. Jack knew what sold tickets — stars. The Lakers had an Academy Award lineup. What they didn’t have was the clincher — the big man in the pivot. Jack twisted arms till he wound up with Wilt Chamberlain. When Wilt left, Cooke angled to get Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jack didn’t want playmakers, point guards, sixth men. Jack wanted the marquee players, guys nicknamed “Magic.”
Now, Jerry Buss has joined the owners’ wing of the Hall of Fame. He has done what Cooke did, brought the Big Man to town, put the team on Page 1 again.
The circus is in place; the bread is somebody else’s problem.
Will O’Neal be a tumble-down Shaq? Or are Michael, Olajuwon, the Admiral Robinson, Patrick Ewing ready to yield their positions?
Is even a championship circus worth that kind of bread? Do you know how much $120,000,000 comes out to? Well, if you spent $1,000 a day for the next 300 years you’d still have almost $11 million left.
But there’s only one Shaq. And Buzzie Bavasi, the baseball man, said it best. “You don’t mind giving all those millions to a Babe Ruth. But where does it say you have to give $34 million to a second baseman hitting .230?”
Exactly. It’s the other guys on the coattails who boggle the mind. Chris Childs is getting $24 million for six years? Who, pray tell, is Chris Childs? Antonio Davis is getting $38.5 million for seven years? I wouldn’t know Antonio Davis from Bette. Dale Davis is getting $42 million for seven years. Allan Houston is getting $56 million for seven years. He played for Detroit last season, in case you didn’t know.
Don MacLean is getting $12 million for four years and you almost feel like taking up a collection for him. Alonzo Mourning is to get $112 million for seven years. Gary Payton gets $85 million and nobody ever called him “Mr. Clutch” or “The Big G.”
I’m always happy to see a kid move up in the world. But I can’t help but feel sorry for all those earlier-day giants who had to bend crowbars or tear telephone books or sit in the sideshow with the bearded lady or the tattooed man to earn a living. One sure thing: Dennis Rodman could handle it either way. And bite the heads off chickens if you wanted.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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