Arts » Arts Etc.




Spurs' substance trumps style, even if Americans turn their heads

The morning after the Spurs' heartbreaking Game 4 loss to the New Jersey Nets, radio blowhard Jim Rome talked to ABC's Tom Tolbert about the NBA Finals. Rome said he didn't care who won the series, he just wanted it to end as quickly as possible, because he couldn't endure any more hoop ugliness. The series, Rome declared, with characteristic overstatement, was "unwatchable."

Rome was not alone in this sentiment. Practically every story about the Finals emphasized how low both the TV ratings and the game scores were for this series, as if the two factors were somehow

The most galling aspect to all the anti-Finals blabbering is the pure hypocrisy of it.
correlated. The argument went like this: The offensive ineptitude of these two teams had resulted in a brand of basketball so putrid that TV sets across the country clicked off in unison.

There were a couple of problems with this theory. For one thing, ratings for this series were low from the opening tip, so America didn't reject the series in response to its low-octane scoring. America - or at least the vast majority of viewers - never gave the series a chance.

The reasons are easy to point to: Most of the NBA's playoff action had been on cable, limiting the nation's opportunities to get familiar with these two teams; both of the participants were small-market teams; ABC, in its first year handling the Finals, showed little of the flair that NBC commonly brought to its NBA coverage.

The deeper cause, though, is that the NBA long ago stopped trying to build genuine interest in the game. Instead, it has tried to create superstars, identifiable faces that even non-fans can recognize. It's the most troubling legacy of the Michael Jordan era. Jordan was so brilliant and charismatic that he transcended the game. That was fine when he was leading the Bulls to titles, but left a void when he retired. So the NBA - and the sports media as an all-too-willing accomplice - tried to prop up a new Jordan, quickly seizing on Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O' Neal.

Over the last two weeks, I heard several talking heads moan that they didn't care about this year's Finals because the Lakers weren't playing - as if watching Robert Horry, Devean George, Derek Fisher, and Mark Madsen throw up bricks (as they did for much of the Lakers' series against the Spurs) is automatically scintillating, just because Kobe and Shaq are also on the floor.

The most galling aspect to all the anti-Finals blabbering is the pure hypocrisy of it. In this series, the Spurs averaged 88 points a game, while the Nets averaged 82. By comparison with the 1998 Finals, when Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls took on Karl Malone's Utah Jazz, that year the Bulls averaged 88 points a game, while the Jazz averaged 80. Utah never hit 90 points in that series, and in Game 3, they scored a whopping 54 points.

Did sports pundits wring their hands that year? Did they blast the two teams for offensive ineptitude? Did they mourn the death of the jump shot? Of course not. They waxed poetic about Jordan's warrior spirit and the Bulls' defensive tenacity.

The obvious message is this: If Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant play in a low-scoring series, it's electrifying. If anyone else does the same, it's a yawner. In this sense, the coverage of this year's Finals told us more about our culture than it did about sports. In a short-attention-span society which is fixated on the cult of personality, we let TV ratings, box-office numbers and poll results tell us what's compelling. By that standard, Joe Millionaire is high art, while Six Feet Under is a bore.

This series featured textbook defense, competitive games, high drama (i.e., David Robinson rising to the challenge for one last time), and the incomparable greatness of Tim Duncan. But Duncan is special for the nuances in his game, and the Jim Romes of the world don't want nuance. They want bluster. But given the Spurs' championship ride, and their relative youth, America might have to get used to nuance. •

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