Off schedule

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I feel sorry for the National Basketball Association. It has this problem. It's a calendar orphan. Think about it. The NBA never really has its time in the sun, its heyday. Well, except maybe for right about now, but we'll get back to that. Most every other sport enjoys at least a day or so, when all the other sports are in its shadow.

Never mind the Super Bowl and the World Series. Even the individual sports pop up here and there with a championship that makes it top dog. The Kentucky Derby, the Daytona 500, the Masters, Wimbledon. The National Hockey League does run pretty much concurrent with the NBA, but at least the NHL has Canada in its pocket, so having a whole country swoon over you surely makes up for calendar deficiency. Plus, they've got a better dollar up there.

But the poor NBA. It's always second fiddle. The schedule starts late in October when football sucks up all the news. Come March, the NBA has to cede primacy to its own country cousin, college basketball -- March Madness. Then, as the regular season climaxes, here comes baseball, Opening Day. And then ... and then the NBA playoffs go on for an eternity. When the NBA finally does finish up in June, by then, except for the hardcore and the two cities involved, most everybody has forgotten about the winter game.

So now, February, after the Super Bowl, is the only time the NBA can take a bite out of the calendar. Only February is still midseason, and no sport can make a splash with its midseason. The NBA does have its All-Star Game, which will be played Feb. 17 (the same day as the Daytona 500), but that just creates another problem, because the All-Star Game features individuals, and the NBA suffers generally that its stars overshadow their teams. In an odd way, the NBA All-Star Game hurts the league.

In this young century, San Antonio has been every bit as dominant as, say, the Patriots have been in the NFL, but the Spurs have little national following. Instead, the NBA glamour-pusses are the individuals who are known by their first names, not unlike Britney and Oprah and Hillary: Kobe and LeBron and Shaq. Year in and year out, the Spurs' great star, Tim Duncan, is the most important player in the league, but he lacks pizzazz -- he's merely excellent -- and so, like his team, he's relatively unknown to the general public -- the people who lift a sport out of ESPN range and into dual-gender cocktail conversation. It always amuses me that Duncan is so nondescript that he's regularly referred to by both his names. He's TimDuncan does this, TimDuncan does that.

But when teams matter to the NBA, it's June and, for most people, basketball disappeared when it was time to start cutting the grass again. So the All-Star Game will be the NBA's best showcase. But it's just that: All stars. The irony is that that one brief shining moment when the NBA actually puts a stamp on the calendar, it only reminds people how the league lacks teamwork. Teams just don't work as well as a function of popularity in the NBA as they do in other team sports.