CHECK THOSE FREQUENT FLIER MILES
The Miami Heat will spend its first year in the Midwest Division, even though Miami, as you may have noticed, is a wee bit south and east of, say, Salt Lake City, another stop on the Midwest tour.
The $500,000 the Heat projects for travel (including hotel) costs in the 1988-89 season will far exceed the NBA average of $250,000 to $300,000. And to meet its quota of Western Conference games (six against each Midwest team and four against each team in the Pacific Division), Miami will be making four grueling western swings of six days or more. Most teams make two such trips during the regular season.
The NBA did manage to give the Heat one break—its schedule includes only 10 back-to-backs (home and away games on consecutive nights), three below the league average. The Charlotte Hornets, this season's other expansion team, will have 16.
Miami will move to the Atlantic Division for the 1989-90 season, while Charlotte will be a member of the Midwest. So will Minnesota, one of two expansion teams joining the league that season. The other, Orlando, will start in the Central and move to the Midwest in '90-91. Got it now?
By the '91-92 season, the NBA's final—maybe—divisional alignments will be in place, and Miami and Orlando will be in the Atlantic Division, Charlotte in the Central and Minnesota in the Midwest.
WE STILL HAVE BOSTON GARDEN
With the opening of the Bradley Center this season, the NBA loses another link to its past: Milwaukee Arena, home to the Bucks since their founding in 1968. Milwaukee will be hard-pressed to duplicate in its new $100 million home the .736 regular-season winning percentage it had at its old arena, commonly known as the Mecca. Now only Boston Garden and Memorial Coliseum in Portland have an intimate home-club ambience about them.
The Bucks will be the main attraction at Bradley, but it's no secret that the arena was built largely because Milwaukee is gunning for an NHL franchise. That explains the opening event there on Oct. 1—an NHL preseason game between the Oilers and the Blackhawks.
Two other NBA teams—not including the expansion franchises—will be playing in new arenas:
•The Detroit Pistons have the most ostentatious—or, at least, the most ostentatiously named—new place, the Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich. Where's Auburn Hills, you ask? Why, it's 35 miles north of downtown Detroit, or three miles farther out than the Pontiac Silverdome, the Pistons' previous home.
The 21,519-seat Palace is situated in Oakland County, one of the richest counties in America. And the Palace reflects that, what with its $2 million TV studio and 180 private boxes, which will generate about $11.2 million annually for Piston owner William Davidson, who owns 80% of the building.
•The Sacramento Kings will be moving to their new 16,747-seat facility, Arco Arena. It should not be confused with their old home, also known as Arco Arena. The Kings sold every seat for every home game in their three seasons at Arco I and have topped off season tickets at 15,000 at Arco II this year. Imagine the fan interest if the Kings were actually a good basketball team.
After the NBA's Board of Governors voted last April to add a third referee for the coming season, more than 250 refs. most of them from the college ranks, expressed interest. They were evaluated on videotapes and in persons at summer camps by Rods Thorn and Darell Garretson, the chief of the officiating staff. No wonder there was so much interest; top NBA officials make as much as $135,000 a year, including the playoffs. The starting salary for a rookie ref is $32,000, plus $2,100 a month for hotels and meals, plus airfare (first class, if the trip is more than two hours).
Sixteen of the new officials are from the colleges and five from the Continental Basketball Association. The average age of the newcomers is 37.6, compared with 44.1 for the 34 holdovers (who average 11.4 years of NBA experience). The youngest referee hired was Greg Willard, 29, from Huntington Beach, Calif. The new men spent five days last summer at training camps in Indianapolis and Cleveland. Finally, in September, they joined the veteran officials at the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., for a week of orientation.
The decision to add the third official, at a cost of $1.5 million a year to the league, stemmed from a number of ugly confrontations between players in the past few years. "Too many things have gone undetected, and now is the time to detect them," says Stern. "Certain conduct is prohibited, and if it is not called, it undermines our credibility." Thorn says the third official usually will be on the weak side of the court—the side away from where the ball is—at a point on the wing about even with the free throw line. "T think the idea is to clean up the game underneath, and it needs it," says Celtics center Robert Parish.
Thorn also figures the new system will provide much better coverage of the out-of-bounds lines, better calls on three-point shots and more consistency in detecting illegal defenses and three-second violations.
There's worry that a third official also will mean more fouls and more foul shots—by far the most boring aspect of basketball—and longer games. Statistics, however, don't support such fears. In 1977-78, the season before the NBA first tried a third ref—that experiment lasted one season—there were 50.3 fouls called per game; with the three-referee system, there were 50.6. As for average length of a game, it was 2:04 in '77-78 and 2:02 the following season.
Earl Strom is unquestionably the NBA's most recognized and most colorful referee. He's also the best, according to a USA Today poll of players and coaches conducted last year. But you rarely read about him or, for that matter, any of the NBA's other referees. Why?
Because that is the way the league wants it, that's why.
"It's our policy that the players and coaches should get the attention," says NBA commissioner David Stern. "We don't want our referees to become personalities, or 'the story.' We think they can do a better job if they're not in the spotlight."
That's understandable up to a point. But, like it or not, Strom is in the spotlight. He's part of the fabric of the game and, yes, part of the NBA's appeal. Watching Strom work a game is like watching Michael Jordan work a defense.
Stern and Rod Thorn, the league's vice-president of operations, who's responsible for the referees, have made it clear, both to Strom and to prospective interviewers, that zebra publicity isn't welcome. For example, Strom cooperated with freelance writer Jeff Coplon on an article about Strom that has been accepted by The New Yorker. The article, if it appears, will not do so until after Strom's retirement; Coplon and the magazine agreed to honor Strom's wishes about holding the story.
Strom also has completed a book about his career (written with Blaine Johnson, assistant managing editor at the Morning News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.) but again has insisted that publication be deferred until after his retirement.
The 60-year-old Strom has been in the NBA for 27 years and has sizable retirement benefits coming. Sources close to Strom say that he is fearful of losing some of the benefits if he defies the league and accedes to publication of the magazine article or the book before he retires. Strom says he will decide at mid-season whether to retire after the 1990 playoffs. If he works until then, Strom will have officiated in five decades (his first season was 1958-59).
Forever a maverick, Strom has had his troubles with the league office in the past, particularly in 1969 when he jumped to the ABA for three years. But let us assume (and hope) that the NBA's policy is not a vendetta directed specifically at Strom. In any event, the policy is helping to make the league's referee corps faceless and uniform. The zebra with a personality is an increasingly rare species around the NBA.
General manager Jerry Krause and coach Doug Collins insisted that the Chicago Bulls were not as much of a one-man team last season as they were in Michael Jordan's first three years. And, lo and behold, our annual survey of those NBA players most likely to contract bursitis of the shooting elbow bears them out. Jordan attempted a field goal only once every 1.66 minutes in 1987-88, as compared with once every 1.44 minutes in '86-87. Jordan wasn't even the league leader—the Atlanta Hawks' Dominique Wilkins popped one up every 1.5 minutes.
A few other revelations:
•Seattle let Tom Chambers go to Phoenix as a free agent partly because of his reputation as a gunner. But Tommy Gun (one shot every 1.96 minutes) actually shot less frequently than erstwhile Sonic teammates Dale Ellis (one every 1.8) and Xavier McDaniel (one every 1.92).
•T.R. Dunn of Denver was the most reluctant shooter last season, with one attempt every 9.8 minutes. Coaches just love unselfish, defense-oriented players like Dunn. They love them so much that Dunn, an unrestricted free agent, was unsigned as of last weekend.
...AND SHOOTING AWFUL
You have to be shooting pretty poorly to have a field goal percentage of less than 40%, but eight players did it last season (minimum of 200 field goal attempts):
Reggie Williams, Clippers, 152 of 427, .356; Bill Hanzlik, Nuggets, 109 of 287, .380; Muggsy Bogues, Bullets, (now with Charlotte), 166 of 426, .390; Richard Anderson, Blazers and Rockets, 171 of 439, .390.; Albert King, 76ers (now with the Spurs), 211 of 540, .391; Darrell Walker, Bullets, 114 of 291, .392; Michael Cooper, Lakers, 189 of 482, .392; and Rory Sparrow, Knicks and Bulls, 117 of 293, .399.
IT'S A TOUGH TOWN, CHARLES
Asked on a TV show how he had spent his summer, Knick forward Sidney Green responded that he had played a lot of one-on-one with Charles Oakley, "our newest accusation."
NOT IN CHARLOTTE
George Shinn, the owner of the Hornets and a man of deep religious convictions, instructed coach Dick Harter and his assistants, Ed Badger and Gene Littles, to curtail swearing on the bench this season. Shinn also wondered if Harter could ask the players to do the same, but Harter allowed as how that might be a little unrealistic.
"Look, we're all human beings, and I'm not going to expect anything unreasonable," says Shinn. "I'm not saying that if Dick says one four-letter word to the referee that he's going to lose his job. I'm not a nut, after all. But we're in the Bible Belt down here, and I do have certain expectations."
Another of those expectations is that his coaches and front-office people will wear white shirts with suits and ties in public, especially at games. Another is that they will not sport facial hair.
"It's not so much what I think about it, but what others do," says Shinn. "Someone might have something personal against a man in a beard or mustache. We're in a constant sell in this community, and part of the way you sell something is image, packaging. I don't want my coaches to look like...well, I don't want to mention any names."
Shinn decided that the no-facial-hair dictum would not apply to his players. But sport coats and ties are mandatory for players on the road.
The Hornets will be resplendent on the court too. Designer Alexander Julian did the uniforms, which feature pleated shorts. You can't get more up to date than that, by George.