Ready or not, the NBA is about to find out if its bright young lights have what it takes to replace the game's holy trinity: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. At least one of those three players—and at particularly beguiling moments, two of them—played in 13 of the past 14 NBA Finals, a run of genius and good fortune that ended on Oct. 6 when Jordan announced his retirement from the Chicago Bulls. There is a small constellation of new stars waiting to fill the void created, within a span of 23 months, by the retirements of Magic, Bird and MJ. But it remains to be seen whether any of the upstarts will be able to carry his team to the Finals or whether the league instead faces the unappetizing prospect of slogging through two months of playoff games only to find Brad Daugherty and Chris Dudley waiting at the end of the road.
Not that the NBA has had the Air let completely out of its sales. "This league is beyond the point of hinging its hopes on one player or a couple of players," says Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams. "We have seen the passing of Abdul-Jabbar, the passing of Bird and Magic, and now Jordan. But there is a new wave of players always coming." Despite all the hand-wringing over Jordan's retirement, the league could very well break its attendance record for the ninth time in 11 seasons, and if it does, it will be because of the new wave of young stars who are about to come channel surfing over the horizon. For instance, rookies Shawn Bradley and Jamal Mashburn have brought new promise to two cities—Philadelphia and Dallas, respectively—where attendance has been soft in recent seasons. "If all the stars got up and retired at once, we would be in a lot of trouble," says Shaquille O'Neal, Orlando's great wide hope, "but that hasn't happened."
What has happened—with the departure of not only Magic, Bird and Jordan, but also such All-Stars as Kevin McHale (page 146)—is a generational change in the comparative blink of an eye. For better or worse, the NBA is suddenly in hands so new that some of them don't leave fingerprints. "We'll probably disappoint people for a while," says Milwaukee Buck coach Mike Dunleavy, whose most promising prodigy is second-year guard Todd Day. "You're not going to see another Michael Jordan, but I think there could be more fan interest because of it. After three championships, I think a lot of people may have felt that as long as Michael was around, you couldn't beat him. It's going to be more wide open now."
For the first time in 20 years a season will begin with no single, defining superstar—or pair of stars—to whom the league can hitch its wagon. "There are a lot of guys on a high level, but I don't know if there is a Dr. J out there, somebody who mastered the game and toys with it," says Charlotte Hornet coach Allan Bristow. "To me, that even includes Charles Barkley. He can do spectacular things, but I still don't think the torch is passed. You've got to wait and see."
November 8, 1993
Inasmuch as passing anything on fire to Barkley seems like asking for trouble, it may be just as well that the league's reigning MVP has already calculated the likelihood of his retirement at the end of the '93-94 season as "99.9 percent certain." Of course, Barkley's coach with the Phoenix Suns, Paul Westphal, doesn't place much stock in that figure. "We all know that Charles didn't major in math," Westphal says.
But if not Barkley, then who? Chris Webber, the 6'10" forward who was the No. 1 pick in the college draft as a sophomore, the first such player since Magic? Or Anfernee Hardaway, the 6'7" point guard who looked so much like Magic that Orlando immediately shipped Webber off to the Golden State Warriors to get Hardaway's draft rights? Or second-year Sun center Oliver Miller, whose passing reminds people of Wes Unseld almost as much as does the size of his body? How about the Denver Nuggets' 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo, a throwback to Nate Thurmond? Or the Sacramento Kings' Bobby Hurley, who could be the next Tiny Archibald? Or maybe Bradley, the 7'6" Philadelphia 76er wearing uniform number 76, who spent the past two years on a mission from God and may spend this one on a mission for a bod? Or Shawn Kemp of the Seattle SuperSonics? Pick a Shawn, any Shawn.
Or pick a Shaq, any Shaq. There is the Shaq who reported to training camp last month with a SUPERMAN logo tattooed on his right biceps. And then, of course, there is the Shaq who proved himself slightly less than Superman when he led the Magic back into the lottery last season. "It's a credit to how good the talent is in the league now, that no one guy can come in and make a team a champion right away," says Dave Twardzik, the Hornets' player personnel director. The Hornets may not have to wait much longer now that they have forward Larry Johnson under contract into the next millennium and center Alonzo Mourning to smack O'Neal in the S.
Like Bird and Magic before them, Mourning and Shaq came into the league together last season and will probably always be thought of as a set. "Alonzo Mourning is going to be the next great, great, unbelievable player," says Barkley. "Shaquille, in my opinion, is a great physical specimen." Ouch, Babe. O'Neal calls Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks a "great player," Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets a "great player" and David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs a "great player" but says that Mourning is merely "upcoming."
As if to show how little Mourning occupies his thoughts, Shaq spent the summer making a movie, recording a rap album, writing his memoirs and traveling to Japan and Europe. Mourning, meanwhile, was in a gym at Georgetown working on his game, but, O'Neal says dismissively, "ask Mourning about me in the Magic Johnson [summer all-star] game, when I had 45. Ask him about that. I had 45, he had 29.1 have been working out. People look at the things I have accomplished this summer, and they automatically assume I haven't been working out. Keep on assuming. I'm not worried."
Preferring to ignore this colloquy, Mourning bites off the head of the well-meaning reporter who tells him about the Shaq attack. "I'm not into hyping up some rivalry," Mourning says. "You all ask me these crazy questions. That's your little game, trying to create this rivalry. I'm not into that. I'm not going to answer your questions the way you want me to. You guys cooked this whole thing up. I don't get excited about it at all. The bottom line is wanting to be the best. Any player who tries to keep me from doing what I want motivates me, not just Shaq."
But Shaq certainly motivates the NBA. The league has scheduled Orlando to play on national television 16 times in '93-94—not bad for a team that didn't make the playoffs last season. With a little luck, the Shaq and 'Zo Show will make its postseason debut next spring. "Power, size and brute strength against Mourning's quickness, agility and hostility," says Pat Williams hopefully, greedily and ecstatically. "I think people see a reincarnation of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. The far bigger player, the true Goliath, being combated by the smaller, more agile, maybe more athletic center. For 15 years that was the greatest matchup in sports. I think people will see that again."
But 76er coach Fred Carter doesn't yet buy into the Shaq-Mourning/Chamberlain-Russell comparison. "When it comes to Wilt, you're talking about the Colossus of Rhodes," Carter says. "Russell, he was the defender of the castle. There aren't going to be two like them again. Shaq and Mourning are outstanding, but they would have to stand the test of time."
Russell and Chamberlain squared off 155 times during their careers, 56 of those meetings coming in the playoffs. O'Neal and Mourning will at least have to face each other once in the playoffs so that the NBA's marketing machine can operate unfettered by such a minor inconvenience as the historical record. When that happens, the rivalry could become big in a hurry. "Wilt and Russell were a rivalry in Philadelphia and Boston," says Washington Bullet general manager John Nash. "But if you didn't live in cither city, unless it was Sunday afternoon on TV, you didn't see Wilt and Russell. The people in Charlotte and Orlando didn't know about Wilt and Russell back then. Shaq and Mourning will be more global."
What is more, it is no longer necessary—nor in some cases even desirable—for a young star to have a personality of his own when his shoe company can simply invent one for him. "This league, more than any other, has built itself around the stars and does a tremendous job of marketing them," says Williams. Chamberlain and Russell are preserved in legend, like two scorpions trapped in amber, but it's still true that more people will see O'Neal and Mourning play this season, on television and in person, than saw Russell and Chamberlain during their entire careers.
"That's something we didn't have in the past, players becoming celebrities at an early age because of their television commercials," says Jerry West, the Los Angeles Laker star of the '60s who is now the team's general manager. "They're actually more famous than their contributions on the court would merit. But that's fine." Even if it isn't fine, it will have to do. Today's game, says Bristow, "is about marketing, slo-mo, putting music to it, making the game bigger than reality. People in the '60s didn't get a chance to see Oscar Robertson floating through the air."
Orlando guard Scott Skiles recalls returning to his home "way out in the middle of nowhere" in Indiana at the end of last season and visiting the tiny corner grocery store. "As soon as I walked in the door there was a life-sized cutout of Shaq right next to the Pepsi display," says Skiles. "As long as the NBA and these companies are marketing these stars and their reach is that far into a remote area, there are always going to be superstars. There are so many stars now that there are some players I would call marginal players who still get marketed heavily. The NBA is great at creating stars. As long as people fill the seats, watch games on TV and, more importantly, buy the merchandising, the success of the league is going to keep on climbing."
With Jordan gone, the all-important team merchandising championship will almost certainly pass from the Three-Peat (copyright by Pat Riley) Bulls to Charlotte, a team that already has enormous appeal, with such marketable stars as Mourning, the adorably Smurf-like Muggsy Bogues and the dress-wearing Larry Johnson. If the kids all wanted to be like Mike, wait till they get a fuller load of Grandmama, the character Johnson plays in his shoe-endorsement commercials. "Put Larry Johnson right up at the top," says Boston Celtic forward Ed Pinckney. "Definitely, Grandmama is big. Cross-dressing, that's big. You have to go with the trend." Does that mean Shaq will have to strap on a bustier to become the NBA's next Madonna-like megastar? "If he wants to beat Larry Johnson in endorsements," Pinckney says, "he may have to go that way."
"To be the really big star, you have to be able to combine what you do on and off the court," says Celtic forward Rick Fox. "Larry Johnson is in a perfect position. He's definitely a great player, and people have really embraced Grandmama. At the camp I ran this summer there were a lot of kids wearing Michael Jordan shirts, but I wasn't expecting as many kids as I saw wearing Larry Johnson shirts. The kids are the ones who grab on to these guys, so they're probably the best measuring stick of who's going to move into Michael's place."
O.K., that's two votes for the guy in the dress. And why not? The NBA is easily the most evolved hip-hop league in the 'hood. The sleeper in this class of young guns is Philadelphia's second-year forward Clarence Weatherspoon, who at 6'7" and 240 pounds looks like a baby Barkley. Weatherspoon is the youngest of 13 children, including six sisters, so he could have been wearing hand-me-down dresses long before Johnson even thought about it. But there is nothing hand-me-down about Weatherspoon's emerging stardom. He arrived from Southern Mississippi last year, just as Barkley was departing for Phoenix, and averaged 15.6 points a game. Don't be surprised if he darn near doubles that this season. "If you can play, the NBA is definitely going to put you out there and advertise you," says the 'Spoon that stirs the long, tall drink of water in Philadelphia.
The question of just how much the league's young and the restless stand to earn was answered exactly a day before Jordan announced his retirement, when the Hornets signed Johnson to an eight-year contract extension worth $68 million. In front offices around the league, Charlotte's largesse was as much of a bombshell as Jordan's sudden departure. The contract established a watermark for all the young stars, and some teams weren't sure they could keep their heads above it. Even before Johnson had signed the deal, Mourning was assured by the Hornets he would get a similar deal next year; it seems unlikely he will settle for anything less than becoming the sport's first $100 million man.
And why should he? The Hornets blew their $84 million wet kiss at Johnson after he spent the summer hobbled by a herniated disk so severe that he lost 35% of the muscle mass in his right thigh. "If this is the new superstar salary—$84 million for a guy who's almost a star, a guy who's made the All-Star team once and had a history of a bad back—if that's the standard for this group of young stars coming up, I think we need to take a look at that," says Golden State coach Don Nelson. "It's scary because all those guys will want Larry Johnson money. Or maybe if they're half as good they'll want only $42 million. Where's the revenue going to come from?"
That seemed to be a good question right up until the moment, one day after Nelson asked that question, when the Warriors signed Webber to a 15-year contract worth $74.4 million. Less than a week after that, the New Jersey Nets were rebuffed by forward Derrick Coleman when the team tried to sign him to an eight-year contract extension valued at $1 million more than Johnson's deal. Coleman—who has missed an average of 10 games a year in each of his three NBA seasons, has feuded with coaches and has never played in an All-Star Game—wouldn't take less than $10 million a year. Does anybody really believe there are people in Los Angeles, or San Antonio, or East Rutherford, N.J., for that matter, who would pay their way into a building just to see Derrick Coleman play?
"Because of Michael, because of Magic and Bird, the young guys have always had somebody to follow," says Denver Nugget general manager Bernie Bickerstaff. "All they had to do was emulate. The only concern I have is, Do they have the heart those guys had? I don't doubt the talent, but I don't know if they have the will to be good and to win. You can rationalize a lot with the W-2s these guys are getting."
If there is anything that could cloud commissioner David Stern's Utopian vision of the post-Johnson-Bird-Jordan NBA as a giant revenue stream that keeps on flowing, it would be hubris. "The game is bigger than Michael Jordan," Coleman's agent, Harold MacDonald, recently told The New York Times. "It's the MTV game of the '90s, a sport that's being sold all over the world. New superstars, first-name guys like Michael and Magic, will be created."
"The guy who's going to replace Michael is the same guy who replaced Dr. J, and the same guy who replaced Magic and Kareem, Cousy and Russell," says Portland Trail Blazer guard Clyde Drexler. "You never think those guys can be replaced, but the league keeps rolling along." McHale seems even more sanguine about the newcomers. "I guarantee you, in five years people will be saying, 'Michael who?' That's the way it is," he says.
Jordan Shmordan, in other words. The talent pool is deep, and a revenue river runs through it. No one knows which big fish will be the first to break the surface and come up for Air. "Out of each class comes a potential star, and once every decade you get a star the caliber of Michael Jordan," says Sun president Jerry Colangelo. "You have to wait for a player like that to emerge, but he's out there now, just waiting. He may very well be in the league right now. Or he may be in his last year of high school. But he's out there."