The NBA has no idea what it will take to win you back, and the
truth is, neither do you. All you know is that free admission to
preseason games won't do it, nor will a few extra autographs.
These seem like token gestures considering all that has
happened. The players and owners ignored you during the lockout,
and now they're making you feel less like a fan and more like
the target of a marketing strategy, a slice of a pie chart, and
that's equally insulting.
No advertising campaign, no cute commercial featuring one of the
league's slickly packaged celebrities, is going to rekindle your
affection for the NBA. You need a reason to care about the
league the way you used to, so we went out and found five of
them: players, not necessarily stars, who make up a model team.
Together they embody all the qualities that can make the NBA
likable again: charisma, passion, lightheartedness, humility,
attitude, athleticism and, yes, an appeal to desirable
demographic groups. If you were choosing an All-Star team, this
would not be the starting five, but for a league looking for a
new beginning, these players are perfect.
After the ugliness of the last six months, the fans need someone
to brighten their mood, which is why the captain of this team is
New Jersey Nets center Jayson Williams. More than any other
player, Williams makes sure that the face of the NBA has a smile
on it. He is the new Charles Barkley: witty, opinionated and
sometimes outrageous. In a league dominated by players with
carefully crafted images, Williams's personality comes through
as refreshingly unfiltered. He is always ready with a one-liner
("I got a lot of hugs from my teammates when I signed my new
deal--or maybe that was just guys reaching for my wallet"), and
no topic is too delicate for his sensibility. When the Nets held
a preseason bowling party in Tampa in 1996, Williams got the
feeling that the other patrons weren't used to seeing huge young
black men use the lanes. "One old lady," he said, "just about
gave Yinka Dare her purse."
The No. 2 rebounder in the league last season, Williams, 30,
belongs on this team because he knows not only what's funny but
also what's right. Toward the end of the lockout, his voice was
one of the loudest calling for commissioner David Stern and
Billy Hunter, executive director of the players' union, to lock
themselves in a room until they reached an agreement. Shortly
after the settlement, he signed a seven-year contract for $100
million and almost immediately pledged $20,000 to the vendors
and other workers at the Meadowlands sports complex who had lost
money because of the labor dispute.
"I understand why we make people mad," Williams says. "People
break their backs working for $300 a week, and some guys in this
league make $10 million and act like they can't play hard for
two hours. My solution is, before a guy makes big money in this
league, he has to do the nine-to-five, he has to work in
construction or something. Then he'll appreciate what he's got,
and the NBA will be a better place." Talk shows and sitcoms have
discovered Williams, and now he does his wisecracking with Bill
Cosby, Michael J. Fox, David Letterman and Chris Rock.
Once Williams defuses the fans' anger, the first player they
should see is someone who gives an honest day's labor for an
honest day's pay. That's why the power forward for the
starting-over five is Bo Outlaw of the Orlando Magic. His name
sounds as if it should belong to a trash-talking prima donna who
checks the stat sheet before the scoreboard, but Outlaw, 27, is
exactly the opposite of that. He is the quintessentially
unselfish player, the kind whose hustle wins him a special place
in the hearts of fans.
If the 6'8", 210-pound Outlaw has an ego, it doesn't show. Maybe
he lost it when he went undrafted out of Houston or when he spent
part of the 1993-94 season in the CBA. He straps on his goggles
every night and simply goes about his job, slam dancing under the
basket with power forwards and sometimes filling in at center,
where his opponent is always beefier. Outlaw keeps rebounds alive
with second and third efforts, dives into the stands to save
possessions and sets picks without complaint.
"If people see me out there doing all of this running, diving and
sliding, they're going to appreciate that," Outlaw says. "When
you're working hard, people just take to it."
His averages of 9.5 points and 7.8 rebounds last season were the
highest of his five-year career, but you get the feeling that
Outlaw barely notices his numbers. Last season, when he put
together his first triple-double, he downplayed the achievement.
"A triple-double?" he said. "Isn't that some kind of hamburger
meal? Three patties and two layers of cheese?" Orlando coach
Chuck Daly has compared Outlaw to Dennis Rodman, but the
difference is that Rodman pats himself on the back for doing the
dirty work. "I was just out there getting in the way" is how
Outlaw likes to describe his performance after games. To watch
him is to remember that even in the ritzy neighborhood that is
the NBA, there is still such a thing as a working man.
Unpretentious players such as Outlaw have their value, but the
appeal of the NBA has just as much to do with glamour. The league
needs stars if it's to repair its relationship with the fans. The
NBA has more than enough celebrity players, both young and old,
but the starting-over five needs a rising star, and Milwaukee
Bucks third-year shooting guard Ray Allen makes the team because
he is coming up the right way.
He wasn't packaged and promoted the way many of the league's
other top players were. He draws attention, but not because he
plays in a large media market or signed with the right sneaker
company. He simply played his way toward stardom, averaging 19.5
points for the Bucks last year. Allen, 23, has struck the right
balance between fame and professionalism. He had a starring role
in Spike Lee's film He Got Game, yet he hasn't gone Hollywood. In
fact, he says that he wants to sign a long-term extension with
the small-market Bucks and plans to negotiate without an agent.
That's the kind of old-fashioned approach that can restore fans'
faith in the league and its players.
On the other hand the starting-over five doesn't exist in a
vacuum. Some real-world truths have to be acknowledged. One of
them is that the resurgence of the NBA, in which four fifths of
the players are black, will happen sooner with the presence of a
bona fide Caucasian star. Our small forward, Keith Van Horn of
the Nets, is the player best suited to fill that role. This is
sensitive territory, because Van Horn, 23, has made it clear
that he doesn't want his race to draw as much attention as his
game, and many fans are offended by the implication that they
choose their favorites on the basis of skin color.
Both objections are understandable. It does Van Horn, who
averaged 19.7 points a game as a rookie last season, a
disservice to suggest that his attractiveness to any team has as
much to do with his complexion as with his talent, which is
considerable. In fact, he gives the lie to many basketball
stereotypes. White players are supposed to be rooted to the
ground, but Van Horn seems to have springs in his legs. White
players are supposed to be good shooters but nothing else. Van
Horn can hit the three-pointer, but he can also slash to the
basket for nasty dunks that would draw high fives in any 'hood.
Still, there is no denying that fans look for players to
identify with. They make those connections for a variety of
reasons, and race is one of them. Detroit Pistons center Bison
Dele (formerly Brian Williams) overstated it when he suggested
that Van Horn carries "the weight of every guy who plays with
four knee guards and glasses," but it is true that he brings
more than just his skills to the league.
Van Horn is often compared to the league's last white superstar,
Larry Bird, but Van Horn's style better suits the way the NBA
has sold itself, as a sanitized version of inner-city street
ball, with players who have been taken out of the playground but
haven't had the playground taken out of them. This has been a
stroke of marketing genius, giving the league credibility among
young fans while allowing older ones to feel connected to
something cool and cutting edge.
The player who best represents that hip, slightly dangerous
sensibility might be Stephon Marbury of the Minnesota
Timberwolves, the point guard on our starting-over five. He's
all tattoos and talent, a New Yorker who plays with a sneer and
a street style developed on the Coney Island blacktop. He has
the showmanship that brings fans out of their seats and makes
the nightly highlight shows, but there is a polish to his game
that separates him from most of his young counterparts. The
21-year-old Marbury, who averaged 17.7 points and 8.6 assists
last season, is proof that players can be entertaining without
being selfish, that they can maintain their individuality and
still put the team's needs first. It is not a coincidence that
the Timberwolves, who had never reached the playoffs before
Marbury's arrival in 1996-97, have qualified the last two seasons.
No pistol has been found under the seat of Marbury's car, no
nickel bag in his glove compartment. That's not to say he can't
be prickly. He has grumbled a bit about playing in Minnesota,
away from the bright lights and big city he craves. He has also
shown a touch of paycheck envy now that the league's new salary
scale will keep him from coming close to teammate Kevin Garnett's
six-year, $125 million contract.
But the starting-over five doesn't have to be made up of saints.
In fact the league needs players who have a swagger, an edge.
There's nothing wrong with having a little attitude, as long as
there's some maturity to go with it. Some players have alienated
fans because they don't understand that. Marbury gets the final
spot on the team because he does.
It's hard to root for a team that exists only in theory, but if
you track these five players this season, they may help you sort
out your conflicting feelings about the NBA. They may not make
you forget the damage the players and owners did to their
league, to your league, but maybe they can help you forgive--and
that's a start.