Hey, Look Us Over To win back disgruntled fans, the NBA put a new spin on its image. Our man in the stands put it to the test

February 15, 1999

When it finally came to this--when NBA players stood at arena
turnstiles, personally apologizing to all who passed by--nobody
asked, "What, exactly, are you apologizing for?" Nobody had to.
In 1999 to be a pro basketball player was provocation enough.

"Hello, I'm sorry," said Ivano Newbill, a 6'9" center for the
Washington Wizards, as I entered the MCI Center one Sunday in
January. Then, in a singsong voice to the woman behind me:
"Hello, I'm sorry." Newbill never elaborated and didn't have to.
Even though I had barely heard of him, his apology seemed somehow
necessary.

The 191-day NBA lockout, which ended on Jan. 6, served as a shot
of sodium Pentothal. Under its influence, many players said what
they had theretofore only thought--that the rest of society
existed to enrich them vastly. During the lockout Philadelphia
76ers guard Allen Iverson declined to make payments on three of
his leased Mercedes. (He will be paid $70.9 million over the
next six years.) Kenny Anderson, who plays for the Boston
Celtics, fretted publicly about meeting the $12,500 monthly rent
on his house in...Beverly Hills (the average annual salary on
his current contract: $7 million). As the work stoppage wore on,
an instantly infamous charity game was arranged: 10% of the
proceeds to starving children, 90% to needy NBA players. After a
public outcry, organizers agreed to give all the money to the
starving children, though the attitude of the players was summed
up by union president Patrick Ewing (reported annual salary: $18
million), who told fans, "We have to put food on the table."

"We make a lot of money," Ewing, the New York Knicks' center,
explained to a puzzled public, "but we spend a lot of money,
too." Indeed, the Knicks even practice in a town called Purchase.

Which brings us to the owners. Last year the league opened a
35,000-square-foot store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The
emporium offered fans such souvenirs as an $8,000 Waterford
crystal vase--store personnel pronounced it vahz--etched with
the likeness of Larry Bird. Eighteen-karat-gold watches,
embossed with the Chicago Bulls' logo, were priced at $25,000.
To be fair, inexpensive items were also available: A New Jersey
Nets jacket could be had for a mere $2,000. But the impression
was already indelible. The NBA, owners and players alike, had
become Howard Hughes in his final days: money-gorged, mentally
ill, egregiously out of touch with the rest of humankind.

Suffice it to say that when the lockout ended, there was much
public relations work to be done. And undone. Fans would have to
be wooed back, with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of
flowers. Each team would host one free scrimmage and one free
exhibition game and promise to never again leave the toilet seat
up. The Knicks sent every season-ticket holder a Valentine's Day
card signed by a player and addressed by hand. "Watch us,"
pleaded commissioner David Stern. "See whether we become more
fan-friendly."

Against my better judgment, I gave the NBA one more chance. I
resolved to attend--as a fan--one intrasquad scrimmage, one
exhibition game and one of last Friday night's season openers.
Those three events in three cities turned out to be a morality
play in three acts.

My first stop was Washington, where I would watch the Wizards
scrimmage. An hour before tipoff, players stood at various gates,
greeting fans and handing out leaflets bearing the team's 10
commitments. No. 10: "We will never forget that the fans are the
lifeblood of this game."

"Hello, I'm sorry," Newbill said, sounding sincere and handing
me a flyer. The 28-year-old Newbill had played 134 games in
three seasons. Washington was his fourth team in five years. He
hardly seemed like the poster child for boorish NBA behavior.
Quite the contrary. Yet here he stood, a serial apologist to
rival the city's other compulsive mea culpa-copper, Bill
Clinton. I sympathized with Newbill: The owners locked out the
players, then crushed their union and now were making him stand
here in little more than his practice shorts and tank top,
apologizing for sins he hadn't committed. For some reason, when
I picture NBA owners--which isn't often, I assure you--I see the
short, stocky, top-hatted fat cat from Monopoly.

To my great pleasure, upper management was being made to eat it
as well. Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff was on the concourse,
nodding weakly as a fan filibustered him about the half-court
trap. The two men were in a food court, Bickerstaff's usual
dignity somewhat dampened by the sausage-stand sign above his
head: 21-BUN SALUTE.

I settled into a 12th-row seat and let the Wizards go to work on
me. Within minutes the Wizards Dance Team was delivering a
salacious 22-bun salute. More than a dozen young fans were given
free basketballs. Bickerstaff came on the P.A. and said, "I
can't tell you how much we've missed you." I fairly blushed and
batted my eyelashes.

Peeling open The Washington Post while waiting for play to
begin, I was reminded how far the league still had to go. A
reader had mailed to the paper a Latrell Sprewell dashboard
doll--manufactured before Sprewell became infamous--whose
package carried the following government warning: CAUTION:
CHOKING HAZARD.

I shared this most excellent anecdote with the people seated
near me. We all had a good laugh. The crowd of 14,000 was
friendly and casual and unlike any other I'd seen in an NBA
arena. For one thing, its racial makeup matched that of the
league's players: 80% black. For another, there were fans of
various economic classes, including those pulling down no-figure
incomes. At least one panhandler worked the room, something I'd
never witnessed courtside at the Forum in L.A. "Got 85 cents?"
he asked me. "For bus fare." The man extended the palm of his
free hand; in his other, someone had placed a steaming tray of
nachos.

The scrimmage was great fun, and afterward Wizards star Juwan
Howard threw his sneakers into the stands. The crowd applauded
the players, the players applauded the crowd, and we all agreed
to a second date. I felt myself becoming smitten.

The NBA and I next met in Minneapolis, and again the league
gallantly picked up the check. But this time some of the magic
was missing. The Minnesota Timberwolves were hosting the
Milwaukee Bucks in an exhibition game, and before I entered the
arena, I saw two men carrying hand-lettered signs that said NBA
FANS ON STRIKE!

The picketers identified themselves as Dave Johnson, 36, and
Roger Sisson, "mid-30s, put it that way." Both men still owned
full or partial Minnesota season tickets and had attended the
Timberwolves' first game, in 1989. Now they had seen enough.
"This is like a kiss on the butt," Johnson said in his Fargo
accent, scoffing at those suckers seduced by the free exhibition.
"The fans don't have a voice. We came out to give our point of
view. Otherwise, the only voice we have is the couple hundred
bucks you've got to pay to bring a family of four to a game."

As we stood in the cold beneath the arena marquee, other
dramatis personae dropped by, drawn by the picket signs. First
Avenue and 7th Street soon resembled Speakers' Corner in Hyde
Park. A passionate fan with a long mudflap of hair hanging over
the collar of his leather jacket joined our colloquy. So did a
homeless man. He carried an empty 10-gallon bucket and said, "I
heard that!" to every opinion on offer. I knew what he meant:
Everyone had a valid point.

I asked Johnson what he did for a living.

Johnson: "I'm a union carpenter."

Mudflap: "You're union? Man, how would you like it if someone
marched outside your job site and protested your right to earn as
much money as you could?"

Bucket: "I heard that!"

Johnson: "I didn't say I supported the owners. I think both sides
are equally bad. The owners priced out the average fan."

Sisson: "It's getting so you can only afford to watch it on TV.
Pretty soon, all the games will be on pay-per-view, and it will
be just like the 1950s again. We'll be listening to basketball on
the radio."

Bucket: "I heard that!"

Mudflap: "Hey, did you guys hear that Garnett grew another inch?"

Bucket: "I hadn't heard that!"

Johnson: "I heard that. Is it true?"

I informed him that this was indeed true. Timberwolves star
Kevin Garnett had now been measured as 7'2". This news clearly
intrigued Johnson and Sisson, who simply couldn't help
themselves: They began talking about Minnesota's prospects of
surviving the departure of free-agent forward Tom Gugliotta. I
sensed their anti-NBA resolve thawing and asked how long they
planned to picket games. "Probably just the exhibition season,"
said Johnson, sighing steam. This game was the Timberwolves'
home exhibition season.

I understood their indecision. They loved the NBA but were
ashamed to act as the enablers of owners and players. I felt the
same way. On this night I went inside to watch Minnesota's 96-86
win. "Hey, SI," Mudflap said as he followed me in. "Any way I can
get those Jordan videos without buying the magazine?"

"I'm afraid not," I said.

Behind us, Johnson and Sisson were torn between coming in and
staying out, giving in and holding out. They turned this way and
that, this way and that, each one looking like an oscillating
fan. Which is precisely what I had become.

So, as the 50-game regular season opened, the NBA had me right
where it wanted me: in a $72 seat in a building named for a bank,
money being Hoovered out of my pockets with each passing minute.
Beers were $4.50.

But at least the league brought gifts. When I entered the
FleetCenter in Boston--where the Celtics would host the
atrocious Toronto Raptors, whom the Celts had floor-waxed in
back-to-back exhibition games--I was given a Celtics T-shirt and
a compact disc. The CD was called, suggestively, I Still Love
This Game! But did I? Before I could answer, the Celtics
produced their 81-year-old patriarch, Red Auerbach, to say
something that had never needed saying in the previous 50 or so
pro basketball openers the Hall of Famer had attended. "We need
you," Red told us fans from a floor microphone. "We need you!"

So the NBA had now apologized to me, told me that it needed me
and told me that I loved it. But what I wanted to know was this:
Did the league love me? I was about to find out. Referee Joe
Crawford threw the ball in the air to begin the game and the
season and the rest of my rooting life. As the centers leaped,
my heart did the same.

The deadening, inexplicable events that followed took two
excruciating hours to unfold. I'm still not sure what happened.
The evening would later be described as "very disappointing"
(Boston coach Rick Pitino), "an old-fashioned horsewhipping"
(Celtics rookie Paul Pierce) and "a gawd-damn fauce" (Boston fan
three rows behind me). A farce it was. The Celtics showed little
interest in the proceedings. The Raptors, winners of 16 games
last season, inflicted a 103-92 horsewhipping on the home team.
It was comprehensively unentertaining, animated only by the
heartfelt vitriol of Celtics fans. The game had more dead spots
than the floor of the old Boston Garden. During one of them, a
tomato-faced man broke the silence by imploring the uninterested
Celtics, "For the love of gawd, go back on strike!"

In the fourth quarter, as I examined my $72 ticket stub, it
occurred to me: I had been the victim of a nonviolent mugging.

As you may have guessed, the NBA and I have agreed to see other
people. I wish I could say it ended amicably, but, alas, no.
With five minutes to go, about 5,000 masochists remained from
what had been a near sellout. For the final 45 seconds, we stood
and booed and whistled and waved our white giveaway T-shirts in
mock surrender. According to the next morning's Boston Globe,
one fan got near enough to the richly remunerated, famously
rabbit-eared Celtics coach to say: "Pitino! No excuse!" To which
I can only reply, "I heard that!"

Yet in this otherwise forgettable game came an unforgettable
moment. Years from now it may prove to be historic, sports' own
trivial version of Tiananmen Square. With 8:14 left in the third
quarter and Toronto's Kevin Willis at the free throw line, a fan
who was maybe 18 had endured all that could be reasonably
expected of him. He strode purposefully onto the floor and, with
a Frisbee-style flick of the wrist, flung a pile of money at the
players. The bills fluttered to the floor. The crowd took a beat
to digest what had transpired, then applauded. A blazered
bouncer was dispatched to frog-march the fan out, but even the
goon couldn't keep from smiling, like a straight man unable to
stay in character.

Players reacted in various ways. Those still capable of
embarrassment looked the other way. Willis smiled in silent
appreciation, then handed a pile of the money to fans seated
courtside. Raptors guard Doug Christie? He stuffed a bill in his
sock.

Speaking of bills, what became of Ivano Newbill, the sincere
journeyman I had met in Washington, where he apologized to me
for the sins of his colleagues? The Wizards cut him. He wasn't
good enough for this league. Maybe he was too good.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH COVER SHOULD WE STILL LOVE THIS GAME? Three Teams You Gotta Like THE RENOVATED ROCKETS THE HARDWORKING PACERS THE UNDERDOG BULLS Houston's Scottie Pippen COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY GARY LOCKE [T of C] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY GARY LOCKE COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY GARY LOCKE One protesting fan dismissed Minnesota's free exhibition as "a kiss on the butt." COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY GARY LOCKE Players, coaches and at least one panhandler worked the crowd in Washington. COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY GARY LOCKE A man who threw money on the court gave Celtics fans something to cheer about.

The impression was already indelible. NBA owners and players
had become Howard Hughes in his final days.

The NBA had me right where it wanted me: in a $72 seat in a
building named for a bank, money being Hoovered out
of my pockets.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)