WHAT EXACTLY do you mean by hot? Are you talking about Hollywood hotties? Lots of them have certainly been courtside during the NBA postseason, including Beyoncé, Rihanna, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. Hot tempers? Consider the national outrage over the racist ramblings of Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Hot competition? The Grizzlies-Thunder first-round series included four straight overtime games, and in the Eastern Conference finals Pacers pest Lance Stephenson did all he could to make Miami's LeBron James feel hot under the collar. If you want to be literal about it, of course, it was plenty hot during Game 1 of the Finals, thanks to failed air conditioning at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, where James's cramps derailed the champs, at least for one night.
With compelling games, buzz-worthy stars and off-court drama, the NBA is sizzling by any measure, including television viewership. Game 1 of the Finals drew a 9.0 rating on ABC, the second highest for a Finals opener since 2004. Even the ugly Sterling story drew attention to the league from outside the usual circles, including the White House.
The rising level of interest likely means that the next round of TV rights negotiations will land the league an even bigger windfall than the eight-year, $7.5 billion deal it now has with ESPN and Turner, which expires in 2016. Investors are bullish on the league—one reason the banning of Sterling set off a billionaire bidding war over the Clippers. Larry Ellison, David Geffen and Oprah Winfrey were the losers; former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer purchased the team for $2 billion, nearly four times the sale price of the Bucks just last month.
The current cast of stars has added to the league's appeal. Most of the young ones, such as gentlemanly Kevin Durant, baby-faced Stephen Curry and the slyly funny (at least in his car commercials) Blake Griffin, have playing styles and personalities that make them both watchable and likable. Others, particularly James and Houston's Dwight Howard, may be polarizing, but they're the best kind of bad guys—the type that draws an audience, even if a sizable portion of it is hoping to see them falter.
No one in the NBA is hotter than commissioner Adam Silver, who has been widely praised for cleaning up the Sterling mess. Silver says the league's popularity hasn't come close to peaking. "I think this game should be a rival to football," he said in February. "I want to focus on the game. The business is going well, but this is a beautiful game." Matching the NFL's hold on the public might be impossible, but the NBA is so hot that Silver is thinking big, which is kind of cool.