Larry Bird and Magic Johnson joined the NBA 25 years ago and quickly revitalized a league that needed their savvy, fundamentally-sound play, as much
as their emotion, energy and enthusiasm.
Now, with the NBA at a crossroads of sorts as it opens another season this week, it could use another Bird & Magic. Or at least large doses of what
they brought to the party.
Considering last season's much-maligned Finals, and the humbling, humiliating Olympic experience, pro hoopsters are our most unpopular athletes at the
moment. And it doesn't help that LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony expected to boost the league like the aforementioned duo underwent their own
"issues" this offseason.
Players having a child out of wedlock (James), or marijuana in a backpack (Anthony), is enough to turn off some fans before the opening tip. But the
product itself has been repellent to others, many who aren't too concerned with players' attitudes and behaviors (real and imagined). These former
fans are more interested in players' shooting, passing, defending, moving without the ball, etc.
Most everyone not named David Stern would agree that those rudimentary skills have eroded of late. But the good news is, I think we've pretty much hit
rock bottom. Enough executives in the league are convinced a change is in order, and enough players recognize the growing threat to their jobs from
How we got here is clear: The league and networks started marketing individuals instead of teams. That was an adverse effect of Michael Jordan's rise
in becoming the world's most recognizable athlete. His singular, extraordinary talent became the league's No. 1 selling point, and his first
retirement left everyone else trying to promote their own version of M.J.
Even though Bird & Magic received top billing, they were tremendous team players who made their mates better. So was Jordan. But that aspect of his
game was never promoted, unlike his ability to go one-on-one, which can be anathema to team ball.
"With all due respect to Kevin Garnett, Shaq, Kobe and whoever else," Detroit Pistons general manager Joe Dumars told Sports Illustrated, "Michael was
a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, like Wayne Gretzky. Why build your team and your league on a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon?"
Dumars and six of his contemporaries now heading front offices, shared their ideas on how to revive the league. The fact that Chris Mullin, Kevin
McHale, Isiah Thomas, Kiki Vandeweghe, Danny Ainge, Bird and Dumars represent nearly a quarter of the league's top executives is another reason for
hope. Likewise the Pistons' championship run last season, accomplished with plenty of unselfishness but without a so-called star.
"Anytime a team wins the ultimate prize and does it differently, it opens up a new way for people to think," Dumars said. "You'll see teams get away
from the two-stars-and-a-supporting-cast approach, and that may bring back the idea of playing the game the right way."
We heard a lot about "playing the right way" from Pistons coach Larry Brown last season. It wasn't evident when he coached the Olympic "team." But
there's clearly a right way and a wrong way to play.
After having that lesson reinforced last summer, the NBA is ready to correct itself.