The NBA's latest problem is: How to make the league more interesting.
Basketball isn't enough. Neither are dancing girls or Kobe. The league wants more. It wants . . . "personalities!"Two years after Michael Jordan left the game, the NBA is still in a state of transition, and apparently it's not going too well. Recently we learned that the league's answer to rising fan apathy is to put microphones on the coaches and a camera in the locker room.
Ticket prices are going through the roof, and this is the best idea they can come up with.
Coaches are not happy about this, which isn't surprising since they'll be expected to coach and be entertainers, too. While they patrol the bench, they can carry on a David Letterman-type monologue. Is the league serious, you ask? The NBA threatens to fine a coach $100,000 if he refuses to wear a mike, and that certainly sounds serious. So the coaches had better brush up on their stand-up routine and clean up their language. Maybe they can work up a little song-and-dance number, too, while they're at it. They're stuck. Instead of Mike, they get mikes.
The NBA says it will choose what makes the airwaves carefully, but you never know. Americans aren't stupid; their election of presidents notwithstanding. You start hitting the bleep button every three words, even 7-year-olds will become experts at lip reading, and mothers will be diving for the remote. How many times will we have to listen to Jerry Sloan call Dick Bavetta a %!&$& before they pull the plug on this "experiment"?
Sloan says he will resist the league's efforts to mike him -- "I'll get my throat cut fighting it," he said.
That would boost ratings.
The league also wants to film the, uh, action in the locker room, as well. Yes, there's nothing quite as exciting as hearing a coach tell the fellas to "focus" and "execute" and "box out." If we're really lucky, he'll tell them to "take it one game at a time."
The NBA wants fans to experience what an NBA locker room is like. They're still trying to discover a way to pipe the smell into your living room. The league sent a memo to coaches and general managers that said it wants "to give the viewer a feel of what a locker room looks like." That should take about 45 seconds, tops. You've seen one locker room, you've seen them all. The players will have to be counted on for the rest. From now on, instead of merely getting prepared for the game and listening to their coach, there will be other things on their minds. They'll be nudging their teammates -- Is my hair OK? Do I still have a zit on my nose?
We'll take these as signs that the league is desperate. The NBA has to do something because attendance is down, and TV ratings are slipping -- down 14 percent on ABC, 18 percent on TNT and TBS.
The memo said it would be helpful to make "modifications to the coverage of our games which will bring fans closer to the action and closer to our personalities on the court."
Personalities? What personalities? Alonzo Mourning has a chip on his shoulder the size of a BMW. Allen Iverson? Sorry, but tattoos and attitude are not fresh. Stephon Marbury? He didn't make many friends when he announced that every shot he takes is a good shot. We don't need to get any closer to him than one of his three-point shots. Shaquille O'Neal? Mumbling and glaring isn't going to do it. It's hard to warm up to a guy who's big post move looks like an ATF officer busting down the door. Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett? Great game, great guys, zero charisma.
The Next Generation of players is not exactly taking America by storm. The league and its fans have been eager to ordain the Next Jordan, but so far the title has failed to stick to any of about a half-dozen nominees. Note to the NBA: If you're waiting for another Bird, Magic and Jordan to come along, either individually or all at once, you could be in for a long wait. It was a complete fluke the first time it happened.
The league/networks are so desperate to boost ratings that they changed the TV schedule one day to show Michael's latest air apparent, Vince Carter, play for the Toronto Raptors, on national TV. Carter scored 51 points. Nice timing.
Now the NBA is going for gimmicks with cameras and mikes. The league wants to turn the game into a variety show, but how interesting will it be to, for instance, mike the bench. They can't always count on a player to order a pizza from the bench and eat the entire thing while the game is being played, as Willie Burton did a few years ago. They can't count on a coach to pull out a giant comb on the sideline and run it through his hair to mock his coaching counterpart, Pat Riley, as Frank Layden did long ago. In between, all you have is dull.
That leaves just one other place to go for entertainment.
"The game is on the floor," said Sloan.
Why didn't the NBA think of that?