Sports Journalist of the Year

This year, for the first time ever, Adam Smith was a bigger part of the sports landscape than Bruce Smith, Ozzie Smith, Red Smith, or Dean Smith. You couldn’t open a page of any sports section without finding a story with a dollar sign in the headline. Kevin Brown’s $105 million contract. The NBA lockout. And every city this side of Hoboken trying to figure out how to finance a new stadium. And while there was plenty of ink spilled on the economics of sport this year, there was precious little light shed.

The singular exception to this strange I’ll-write-about-business-but-I-won’t-like-it trend was Andrew Zimbalist, and that’s why he’s been selected as the Village Voice‘s 1998 Sports Journalist of the Year. An economist by trade— he’s a professor at Smith College— he writes regular guest editorials for the SportsBusiness Journal and has contributed often to the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. “Sports is a $324 billion industry,” explains John Genzale, executive editor of SportsBusiness Journal. “The U.S. auto industry is an $80 billion industry, and yet we have so few people taking sports seriously.” On a subject too often poisoned by ignorance, emotion, and just plain jealousy, Zimbalist has been a refreshingly intelligent, analytical, and, too often, lonely voice.

For example, he methodically explained how the supposedly moribund Florida Marlins actually made money, what it means when a team goes public, who’s really driving the NBA lockout, and why, when a local politician starts talking about a new stadium, you’d better reach for your wallet.

While his analysis is quite thorough, the thing that separates Zimbalist from the pack is his reporting. He follows the money better than anyone since Woodward and Bernstein. And he’s shown time and time again that he’s not afraid to wade into the fine print of financial statements, where the real story often lies. How good is he at figuring out how teams cook their books? The Internal Revenue Service has hired him as a consultant.

His just-the-facts method has made him a de facto defender of players’ rights— not because they’re sympathetic, but because they’re in the right. “Baseball players and basketball players and hockey players have just as much of a right to be treated fairly as anyone,” he says simply. The dark cloud he sees looming on the horizon is the growing trend toward media companies buying franchises. “Large media companies treat franchises as programming. They don’t see a team as a profit center, but as a component part of a profit system,” he explains. “So Kevin Brown is worth more to Rupert Murdoch than Marge Schott.”

He sees that this deep-pockets approach will erode competitive balance. Which will set the Cassandras of the mainstream media wailing about player greed. Which will encourage the owners to try to balance their budgets on the backs of the players. “The media overwhelmingly regurgitates the interpretation that ownership gives,” Zimbalist explains. “And what that does is give ownership more arrogance and aggressiveness, which creates more problems at the bargaining table.”

Unlike most sportswriters, Zimbalist has a more straightforward agenda, and he’s not ashamed of it. He hopes that his writing will not only enlighten, but actually shape public policy. For example, he was outspokenly critical of Hartford’s plan to lure the Patriots. The result? Some givebacks by Patriot owner Robert Kraft on luxury seating and cost overruns before the deal went through. “Legislators were sufficiently embarrassed by the giveaway character of the deal, and they made changes to save face,” he explains self-effacingly. “I saved Connecticut’s citizens a few pennies.”

His next target: the hypocrisy that is college athletics; Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big Time College Sports hits the stands this June.

Past Winners

Previous winners of the Voice Sportswriters’ Poll:

  • 1990 Male— Roger Milla; Female— Lisa Olson; Team— San Francisco 49ers…
  • 1991 Male— Magic Johnson; Female— Martina Navratilova; Team— U.S. Women’s National Soccer…
  • 1992 Male— Magic Johnson; Female— Manon Rhéaume; Team— Dream Team; Worst— Marge Schott…
  • 1993 Male— Michael Jordan; Female— Sheryl Swoopes; Team— Chicago Bulls; Worst— Vince Coleman… E 1994 Male— Mark Messier; Female— Martina Navratilova; Team— New York Rangers; Worst— Bud Selig, Richard Ravitch, and the Baseball Owners…
  • 1997 Male— Michael Jordan; Female— Martina Hingis; Team— Chicago Bulls; Worst— Mike Tyson… Sports Journalist of the Year:
  • 1991— Robert Lipsyte (Times).
  • 1992— Phil Mushnick (Post).
  • 1993— USA Today sports section.

  • 1994— Darcy Frey (The Last Shot) and Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx (Hoop Dreams).

    Contributor: Allen St. John
    Majordomo: Andrew Hsiao

    Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman

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    Basketball Jones

    “You can call me as late as you want,” Mike Brown’s baritone voice resonates into the answering machine. “I’ll be up.”

    To any reporter, that kind of invitation is almost unheard of. Reaching a coach for an interview can be more difficult than reaching the president, even for Ken Starr. But that’s not the case with Mike Brown, who is the head men’s basketball coach at Hunter College in Manhattan. He is more than happy to talk hoops, no matter what time of day or night.

    “I’m a basketball junkie,” admits Brown. “The other night I was up until 3 a.m. watching UNLV-UCLA. Believe me, my wife won’t let me get a satellite dish. I’d never get any sleep. I just love the game.”

    That Brown is now coaching at Hunter proves it. Eighteen months ago, he left the high-paying, high-pressure, high-profile world of Division I college basketball “distraught and burned out,” he says. In his view, major college basketball has strayed from its original mission of providing a way for “young men to get an education” and has become simply a stepping stone to the NBA.

    “I thought I was in coaching to help kids get an education,” Brown says. “I grew up in the projects, in the Bronx. The game is near and dear to my heart because it gave me my education and my career. I tried to help the players I coached along the same path. But over the last few years, I saw that wasn’t happening as frequently as I thought it should. I knew it was time to get out.”

    Brown came to Hunter in the spring of 1997 with an impressive coaching pedigree. He started out in 1973 as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, the University of Vermont. After that, he served as an assistant coach at several of the nation’s premier basketball pro grams, including Cincinnati, Kansas, Mississippi State, Seton Hall (in two separate stints for a total of nine years), and West Virginia, where he was making $80,000 a year before leaving to take the Hunter job (along with a $75,000 pay cut—he now lives on savings and an inheritance). He also served as head coach at Central Connecticut State from 1988 to ’91.

    Over the years, Brown earned a reputation as one of the game’s finest recruiters. “The nucleus of our Final Four team in 1989 was there because of Mike,” says Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo, Brown’s friend and for mer boss at Seton Hall. ‘is a great coach, a great teacher, and an even better person. The key to his success has always been that he relates well with the players. People want to play for him.”

    Along with that success, however, Brown has also seen the dark side of college athletics. He declines to cite specifics for the most part, but Brown does bemoan the involvement of AAU coaches (“street agents,” he calls them) in the recruiting process—a reality, he says, that was brought on by NCAA restrictions on coaches’ contact with recruits. “In the old days, coaches could get to know the player and his parents or advisers,” Brown says. “You can’t do that today, with the NCAA limitations. Now you have to talk to the kids’ AAU coaches and try to influence them.”

    More than anything else, he says, today’s players are tempted and influenced by the “big payday” of the NBA. According to Brown, coaches at big-time schools have to constantly be on the lookout for agents attempting to persuade their players to leave school early for the pros. For Brown, “the last straw” was the case of West Virginia big man Gordon Malone. Malone, a Bed-Stuy native and Brown recruit, was not ready for the NBA when he declared himself eligible for the NBA draft following his junior season, Brown says. “But an agent got to him and persuaded him to go.”

    Malone was selected in the second round of the 1997 draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves but was cut prior to the season. “There’s some thing wrong with the system when a player listens to an agent more than he listens to a coach,” Brown says.

    Ironically, Brown believes the current NBA lockout might help persuade athletes to stay in school. “I keep reading all these stories about the kids who left early or skipped school altogether to play in the NBA, and they’re not playing now because of the lockout,” he says. “They’re not playing ball. They’re not getting paid. Hopefully, the lockout will make kids and those advising them think twice about sacrificing education for the NBA.”

    In general, of course, the lockout is yet another indication of the corrupting influence money has had on the game Brown loves. While the NBA’s millionaire players and owners bicker over exorbitant salaries and TV revenues, Brown has been working essentially as a volunteer at Hunter for the past year and a half. Although his head coach position pays an annual stipend of $5000, Brown uses the money to cover team expenses, including uniforms.

    “That’s what pisses me off about the NBA lockout,” Brown laments. “I’m out here coaching for free and my players are out here because they love the game, and these guys can’t settle things and get back to playing. It’s ridiculous. All they really care about is money, not the game.”

    At Hunter, Brown doesn’t need to worry about that. His team is made up of “guys whose basketball dreams never materialized. They’re not playing to make it to the NBA. They’re playing because they love the game.” And for a chance to go back to school. Since his arrival at the Upper East Side campus, Brown has looked to give former Hunter players as well as former players from other schools a second chance at a college playing career and an education.

    Prior to his arrival, the Hawks had a two-year record of 16-35. Last year, Hunter finished 28-2, won the CUNY conference championship, and made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division III tournament. They ended the sea son ranked seventh in the nation. “Mike Brown has been at all the major schools and coached under the spotlight,” says Carlesimo. “He doesn’t need that anymore. I think he’s enjoying the relationships he has now with kids who play just because they like to play.”

    Because of the highly nomadic nature of the CUNY conference (“Kids always seem to play a year or two here or there and then leave to get a job,” Brown says), Hunter has only three returning players from last year’s team. As a result, the Hawks had a 3-3 record heading into this week’s Salem State Tournament in Massachusetts.

    “I have been on a lot of good teams, but this year’s team is the best I’ve ever played on,” says Chris Matesic, a 6-4 senior swingman and the only returning starter from last year’s team. “I think we have a real good shot at a national championship. We have a lot of really good players joining us next semester.”

    Matesic is a typical Brown recruit at Hunter. Hampered by injuries in high school, Matesic started his college career at Westchester Community College, where he played on a team that went to the National Junior College Championships in 1996, before transferring to Hunter in the spring of 1997. This winter, Matesic will be joined by another promising player getting his second chance at a college career, Troy Pennerman.

    The sixth man on the Hawks’ 1995 CUNY championship team, Pennerman, 26, had been working as a computer consultant with the Port Authority when Brown found him. He left Hunter initially, he says, to support his kids (he recently had a son with his girlfriend and has two daughters from a previous relation ship), but decided to go back to school to get his degree in computer science. When he found out about Brown’s education-first philosophy, he decided to give basketball another chance.

    “My family is my priority,” says Pennerman, who rejoins the team this week. “But Coach Brown understands that there are other things in life besides basketball, and he is willing to work with us so we can juggle school, work, and playing ball. I liked his style and definitely wanted to play for him.”

    “I think Coach Brown is learning about basketball again at Division III,” adds Matesic. “He’s committed to winning and demands a lot out of the players, don’t get me wrong, but I think he sees the emotional side of the game now, too. He loves the guys, the team. I can see it in the huddle. I don’t think it’s as easy to access that at the Division I level. I think the higher you get in college basketball, the more you lose sight of the essence of the game.”

    While he has not yet closed the door on a return to Division I, Brown seems in no hurry to return to the big time. He calls Hunter “the best Division III job in the country” and says he plans to teach a course at the college on the history of the African American athlete.

    “In Division I, there was so much pressure to win at all costs. If the young men got their degrees, that was secondary,” Brown says. “The whole thing really wore me down. Here at Hunter, though, kids aren’t playing because they want to be in the NBA. They’re playing because they love the game. Like I do. I really love it here.”


    Workers of the Garden, Unite!

    If the NBA’s low-salary players weren’t considered deserving recipients of last weekend’s charity game in Atlantic City, another group that labors in the nation’s arenas should have been deemed worthy. Ushers, ticket collectors, food vendors, and countless other such workers are faced with dwindling opportunites to earn money this holiday season— and at Madison Square Garden, they are engaged in labor talks of their own.

    To date, the Garden has stood idle on 14 would-be game nights lost to the NBA lockout. The ongoing dispute has cost some Garden workers as much as 50 percent of their usual income at this time of year. And many face the threat of losing health insurance and other benefits if the season is completely canceled.

    Public information about the workers has been scarce. Garden officials have declined to discuss the issue and company rules forbid employees from speaking to the press about such matters. Despite the risk, several members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 100, which represents some 600 Garden employees, agreed to (anonymously) talk to the Voice about how the lockout is affecting them.

    Wage and benefit losses due to the lockout vary according to job titles. Suite attendants who rely on generous tips from big-spending guests have been some of the hardest hit. One veteran suite waiter says he generally earns his best tips during Knicks games because the clientele tends to have more more upscale tastes than Rangers fans. “It’s sushi and shrimp cocktail versus pretzels and hot dogs,” he said.

    Tips are fewer for those who work the aisles selling food and drinks, but one Local 100 veteran estimates that he has lost nearly $100 for each canceled Knicks home game. And the union estimates that the average concession stand worker will have lost some $750 in wages by the end of December. HERE cooks and warehousemen, who earn a higher hourly rate, stand to lose about $3500 in wages if the season is canceled.

    Although these workers may be hard-pressed to find much in common with millionaire NBA players, they too have spent much of 1998 sitting across a negotiating table from their employer. Local 100 has been in contract talks with the Garden since May, but unlike their brethren in the NBA players union, salary issues have not been the major sticking point. At issue is how Garden management is handling the lockout— the union has asked for assurances that canceled games won’t cost them health insurance or other benefits that are tied to the number of hours they work. Although the Garden has pledged to credit them for some lost hours, union negotiators remain skeptical about their promises. They cite actions during six Billy Joel concerts this month, when the Garden subcontracted some catering work normally done by Local 100 members to a nonunion firm. And on December 13, Joel’s performance replaced a canceled Knicks game, giving employees a chance to make up some of their lockout losses. But at least four union members were shut out of that opportunity.

    The Garden workers who talked to the Voice expressed surprisingly little resentment toward the players. “It’s the NBA that any union member should be angry with,” said one concessionaire. However, he added, the players “should keep perspective [and] think about the people whose lives they are affecting.”

    A question from a reporter was the first that Patrick Ewing, president of the player’s association, had heard of the Garden employees’ labor battle. Ewing encouraged Local 100 members to “stay strong and fight for what they believe in.” Fellow Knick Allan Houston, meanwhile, had a stranger, if more optimistic, suggestion. “I empathize [with their situation]. Hopefully they can get with our union and get some of our benefits.”


    Red Holzman, 1920­1998

    In the school yards and rec centers of New York circa the 1970s, the voice of Marv Albert imitators filled the air. “Frazier brings it up the left side. Over to DeBusschere. Down low to Reed. Reed kicks it to the top of the key to Monroe. In the corner to Bradley. He stops, he pops! Yesss!” In the days before cable, skyboxes, and embarrassing indictments, New Yorkers listened religiously to Marv’s radio broadcasts and imagined the Garden scene. On certain nights you could hear another accent filter through the crowd noise.

    It was the voice of Knicks coach Red Holzman and usually it was shouting, “See the ball!”— shorthand for instructing his charges to know where the ball was in relation to the man they were guarding. While Marv’s “Yesss!” became a part of the city’s slang memory, Red’s “See the ball!” was a less celebrated and more essential signature— a signature of the Knicks’ success, and one that went right along with the better known “Dee-Fense!”

    Unlike the brute force taught by Pat Riley in this decade, the “D” of the Knicks’ only two championship teams was a more elegant affair. Walt “Clyde” Frazier and backcourt mates Dick Barnett, Henry Bibby, Dean Meminger, and (against certain players) Earl “the Pearl” Monroe were ball hawks who made it notoriously difficult to get comfortably into your offense. The forwards were spry, agile men (Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Dave Stallworth, Phil Jackson, Cazzie Russell) who played the passing lanes and closed quickly on penetrating opponents. The middle was anchored by two Hall of Famers, the legendary Willis Reed and later Jerry Lucas— physical and smart players who used shrewd footwork to compensate for inadequate elevation.

    Red guided his intelligent, though not exceptionally athletic, core group to three NBA finals appearances (’70, ’72, ’73) by (a) designing his offense to serve one of the finest jump-shooting teams in NBA history, (b) covering up Bradley, Lucas, and the oft-injured Reed’s lack of foot speed by teaching a subtle zone (one that Jackson would later employ with the Bulls), and (c) exploiting Monroe’s one-on-one wizardry when he joined the Knicks in ’71, without dismantling his overall offensive scheme.

    Like many old-school coaches, Red didn’t fare as well in the new era that the NBA-ABA merger of ’76 ushered in. And during his late-’70s return, Red tried to get Spencer Haywood and company to see the ball, but, unfortunately, this crew only knew where the ball was when they were dribbling. Still, his 613 wins is by far the most by any Knicks coach. Too bad he won’t be getting the half-time tribute he deserves. But, just like Marv and the Garden, things have changed.

    Callin’ It Like We See It

    Steve Phillips just returned to the Mets. Marv Albert is back in the broadcast booth. And Mike Tyson’s weighing his fight options after getting his license back. Sheesh! It sure seems to Jockbeat that the sports culture could use a sex-harassment referee. Below are a few of the potential signals for a very Clinton-era official.

    “Illegal Use of Hands” “Offensive Remark” “Excessive Gawking”
    Getting grabby with an intern Out-of-bounds joke or compliment Undressing an underling with your eyes

    “Exposure Problem” “Score” “Illegal Bite in the Back”
    Acting like a total pig Consensual sex between unwed colleagues Switch-hitting, cross-dressing, two-timing broadcasters in the booth

    contributors: Nelson George, Bob Eckstein
    sports editor: Miles D. Seligman


    Ready, Willing, and ABL

    Ken Rudnick counted himself a convert on Wednesday night as he cheered on the Philadelphia Rage in their 83-70 rout of the Colorado Xplosion at Temple University’s Apollo Arena. A 76ers season-ticket holder, Rudnick was feeling deprived as the NBA lockout reached day 134. Watching his local ABL team, led by four-time Olympian Teresa Edwards, hit more than 51 percent from the floor seemed like a reasonable way to fill the widening hoops void.

    By halftime, the game had already become more than a better-than-nothing substitute. To Rudnick, it had started to look more real than the real thing. “There’s no cruise control in this game,” he marveled, promising to return for more. “It’s not the half-court game you see in the NBA. Every pass is contested. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”

    That’s exactly the sentiment the ABL is trying to exploit as the women’s league enters its third season. But these days the league is feeling as shaky and riled up as the Rage players, who were being pushed around by the bruising Xplosion point guard Debbie Black as she dished out several black-and-blue marks to go with her nine assists. It’s the WNBA— the rival summertime women’s league— that has been jostling the ABL off the court, despite friendly rhetoric about how two women’s leagues create more opportunities for players. Having reportedly spent $15 million on marketing last season, and having tied up sponsorship and TV contracts through the connections of its bullying big brother, the NBA, the WNBA has cut off the ABL from the lifeline it needs.

    Set up in smaller cities with plenty of local sponsorship and generally solid fan bases— and scoring lots of local press coverage— the ABL hits the court this year desperately needing the national attention that networks and Nike have lavished on the WNBA. ABL players may be happier than their counterparts about the better salaries, thicker benefits package, profit sharing, longer season, and faster paced games that their league offers (though some of that advantage may narrow now that the WNBA has unionized). But they’re beginning to itch for the national exposure that promises league survival, not to mention endorsement deals.

    “Marketing is the biggest thing,” said the Rage’s Edwards after racking up 21 points and eight assists against Colorado, answering what she thought the players’ major concern was right now. Recently elected to the ABL’s board of directors— the first time a pro league has invited a player into its upper echelon— Edwards said the ABL has to figure out how to “wave a magic wand” over their publicity problems.

    The NBA lockout seemed like it might work as just such a charm. No sooner had male sports-commentators blabbed that there wasn’t any pro basketball this season than the ABL published a four-page insert in USA Today proclaiming their presence. Meanwhile, having already increased its marketing budget from $2.9 million to this year’s $5 million, the league has set up its own cameras at some games, and offered satellite feeds to any takers. It has started sending highlight tapes around to news shows and begun pressing for the Fox network to expand its current contract for 16 broadcasts on regional affiliates in six of nine ABL cities: Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia, Denver, and the Bay area. (Two ABL championship series games will be broadcast by CBS in April. By contrast, last summer there were 40 nationally televised WNBA games.)

    But with NBC, CNN, and ESPN tightly tied to the NBA, the public is more apt to get reruns of “classic” men’s games than live coverage of a women’s league. So, unless you live in Philly or Denver, you probably didn’t catch Wednesday’s consecutive three-point plays by Edwards and guard Andrea Nagy, which catapulted the Rage to an early 20-12 lead.

    Though ESPN’s SportsCenter has deigned to show some ABL material, following the women has hardly become a given. “SportsCenter is a news show,” explains spokesperson Mac Nwulu. “We make news judgments on the significance of things instead of just showing the daily routine of playing basketball.” So then why are they showing so many highlights of men’s college basketball exhibition games— how much news value is there in those contests?

    As for Fox expanding its coverage of the ABL, media relations VP Michael Lewellen cautiously states, “We’re closely watching developments with the NBA and hope the situation is resolved soon.” In the meantime, they’ve filled the gap with baseball games from Japan and beefed up coverage of college basketball. Yet according to ABL founder and CEO Gary Cavalli, some of the Fox regional affiliates are discussing plans to pick up more ABL games as the lockout drags on. “Nothing is concrete yet,” says Cavalli, “but there’s definitely interest.”

    The bind, of course, is that more regional play just isn’t enough. With the exception of low interest in Long Beach— whose team was disbanded after one year (this year the ABL added teams in Chicago and Nashville)— local appreciation hasn’t been a problem for the ABL. Indeed, it’s been the bedrock of the league’s grassroots philosophy. The league has been developing each team’s relationship to local community groups and has signed on loyal regional sponsors. It has also begun to sell Team Operating Rights to local investors with a stake in community institutions. So far, TORs have been sold for teams in San Jose, Portland, and New England, and a fourth is in the works. “This arrangement both strengthens our teams’ financial performance locally,” Cavalli says, “and it helps ensure the league’s long-term

    The ABL has also worked hard to place players on teams in regions where they grew up or went to college, and the league’s current consideration of expanding into the New York area might help woo University of Tennessee superstar and Queens native Chamique Holdsclaw next year. Since the WNBA’s Washington, D.C., team has the first draft choice for the upcoming season, if Holdsclaw goes with the glitzier league, she’s unlikely to end up near home, unless the WNBA changes its rules to allow for multiplayer trades. The Arizona Republic has already rumored that the Liberty might consider trading Rebecca Lobo, Sophia Witherspoon, and Kym Hampton for Holdsclaw.

    In any event, Cavalli says there’s a point at which he’ll bow out of a bidding war for Holdsclaw to avoid widening the salary split between star players and the bench. A fair salary scale is another of those grassroots principles he simply vows not to violate. (ABL minimum salaries are $40,000 nowadays and they average $80,000, compared to a minimum of $15,000 in the WNBA and an average of $35,000.)

    With commitments like that, it remains to be seen whether the mom-and-pop league can survive in a megastore landscape. Some days, the ABL seems like a socialist country barely keeping afloat in a sea of global capitalism. Yet Cavalli hasn’t dropped his optimism. Season-ticket sales are already up 30 percent from last year, he notes. And he expects to come close to breaking even this year— a fine performance for a start-up company, he says, noting that the WNBA also finished its second season in the hole. Sure, Cavalli admits, the ABL has to hustle this year for more national TV and sponsorship. But one thing remains as certain as Teresa Edwards’s bounce pass: “We’re not going to change our philosophy.” —Alisa Solomon


    The Breaks Of The Game

    As the sun went down on another blustery, NBA-less evening last week, Allan Houston was struggling to find his zone. He wasn’t looking for that unconscious plateau that basketball players sometimes reach on the court, where every shot seems to fall automatically through the net. For Houston, and for many of the New York Knicks, getting into a zone these days is about finding some peace, as perhaps the most fundamental routine in their lives has been disrupted by the ongoing NBA labor mess.

    “I don’t feel right unless I’m doing something,” Houston told the Voice last week. To that end, the 27-year-old guard says he has been vigilant about maintaining a five-day-a-week workout schedule with his personal trainer. In addition, Houston has regular sessions with a Knicks trainer to rehabilitate his injured knee. (Because the injury occurred before the lockout, the Knicks have allowed their personnel to work with Houston. Center Patrick Ewing, who is still nursing an injured wrist from last season, has been extended the same courtesy.) In recent days, Houston’s knee has been strong enough for him play his first five-on-five ball since last season. “It felt great,” he says with the familiar optimism of a sidelined player itching to get back on the floor.

    The NBA’s four-month-old lockout has aggravated that impatient impulse for Houston and many other players. Years of the same physical routine has conditioned their bodies to unleash right about now, after spending the summer months in hibernation. “It throws your rhythm off,” Houston says. “When it’s this cold outside, guys are used to being involved in some kind of organized play.”

    In conversations with the Voice over the last week, members of the Knicks spoke about the difficulties and some incidental benefits of dealing with life without basketball. While some have filled their downtime with projects befitting multimillionaire New York athletes, others are whittling away the days by doing the dishes and taking on other homebound duties.

    These days, Knicks forward Buck Williams spends his time shuttling his two sons, aged six and nine, back and forth to their school in Greenwich, Connecticut. He’s also had more time to help the boys with their homework. It’s debatable, however, whether that is a positive development, according to Williams. “I was in science class with one of my sons the other day and they started talking about compounds and all this stuff. I said, ‘What am I doing in here? I don’t know what they are talking about.’ ”

    Williams says he’s also spending time researching ideas for business ventures he plans to pursue after he retires. For the 38-year-old Williams, that sunset is sure to be soon. A knee injury limited him to only 41 games in the 1997­98 season, marking the first time in his 17-year career that he had not played in at least 70 regular-season games.

    For Houston, right now should be the prime of his playing days, but instead he’s pursuing an acting career. Houston is using his extended summer vacation to shoot Black and White, an upcoming film about a group of white kids who get involved in hip-hop culture. Houston’s costars include Ben Stiller, Claudia Schiffer, and Brooke Shields. “It’s fun,” he says, “I actually get to act.” Although he would have participated in the movie even if the lockout hadn’t happened, the NBA’s labor troubles have given him more time to devote to the project.

    Houston says he has also developed a new appreciation for the pleasures of suburban life. He has been spending a lot more time at his home in placid Greenwhich. “It’s nice,” he says, to “not have to deal with” the New York celebrity scene. “It’s like two different worlds. There’s nothing to do up here except go out to eat and relax in the house.” For the moment, that seems to suit Houston just fine.

    While Houston seems to have responded to his predicament with characteristic calm, Knicks guard John Starks has confronted the basketball void with his trademark intensity. Starks says that he has used the unexpected free time to throw himself headlong into a variety of business ventures. At the moment, he is knee-deep in preparations for the launch of his new communications firm, Three-Point Wireless. The company, slated to open in midtown Manhattan in January, will sell a wide range of cellular equipment and services. “It will be a one-stop cellular store,” says Starks, moments after stepping out of a business meeting on the project, and with little indication that he’s had trouble picking up the lingo. Starks also owns Original Man Wear, a leisure sportswear clothing line with showrooms in New York and several other cities.

    Starks is also keeping busy with activities related to his charitable organization, the John Starks Foundation, which raises money for a variety of youth programs. He is particularly excited about a project at the Boys Brotherhood Republic, a New York City youth center, that educates kids about the legal system, using a mock courtroom setting. Starks hopes that the close-up view of what happens after one gets arrested will give young people a better understanding of their legal rights and help to deter them from the wrong path.

    Although he seems to have plenty to occupy him, it is still a challenge to keep his mind off basketball. “You do get anxious at this time [of year], but I understand the purpose of what we’re doing.” Starks is keeping fit with a regular workout regimen at the gym conveniently located inside his Connecticut home, but he hasn’t had many opportunities to run the court with other players.

    On the domestic front, Starks has found himself factored into the household chore rotation more often. And he hasn’t had much luck pawning off his least favorite job— feeding the dog— on his 11-year-old son, John Jr. The lockout has given Starks Sr. time to try his hand at coaching, too. He is volunteering as an assistant for his son’s football team this fall. He has been dabbling in the arts as well, attending his six-year-old daughter Chelsea’s piano recitals.

    Point guard Charlie Ward hasn’t seen his domestic responsibilities increase since he has been idled by the lockout. “I’m used to cleaning up,” Ward said in a phone interview from his Stamford, Connecticut, home that was accompanied by the occasional clamor of pots and pans in the background.

    Ward says he has kept in shape working out and running the court with friends in recent months. But, echoing the sentiments of many of his teammates, he says “nothing’s going to be the same” as NBA competition. Ward, who is 28 years old, has spent much of his newfound free time involved in the charitable activities he plans to devote himself to more fully after his retirement. Last Friday, he appeared at a public school in the Bronx, where he gave a motivational speech to a group of youths. Ward says that the lockout has allowed him to oblige many more of the requests to make these kinds of appearances.

    Although Ward did not expect the NBA’s labor troubles to come to this, he says he makes it his business in life to be prepared for anything. To that end, he is philosophical about the disruption of his livelihood. “It’s giving me an opportunity to do other things, look at new avenues, and explore innovative ways of doing things. This situation should be a lesson to prepare yourself for hard times.”

    Despite Ward’s optimistic determination, the conversation turns quickly to talk of the lockout. Although he sympathizes with hoops fans whose needs aren’t being met at the moment, he supports the union’s hard-line negotiations stance. “We can’t pay for their [NBA owners] bad choices, they have to live with the consequences,” Ward says, referring to the league’s claims of financial difficulties.

    All the Knicks who spoke with the Voice said they were keeping close tabs on developments in negotiations. Williams, the former union president, says he even speaks frequently with his successor, Patrick Ewing, but has not taken an active role in the talks.

    For the moment, members of the Knicks are still hoping that they will get back to the business of basketball before the end of the year. When asked about a return to the court, Starks slips into locker-room mode: “It’s going to be my best season for the New York Knicks, mentally and physically,” Starks promises. “It will be the old John Starks, going aggressively to the basket.” Was there ever any other John Starks?

    Houston, meanwhile, isn’t making any prophecies about a bright Knicks future. Although he is excited to pick up where the team left off last spring, he isn’t looking to settle any old scores.

    “I think it’s time for everybody to start worrying about us instead of us worrying about them.”


    Urban Shooting

    The slow disintegration of the NBA season may have gripped the basketball cognoscenti, but such concerns don’t seem to be weighing too heavily on the minds of players at Basket ball City. The state-of-the-art indoor basketball facility on New York’s Pier 63, which often hosts the very players embroiled in the current labor dispute, is buzzing with established pros and up-and-comers looking for a good run. And as the management-imposed lockout continues, and more of the NBA schedule is wiped out, more of them will be heading to this heavenly playground to play in pick-up games and organized scrimmages. Last week, in the wake of the first-ever labor-induced cancellation of NBA contests, some of those pros were going full throttle on one of the facility’s six gleaming hardwood courts.

    There was Milwaukee Bucks guard and He Got Game star Ray Allen driving through the lane. As a knot of defenders converges in his path, Allen changes direction and then opts for the vertical route. He elevates, and with a smooth, sure flick of the wrist, sinks the basket. Nothing but net.

    Another play finds Detroit Pistons for ward and Bronx native Malik Sealy alone under the hoop. A quick-thinking teammate heaves a pass the length of the floor to Sealy, who seizes the moment with a decisive dunk.

    Play is hard on this court. There is no settling for lay-ups.

    Sealy is no less intense in response to the sound of a referee’s whistle when he is a little too aggressive about shaking off the tight defense of former San Antonio Spurs guard and New York playground legend Lloyd Daniels. “Nuh, uh. That’s our ball,” Sealy protests, arguing that Daniels was the one who committed the foul.

    “People at the Y don’t play like that,” remarks a spectator who has wandered over from another court to take advantage of one of the incidental benefits of playing pick-up here. It isn’t every day that you get to stand on the sideline and watch basketball’s most skilled artists at work, especially these days, when having courtside seats at the Garden only gets you a view of an empty arena.

    Basketball City, the only facility of its kind in New York, has emerged as something of a meeting ground for local hoops enthusiasts of every stripe. It is one of the few places in the region where NBA players, barred for the duration of the lockout from using team facilities, can work out and run the court with players of their own caliber. Owner Irv Landau says he spared no expense in constructing courts modeled after those in the NBA. The solid maple floors were laid over rubber matting to provide the courts with just the right amount of give, protecting worn knees from further strain. Forty-eight thousand watts of light and top-of-the-line glass backboards add to the facility’s professional feel. But unlike NBA venues, there is little room for spectating here. Everybody comes to play.

    Jim Couch, a well-known street coach who has been nurturing the talents of New York’s young players for more than 40 years, runs regular organized scrimmages here with his partner, Arnie Jacobs. A select group of for mer college stars and promising players from the CBA and international ranks run the court with a laundry list of well-established professionals that includes current and former Knicks Chris Childs, Charles Oakley, Mark Jackson, and Anthony Mason. These workouts have taken the place of NBA training camps for pros who want to stay in shape and aspiring young players looking to get noticed.

    But the vast majority of visitors to Basketball City are of a caliber more likely be found in the seats of an NBA arena, not on its court. Since opening in 1997, Basketball City has built a booming business on the huge market for extracurricular play. For $10 on weekdays and 15 on weekends, pick-up play minus the rickety rims and buckling blacktops of city playgrounds is open to anyone. Anyone, that is, who isn’t worried by the prospect of playing against the likes of New York Liberty’s Teresa Weatherspoon, who’s been known to join the mix during Basketball City’s open runs.

    Landau, himself a veteran of pick-up play, conceived Basketball City as a place for the player who doesn’t have the skills to dominate a playground court, not to mention a professional arena. Several years ago, Landau says that he and a group of friends—all middle-aged, well-to-do professionals—got tired of be ing manhandled by young bucks on the black top. The end result was Basketball City, what Landau calls his own “field of dreams,” where any basketball lover—man or woman, young or old—can play out their fantasies against a real-life backdrop.

    The bulk of Landau’s business is drawn from New York’s flourishing amateur leagues, which are bankrolled by corporate sponsors like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Nearly 100 teams, including 14 women’s teams, participate in year-round league competition that fills the courts on most weeknights. The club also runs a variety of youth programs, including after-school clinics and camps.

    Although corporations with deep pockets are Basketball City’s bread and butter, Landau isn’t looking to create an exclusive enclave for the wealthy. The pro-style scrimmages and youth programs at the facility account for a relatively small portion of revenues, but they contribute to the diversity of clientele that is essential to Landau’s vision. He is determined to remain true to basketball’s roots in New York’s playgrounds. That “street element” is “what basketball is all about,” says Landau.

    Basketball City’s pick-up games are only open to those who can afford the entrance fee, but the facility is working toward providing scholarships for its variety of programs for kids, soon to include a youth league.

    Landau is particularly proud of a program called Saturday Night Hoopla that Basketball City runs in conjunction with the New York City Housing Authority. For three hours every Saturday night, Basketball City opens its courts free of charge to about 100 youths from public housing projects in nearby Chelsea. Volunteer staff work with kids of all ages and skill levels, teaching them the game’s fundamentals, running drills, and keeping impromptu matches from degenerating into free-for-alls. Parents who accompany their children are free to use the club’s exercise equipment and watch the on-court antics from an adjoining room.

    Michael Vita, a 29-year-old with a passion for physical fitness, was one of several volunteer “coaches” presiding over Saturday Night Hoopla last weekend. He sees basketball as an opportunity to help the kids develop life skills. “If you can play ball, you can do anything in life. You learn to communicate with people, deal with many different personalities,” says Vita. His train of thought is interrupted by Erica, a 14-year-old girl with a tentative smile. In the three weeks since the program started, she’s blossomed from a shy presence on the sidelines to a confident player who doesn’t back down from a chance to run the court with the boys.

    “I was scared of the ball at first,” recalls Erica. “Now, I don’t care, I just want to play ball.”

    Many a visitor to Basketball City—NBA stars locked out of work, pick-up players looking to escape their work, and young players dreaming about making basketball their life’s work—could be heard echoing that sentiment in recent days.

    They all just want to play.

    “This is the mecca of basketball,” beams Shawn Grant, a bright-eyed Basketball City staffer who played guard and forward at Gar den City Community College in Kansas and still hopes to break into the professional ranks.

    Although Basketball City isn’t in the running quite yet to usurp Madison Square Gar den of its sacred legacy, it may help to fill a void as long as the hallowed granddaddy of the basketball world is idled by a tug-of-war over money and power. Those forces may be strong enough to grind the NBA to a halt, but they don’t carry much weight on the courts at Basketball City.


    Quiz Show

    It has long and often been noted that sports fans in New York are the best anywhere. As Yankee third baseman Scott Brosius said just last week after New York took a 2-0 lead over Texas in the American League division series, ”they’re the most knowledgeable.” But what happens, the Voice wondered, when you pit them against each other? Who wins the battle of wits among Gotham’s game-goers? The Voice has completed a yearlong, highly unscientific survey of local pro-sports fans, and, herewith, the illuminating results.

    Village Voice Sports Fan Iq Survey

    PROTOCOL: Quiz was handed to Mets, Yankees, Jets, Giants, Nets, Knicks, Rangers, and Islanders fans volunteering to take the test outside of each team’s arena or stadium. (New Jersey Devils fans were excluded based on the longevity of ”Potvin sucks!” and its critical importance to the relationship between Rangers and Islanders fans. Plus, who wants to go out to the Meadowlands again?) Where possible, attempts were made to distribute the quiz equally by ethnicity, race, and gender. Sample populations averaged 40 to 60 subjects per team. The general-knowledge test consisted of nine multiple-choice and short-answer questions, with topics ranging from history and literature to current events and basic math. In order to test each subject’s familiarity with his or her sport of choice, the final question (No. 10) was tailored to the event he or she was attending. That is, an individual on her way to a Mets game was asked a baseball question, the man outside Nassau Coliseum was queried about hockey, and so forth.

    1. What is the capital of New York?

    (a) New York City (b) Albany (c) Buffalo

    (d) Canarsie (e) Schenectady

    2. Who wrote the national anthem?

    (a) Betsy Ross (b) Andrew Lloyd Weber

    (c) Francis Scott Key (d) Irving Berlin (e) John Phillip Sousa

    3. What animal was Ahab hunting in Moby Dick?

    4. Who is the president of Russia?

    (a) Boris Badenov (b) Boris Karloff (c) Yakov Smirnoff (d) Boris Gudonov (e) Boris Yeltsin

    5. Who wrote the novel Tom Sawyer?

    (a) Col. Sanders (b) Geddy Lee (c) Mark Twain (d) John Wayne (e) Tom Sawyer

    6. What famous document was signed in 1787?

    (a) Magna Carta (b) Declaration of Independence (c) The U.S. Constitution (d) Monroe Doctrine (e) Treaty of Versailles

    7. What does MTA stand for?

    8. What is the square root of 9?

    (a) 0 (b) 2.6 (c) 3 (d) 18 (e) 81

    9. What are the three states of water?

    (a) solid, liquid, gas (b) ocean, lake, river (c) tap, bottled, purified (d) Florida, New York, California (e) two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen

    10. Baseball: Who has hit the most career homers in major-league history?

    Football: Who has rushed for the most career yards in NFL history?

    Basketball: Who has scored the most points in NBA history?

    Hockey: What team has won the most Stanley Cups in NHL history?

    (answers below)

    RESULTS: And graduating at the top of Gotham’s sports class are . . . Giants fans! Though the Big Blue faithful pulled out an average score of 81, a solid B-, their Meadowlands roomies were not far behind with 78, leading us to conclude that Giants and Jets fans are New York’s intellectual elite. Is it the swamp water? Or did tailgating–and the extra time the activity provided to deliberate difficult questions–give gridiron fans the edge? Though initially we thought the latter, the research team determined that the results retain their integrity when factoring in the confounding cerebral effects of imbibing copious amounts of wine (Giants) or liquor (Jets, Jack Daniels preferred).

    Interestingly, both Giants and Jets fans benefited greatly from knowledge of their sport. A respectable 76 percent of Gang Green groupies knew that Walter Payton had the most career rushing yards (16,726), while a full 83 percent of Giants fans answered the sports-related question correctly. In total, the football sample scored an average C-(70 and 72, respectively) without it, demonstrating particular vulnerability to history. To wit, 20 percent of Giants fans and 19 percent of Jets fans thought the Magna Carta was signed in 1787, apparently oblivious to almost six dull, Gifford- and Namath-free centuries.

    History, incidentally, proved a tough subject across the board. Over 80 percent of area athletics aficionados did not know that the United States Constitution was signed in 1787. However, researchers posited the possibility that the sample population was thrown off by wording of the question, as the document was not, in fact, ratified until 1789. Additionally, statistically significant numbers of respondents–22 percent of Yankee supporters, 24 percent of Mets patrons, and a staggering 36 percent of Islander enthusiasts–didn’t know that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

    Overall, test populations did well on the first half of the test, save the lone Yankee fan who thought Ahab was dogging a dog, though the second half proved more difficult. The toughest question on the test, numbers show, was No. 7 regarding the MTA–almost all participants (87 percent!) were stumped by it. It is unclear that this result indicates a tendency on the part of the sample at large toward private transportation, the determination of which is the goal of a projected follow-up study based on the continuing adventures of Juan and Marisol.

    Hockey fans, it should be noted, exhibited the most knowledge of their sport. The Islanders supporters were near the top in correctly responding to the sports question (82 percent), and the Rangers fans bested all others with a whopping 88 percent testifying to the fact that the Montreal Canadiens have won more Stanley Cups than any other NHL team. Ironically, the Rangers, though obviously intimate with ice, ranked lowest among respondents identifying the three states of water; nearly 25 percent picked ”two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.”

    Though not part of the primary objective, due to the study’s ordinal nature, researchers were able to identify the local franchise with the, for lack of a better word, dumbest fans. Not surprisingly, New York’s dumbest fans root for New Jersey. The Nets test group tallied the lowest averages with (77) and without (70) the sports question. Further, only half of those polled outside Brendan Byrne Arena were able to name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the NBA’s leading career point-scorer. For their part, Knicks fans fared even worse as a paltry 43 percent answered correctly. (A follow-up study to gauge the number of basketball fans who believe the NBA began with Michael Jordan in 1984 is in the planning stages.) Finally, it is worth noting that the poor showing on the part of Nets fans could be attributed to the small sample size. The researchers were prevented from completing their study of Nets fans when team officials halted the survey and demanded approval of the protocol. In order to preserve the integrity of results, the request was denied.

    COMMENTS: Though not part of the original aim of the study, the results provided some anecdotal evidence by which the research team was able to make some preliminary concurrent conclusions. For instance, Giants fans may have turned out to be the brightest, but they were also the meanest. As a group they demonstrated a pronounced lack of congeniality; the researchers were routinely rebuffed by cold stares and nonverbal refusals to participate. Additionally, Giants supporters tended to be old and white to a degree unseen in other test groups. Jets fans, by contrast, were New York’s nicest, often proferring food and beverage to researchers. They were not unaware of what set them apart from the city’s other football fans, noting that ”Giants fans are white collar. Jets fans are white trash by day, white trash by night.” In a coincidence that begs further study, Yankee respondents exhibited behavior almost identical to that of the Giants group, leading researchers to surmise a causal link between rudeness and calling Yankee Stadium home. Knickerbocker supporters were the most ethnically diverse; the research team was turned down in at least four different languages: English, Spanish, German, and French.

    TeamSample size Average scoreAverage score1 Pct.2
    Giants 60 81 72 83
    Yankees 37 77 70 73
    Knicks 42777343
    Rangers 59 76 67 88
    Mets 55 74 67 67
    Total 371 77 70 74

    1 average score without sports question

    2 percentage answering sports question correctly

    Research assistance by Tim Smith

    ANSWERS 1. (b) 2. (c) 3. whale 4. (e) 5. (c) 6. (c) 7. Metropolitan Transportation Authority 8. (c) 9. (a) 10. baseball: Hank Aaron (755) football: Walter Payton (16,726) basketball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) hockey: Montreal Canadiens (23)


    Lockout Lookout

    On a recent September evening at Madison Square Garden, it might have been the height of basketball season. An impressive lineup of NBA stars had assumed their positions on the court. The giant video screen flashed overhead, carefully programmed to punctuate every development in the game. And the prosperous white men in suits had even turned up to stake their claims to prime courtside real estate.

    On the opposite side of the court, spectators in wheelchairs filled the first few rows, prized perches normally occupied by distinguished season-ticket holders like Woody Allen and Spike Lee. It was a reminder, along with the hundreds of empty seats dotting the arena, that this was no regular NBA game.

    The occasion was the fifth annual New York All-Star Basketball Classic, a showcase contest whose roster included hometown favorites John Starks, Stephon Marbury, and Chris Mullin, playing alongside flashy young stars like Kevin Garnett and Jerry Stackhouse. Proceeds from ticket sales would benefit Wheelchair Charities, Inc., a nonprofit organization that raises money for paraplegic and quadriplegic patients at Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island. A typical off-season event, it was an opportunity for the league and its players to demonstrate their community involvement.

    But with a three-month-old lockout posing a genuine threat to the upcoming NBA season for the first time in the league’s 52-year history, these familiar sights and sounds seemed an unfair tease. (At press time, the NBA had postponed training camps indefinitely and canceled the first week of preseason games. And though the NBA just offered the union a new proposal last Friday, by most accounts, the regular season is unlikely to begin on schedule in November.)

    The standoff between the NBA and its players comes down to a dispute over how to divvy up the spoils from one of the most lucrative commercial ventures in the history of American sports. Since 1984, when David Stern was named commissioner, the league has quadrupled its annual revenues, in part on the strength of marketing and media ventures that have lifted pro basketball to unprecedented worldwide popularity. The NBA’s extraordinary success relies heavily on a power dynamic that over the last decade has allowed the league to manipulate the images of its basketball players with the goal of maximizing their commercial value. For their part, players have realized that their appeal is what’s making basketball sell so well and have for the first time begun to show signs of chafing under the NBA’s tight strictures. In addition to trying to rein in player salary costs, the NBA has also made player conduct an issue in the current negotiations. In the wake of Latrell Sprewell’s attack on P.J. Carlesimo and controversies over marijuana use among players, the league has proposed new contract clauses aimed at regulating player behavior on and off the court.

    In a sense, the fight over money and morality is simply providing a stage for the league and the players to act out a power struggle.

    Jim McIlvaine, a center for the Seattle Supersonics, is on the players’ union negotiating committee and secretary-treasurer of the executive committee. In a recent interview, he characterized the labor dispute this way: “People ask me all the time what the real sticking point in negotiations is. They say, ‘Is it the money or is it the marijuana thing?’ I tell them, ‘You know, it really all comes down to control. The owners want more of it and the players want more independence.’ ”

    From the NBA perspective, the biggest issue is the proportion of revenues going to player salaries. According to the league, player payroll ate up 57 percent of the ’97-98 NBA income. League officials say 15 of the 29 teams are not making a profit, blaming skyrocketing salaries. A contract provision known as the Larry Bird exception is partly why players can demand so much money. It permits teams to exceed the league-wide salary cap that otherwise limits each team’s total annual payroll to $26.9 million in order to re-sign certain players who are near the end of their contracts. In 1997, the Bird exception meant that the Chicago Bulls could pay Michael Jordan a reported $33 million. The Minnesota Timberwolves took advantage of the same loophole before the start of last season to sign Kevin Garnett to the biggest NBA multiyear contract yet, a six-year deal worth a reported $126 million. The players have steadfastly refused to discuss the elimination of the Bird exception, a move they say would unfairly deprive them of their ability to earn their market value.

    On a bench after the benefit game, Stephon Marbury hunkers down for the press barrage. After two years at point guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the 21-year-old has combined prolific basketball skills and unyielding determination to negotiate the path from a playground in Coney Island to the NBA. The public, he says, has misconstrued the NBA players’ position as “greedy.” The dispute is not over player demands for higher salaries, he says, but their right to negotiate based on their value to a team. (An end to the Bird exception would effectively impose a ceiling on players’ salary increases, regardless of their on-court contributions or their ability to fill arenas with paying customers.)

    Marbury pauses, “I mean, Jerry Seinfeld makes $225 million a year and nobody’s saying nothing about that.”

    There is little doubt that Marbury has a thorough grasp of the free-market principles that won him a three-year, $5.67-million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1996. Throughout his conversation with reporters, Marbury’s hands are in constant motion as an incessant stream of young autograph seekers thrusts event programs at him to sign. In the open market, the signature he just penned is worth hundreds of dollars. But Marbury, and most other NBA stars, gives away signatures for free. Perhaps the idea of some enterprising youngster making a few bucks off his autograph isn’t as troubling to him as the NBA spawning his image into millions of dollars in revenue, and then pleading poverty at the negotiating table.

    Of course, the players’ astronomical market value is in large measure the product of NBA commissioner David Stern’s legendary marketing prowess. A profile of the commissioner posted on the NBA’s official Web site highlights his instrumental role in the development of the lucrative NBA Properties, the league’s marketing arm, and NBA Entertainment. The NBA, in its haste to capitalize on the players’ images, may have helped create its own monster.

    “People rave about David Stern’s marketing genius. Well he’s spent the last year doing an incredible job trashing the images of NBA players,” observed a player advocate who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

    Beyond the debate over free-market economics, legitimate questions remain about the extent of the NBA’s financial difficulties. Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, argued in a recent New York Times op-ed that the NBA has overstated its money problems.

    “Basketball is profitable,” Zimbalist told the Voice. “They [the NBA] don’t have much to stink about.” He further suggested that some teams could be doing what amounts to “cooking the books.” Because so many teams own arenas and media outlets, they can channel team income into these other holdings in order to make it appear the teams are losing money.

    Earlier this month, just weeks after walking out of a negotiating session with players over what Stern called “insulting” proposals, the NBA opened a flagship retail store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The NBA, Stern says in a press release, “will utilize every asset within the NBA organization to make the flagship store an exciting and unforgettable experience for customers.” Occupying some 35,000 square feet, the building boasts a split-level, state-of-the-art design.

    In the midst of pleading poverty to the players, a number of teams have signed coaches and other top-level management personnel to lucrative multiyear deals. In August, the Milwaukee Bucks signed new coach George Karl to a four-year, $20-million deal–42 percent more than he was getting with the Seattle Sonics, who fired him this summer. Although the average player salary for the 1997-98 season is between $2.2 and $2.6 million (just under the $3 million coaches’ average), union records show at least 110 players earn less than $1 million a year. As commissioner, Stern earns a reported $8 million annually. The NBA did not respond to a request for more details on its finances or negotiating position.

    The NBA’s finances could get a whole lot worse if it loses the arbitration currently pending. By October 19, NBA nemesis John Feerick (he ruled against the NBA in the Sprewell arbitration) will decide if the league has to pay $800 million to a group of players who have guaranteed contracts. The players filed a grievance against the NBA in June, alleging that it could not legally withhold their pay during the lockout.

    Regardless of which side prevails, the showdown’s significance seems best measured not in the implausible amounts of money at issue, but in the degree to which the NBA loosens its tight-fisted grip on the notion that its players are nothing more than a product.


    Getting Technical

    The NBA may be locked out, the start of the 1998­/99 season may be in jeopardy, but for the Knicks City Dancers, the show must go on. At nine o’clock Tuesday morning, about 500 knee-pad­clad hopefuls will sign up for a grueling day of jiggy steps, Power Bars, and hair tossing, all for the chance of being one of the 30 finalists in the Knicks City Dancers (KCD) eighth annual tryouts. In the end, 14 will survive, earning their spot on the Garden floor and a place in the hearts of adolescent Knicks fans everywhere.

    “Right now, [the lockout] is not affecting us,” says KCD director Petra Pope. “We’re just moving forward in the hopes that everything is cleared up by November. We have to be prepared.”

    She’s not kidding. For a KCD, an average week means two three-hour rehearsals and two to three games, during which they’ll perform about four times. Add to that up to five personal appearances–at raffle drawings, autograph signings, restaurant openings–and “it can get tiring,” says third-year captain, fifth-year dancer Jaclyn Brooke. “But you have to push yourself to be the best. It’s a lot of commitment.” Brooke, who graduated from New Jersey’s Kean College last August with a degree in adult fitness, calls being on the team “very rewarding.”

    Intrinsically, that is. It’s certainly not financially rewarding. The (nonunion) dancers get $90 a game, $60 a rehearsal, which might explain all those personal appearances and a team-run summer camp (see sidebar). Yes, they are the NBA’s highest-paid dancers, “but this is New York,” notes Pope, “it’s expensive.” A raise, she says, “is in the works.”

    While dancing for the Knickerbockers might not be very remunerative, there are other perks, KCDs say. For one, you can’t beat the exposure. “It’s a little bit easier to get on a list at a club,” Brooke acknowledges, and “it’ll help get your foot in the door of a closed audition.” According to Pope, most KCDs go to school or have other dance-related jobs, so they appreciate the gig’s consistency and flexibility. Plus, says dancer Angela Phillips, “it’s a great way to stay in shape.”

    True enough. By the end of the season, the dancers will have 30 different numbers in their repertoire, says Pope. The Knicks fans are a varied bunch–something she takes into account in her musical selections. “Per game, we do one hip hop, one techno, one rock, and one oldies number,” shesays. “We try to appease everyone by mixing it up.”

    According to the dancers, public perception is positive.

    “They perceive us as high-energy dancers,” says Phillips. “High-energy professional dancers. You can tell the difference when people have technical training and when they don’t.”

    And that’s what it takes to be a KCD. “Before we know that you can hip hop, jazz, funk, and get down,” Brooke says, “we want to know you have eight years technical training.”

    The Big Apple got its first taste of the KCDs back in 1991, when Pat Riley, in his attempt to bring his Los Angeles “Showtime” to the world’s most famous arena, also brought Pope. And besides her KCD duties, she currently directs squads for the Liberty and City Hawks.

    “The initial response was shock,” recalls Pope. “I think there was the fear that it would be just a cheerleading pom-pom squad, not talent. But then people saw how much a part of the community we were and that they were talented dancers. Their popularity is not something that happened overnight, it’s something I’m proud to say we earned.”

    Today, says Pope, “we are part of the entertainment package. We’re everywhere–grand openings, bar mitzvahs, schools. We were on MTV’s Road Rules, and when you’re on Road Rules, you know you’ve evolved.”

    According to Garden sources, the squad might further its evolution by hiring the first male KCD this year. “Every year we have interest from men,” Brooke notes, “and it would add a lot to our abilities as a team.” It’s a move that would definitely make headlines, perhaps even more so than last year’s Heather Errico debacle.

    If there’s a Knicks equivalent to the celebrity status of former Laker Girl Paula Abdul, it’s Errico. While other KCDs have gone on to Cats and The King and I, it was the seven-year vet who made gossip columns after she resigned in March, when a caller to the Howard Stern show announced that Errico was having an affair with Patrick Ewing. As the allegation aired, a stupefied Errico sat silent; Stern ended the interview.

    So what about player-dancer relationships? Is there a KCD code? “With any job there’s a certain professional protocol,” says Pope. “It’s made very clear that we’re there for the fans and to be professional. There are no set rules other than to be a professional.”

    As captain, Brooke is exempt, as is her co-captain, but the other KCDs wishing to keep their spot on the squad will be at the Garden on Tuesday morning trying out with everyone else. According to Pope, about five new dancers are added each season.

    “It’s a long day,” says Brooke of sifting through 500 wannabes. “It can get very emotional–especially toward the end.” (The girl on Road Rules cried when she didn’t make the cut.)

    But there are those who persevere. “I remember this girl who didn’t make it,” says Brooke. “She came up to me afterwards and asked why. I said, ‘Truthfully, it’s because you didn’t smile.’ When you dance in front of 20,000 people, you gotta smile.”

    Later, at another audition, she’d turned her frown upside-down; she made the squad. “I asked her what happened,” Brooke recalls. “She said she went home and practiced and worked on it in front of a mirror, dancing and smiling at the same time.”

    Says Phillips, who auditioned twice before making the squad, “Tryouts are a great experience–nerve-wracking, but great. You learn so much about the squad and yourself.”

    A former dancer for the Cincinnati Bengals, Phillips finds the KCDs more of a challenge than high-kicking it at football games.

    “The level of dance between the two is different. [The NFL] is more like cheerleading because we actually had pom-poms and did chants on the sidelines. They’re two different styles, neither one better than the other. It’s definitely warmer in the NBA–there’s no snow or rain.”

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    “For the second straight summer, local hot-steppers had the opportunity to sign up for Knicks City Dancer Boot Camp, a two-day event held in the Bronx, Long Island, and the Meadowlands, taught by actual KCDs. Attendees’ résumés ranged from high school kick squads to longtime professionals looking for a way to break in with the KCDs. All it takes is $175 and a dream ($225 for overnighters).

    “Decked in fatigue-style Spandex, the KCDs race through registration, hand out the requisite free crap, and get to work. After just 20 minutes of a warm-up session the feeble trickle toward the back of the dance line while the defeated drop like flies.

    “The camp is divided into three “companies” (K, C, and D), according to ability. For the next 36 hours campers attempt to master such KCD numbers as “Raise the Roof,” “Ghetto Superstar,” and “Run, Forrest, Run.” (KCD numbers are frequently named for the accompanying tune, director Petra Pope explains. “Like, if the song is ‘Get Jiggy With It,’ we’ll just call it ‘Jiggy.’ ‘All That Jazz’ was ‘All That Jazz.'”

    “In between ball-changes and jiggy steps, the KCDs fill their time meeting campers and discussing everything from how they got started with the KCDs to what makes a good high-carb lunch. “One of the great things is that we’re able to meet our fans one-on-one,” says KCD captain Jaclyn Brooke.

    “Only one camper has ever gone on to become a KCD, and she ultimately had to leave the squad when she couldn’t learn all the numbers. “The level of the camp is not as high,” says Pope. “Being a professional dancer is not everything in the world,” says Brooke. “It’s being very well rounded in several areas. I try to get that across. The most important thing is to stay real, to try to be real.” –H.Z.U.