Sat, Jun 11, 2005 - Page 20 News List

Hard hats battle internationals for title

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS

Behold, a series about basketball.

An NBA finals that features two fundamentally sound, feud-free, egalitarian, egos-in-check teams with leading men who don't dominate their casts as much as they support them.

A finals that matches a hard-hat union from the industrial heartland defending its championship and, in a larger sense, American-born honor against the internationally flavored blend of Tim Duncan from the US Virgin Islands, Manu Ginobili from Argentina and Tony Parker from France.

But can a league that has conditioned its audience by blurring the line between pop culture and sport really flourish presenting opera without soap?

"True basketball enthusiasts, who know how the game should be played, I think they will love it," guard Lindsey Hunter said before the indefatigable Ginobili drew first blood, scoring 22 of his 26 points in the second half and powering the Spurs to an series-launching victory, 84-69, Thursday night at the SBC Center. "Other people that want, you know, the star-studded, all the underlying stories and all that, they probably won't be too intrigued."

In other words, all celebrity-seeking sycophants, who wouldn't know a back door from a drop step, be forewarned: For the next couple of weeks, the topic of discussion will be nuts and bolts, not LeBron.

Where have all the primary shoe pitchmen gone? Home to watch on television, lest they swell the ranks of couch-potato Americans who are expected to pass on the series or just pass out. Once again, the finals are on a Sunday-Tuesday-Thursday rotation, leaving the audience in the Eastern part of the US with pretty much the same choice as Europe: Go to work or school the next day with bags under the eyes, or just bag it.

Too bad, for no matter how few points the Pistons and the Spurs eventually score, no one will be able to accuse them of not earning their millions -- a point worth considering as it has become clear that the glitzy, fawn-over-me formula championed in recent years by the commissioner and chief choreographer David Stern has worn woefully thin. Across the board, NBA television ratings this spring have taken a plunge, along with merchandising sales.

Bloomberg News recently reported that fan focus groups operated on behalf of the league by Matthew Dowd, a key strategist in President Bush's re-election campaign, indicate a significant disconnect.

The melee at the Palace of Auburn Hills in November obviously didn't help, but could this also be a byproduct of longstanding attempts to camouflage what many saw as a diminished product with promotional gimmickry?

Is it possible that the NBA has been too busy focusing on upscale demographics and is now suffering the effects for neglecting and even pricing out its core fans?

On the eve of the series, Rasheed Wallace concurred with Hunter that it wasn't going to be eye candy for the beautiful people, and he included the corporate executives in the home office. "I think that's what they're worried about," Wallace said.

"Here in this series, there's no real stars; there's team unity."

Wallace has had his share of objectionable outbursts but that wasn't one of them. At long last, somebody has spoke out for the fan who has never needed or wanted pregame explosions of fire and shrieking public-address announcers, who has never gone to an NBA arena hoping for a faux hip-hop experience, a staged equivalent of Woody Allen directing "Boyz n the Hood."

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