"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 25 June 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Sudden Death Benefit



Unless it's playoffs time, we

geeky writer types tend neither

to know nor to care that much

about roundball. Partly it's

our feeling of disenfranchisement:

the Marv Albert double standard.

By most accounts the best

broadcaster in basketball, Marv

had a renowned bit of rough

fun with his girlfriend a couple

of years back; today he is

exhiled to the far end of the

TV dial. Then there's Latrell

Sprewell, a good-not-great

forward for the Golden State

Warriors, who assaulted

his coach; two years and

a change of clothes later,

he's on national TV, in a

month-long canonization for

playing a decent game of New

York hoops. We haven't been

treated like second-class

citizens this way since high

school or maybe college or, OK,

that first awkward transitional

year after college. That first

18 months or so.


In fairness, we realize the bias

has something to do with the

hair. We think it was Gertrude

Stein who once almost quipped,

"A weave is a weave is a

weave" — but then she didn't

know 1990s basketball. Latrell's

is the coif of a well-groomed

hip-hop star from 2004, both

totally badass and remarkably

pretty. He's a man you just want

to watch. Where Spree's 'do says

"gangsta gangsta," though,

Marv's virtually cries "lawya

lawya," and it's vintage 1984.

It's about as telegenic as a

damp nutria.



Yet when the quarter-finals

kick in, we forgive Latrell and

forget about Marv. Like

media-whores everywhere, we love

a good news peg. A championship

is an answer to the eternally

nagging editorial question, "Why

this, why now?" With its

dramatic finality, it's an

excuse to care — something on

which a story can be hung. It's

not the whole picture, however;

hometown patriotism still accounts

for a sizable portion of fan

interest. (Someone at NBC was

surely weeping each time the San

Antonio Spurs, representing the

league's smallest television

market, advanced another round —

just as hard as they laughed

every time the Knicks stole yet

another playoff game on a weird

ref call.) What fan of the

widely injured Knicks didn't

secretly start the series with a

forlorn hope for a dramatic

finale, in which legendary

casualty Willis Reed might

shamble down from the bleachers

at age 57 and lead New York to a

stunning Game 7 victory? But

fantasies are only part of it.

What makes most people watch, in

the end, is that it's the end.


This was to be the winter of the

true basketball believers'

discontent — a strike-shortened

loyalty test. And maybe some

particularly rabid hoop hounds

did regret the absence of the

first few dozen games. But not

us. With the entire season being

little more than a sprint for

the finish line, each game took

on an almost desperate

importance, proof of the

sunshine fan's maxim that only

the second half is really worth

watching. Even the players got

into the mood. As Sacramento

Kings forward Chris Webber told

one chat-room fan, "Actually, I

like [the shortened season]

better. It's more competitive,

and every game means something."


It worked so well, in fact, that

we're thinking it ought to be

more than a one-time thing. We

predict lockout seasons will

soon be the preferred mode for

America's favorite pastimes.

Regular schedules should last

just long enough for fans to get

familiar with their hometown's

newly signed free agents — and

then cut to the sudden death.



This new schedule offers

financial as well as dramatic

benefits. Any fan worth his

beer nuts knows a team's most

important strategic challenge

is working within its salary

cap; any 48-minute contest is

as much a show about general

managers' skills in allocating

their talent portfolios as it is

about field-goal percentages.

With finance being such an

important part of the game, the

numbers in the league's checkbooks

are as legitimate a part of the

story as the numbers on its

scoreboards. As Calvin Coolidge

never really said, "The business

of basketball is business."


Thus, what basketball needs is

to institutionalize the very

handy innovation the strike

season forced on us: an autumn

"Business Period" ("strike" is

so prole) that could replace the

traditional season's "first

half," a convention that now

seems, at best, quaint. Hoops

journalists would cover the BP

as part of their regular beats.

This would merely formalize the

ongoing convergence of sports

writing and business writing; as

the jock pages talk more about

the bucks, business rags

take on the style and macho

swagger of sports sections. Show

me the money, indeed.



The idea that total sports

saturation could be achieved

through expansion teams and

additional networks alone — with

apparel lines, restaurant

chains, and guest appearances

treated at best as ancillary

products — has always been

misguided. And in the NBA, whose

content providers are the most

entrepreneurial in pro sports,

it's become an economic

handicap. Personal brand

building takes time. A full

schedule of on-court

appearances, especially during

the critical holiday season,

seriously dilutes Dream Teamers'

ability to cash in. The Business

Period would provide more time

for line extension and good

works. During the fall/winter

sabbatical, Karl Malone could

work on his Mailman graphic

novel. Shaq could lay down

madder rhymes and polish that

Steel 2 treatment. Rasheed

Wallace could more effectively

plug his Hoops restaurant on his

radio show; David Robinson

could quietly pursue that peerage

he so richly deserves.


Obviously the concept scales to

other sports, the idea always

being that you can never get to

sudden death quickly enough.

Baseball would begin after a BP

of its own, which would last

until what's now the clumsy old

All-Star Break. That would leave

a 50-game regular season just

long enough to let each of the

teams check each other out for

one two-game series. Then it

would be on to the playoffs.

Wimbledon would stop having so

damn many people in it, and the

fans at the Indy 100 would be

able to get in and out of the

infield in the time it takes to

watch a sitcom.


Now, it's true that franchise

owners, who'd lose ticket sales

in a shortened season, would

have to be compensated in some

way. We suggest that the first

BP be dedicated to working out

the terms of this deal. One

place to start would be to cut

owners in on their players'

increased endorsements,

advertising, and

personal-appearance income. In

return for their late-year

freedom, the players ought to be

willing to give something back.


In the manly world of athletic

fandom, this would be the malest

move possible: scratch the

foreplay and cut to the chase.

Sports fans have an unstoppable

closure jones. The end never

comes early enough. You always

wish it came sooner.


This time, you get your wish.

courtesy of Johnny Cache

[Purchase the Suck Book here]