Heirless Jordan

Even in his absence, Jordan rules. At least, that’s one way of reading the final numbers from the just-concluded five-game NBA finals. The first game featured the lowest Game One ratings since 1986; the second garnered the second-lowest ratings in the 21 years that the finals have been on in prime time; and even the third game, which had the best overall, had the lowest Game Three ratings since 1990. Overall, ratings were down about 35 percent from last year, and the drop-off was most noticeable among kids and women. In other words, the crossover audience that Michael Jordan appealed to (not that he didn’t appeal to hardcore basketball fans, of course).

It’s a sad comment on the state of network television today that despite these paltry numbers, the finals allowed NBC to stay tied with CBS in last week’s ratings contest. But it’d be surprising to hear that NBC, which is shelling out hundreds of millions for the NBA, was content with these numbers, which throw into sharp relief the problems caused by Jordan’s departure at the end of last season.

At least from one angle they do. From another angle, what the numbers really underscore is just how uninteresting the Knicks-Spurs matchup was. The truth is that the NBA came back surprisingly strongly this year after a disastrous strike. Attendance was solid, TV ratings during the year were good (if not stellar), and a host of bright young stars emerged. Jason Williams and Chris Webber in Sacramento, Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, and Allan Iverson in Philadelphia all have the skills and the style to become true household names, while Tim Duncan of San Antonio may already be the best player in basketball after just two years in the league.

Now, it’d be foolish to say that any of these players is going in any sense to take Jordan’s place. Jordan truly was a unique phenomenon, both in terms of his play on the court and his relentless marketing off the court. The NBA may not have been only about Jordan, but in those last few years, it was hard to believe that anyone else really mattered, just like it was impossible to believe that any team other than the Bulls could win.

In that sense, the NBA should look at this season as the first step in its attempt to reclaim its identity, to create a whole new crop of stars while making sure not to become too dependent on any one of them. (Perhaps an impossible task, given the recent Bird-Magic-Jordan history of the league.) Unfortunately, the finals were an especially bad showcase for the NBA. The Spurs, while obviously terrific, are not all that fun to watch, with the exception of Duncan kissing another one off the glass. And the Knicks, well, outside of New York was there anyone in America who liked this team?

It’s traditionally the case that having a New York team in a championship series is a good thing for ratings. The New York market is obviously huge, and New York-hating has always been an honored national pastime. But the two worst-rated NBA series of this decade were New York-Houston in 1994 and New York-San Antonio in 1999, and that’s not just because Jordan wasn’t in either. It’s also because the Knicks in this decade have been almost painfully boring to watch. That changed a little bit at the end of this season, once Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby got more playing time. But even then, the parade of Chris Dudleys, Charlie Wards, and Larry Johnsons the Knicks had on the floor at any one time raised a simple question: Why is New York so in love with mediocrity?

I guess I always thought of New York as a place that worshipped greatness and extraordinary performance. You know, “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.” But for the entire 1990s the Knicks have almost reveled in their lack of talent, preferring instead to exalt their toughness and their plodding, grinding style. As long as Jordan was around, it didn’t cost the NBA much to have one of its largest-market teams devoted to the virtues of mediocrity. But going forward, you can bet the NBA is hoping that something changes in the Garden. Another appearance by this kind of New York team in the finals and you’ll be looking at ratings that trail the Jamie Foxx Show.