TO: David Stern, NBA Commissioner
RE: Fan Interest
Your worries are over.
Remember all that hand wringing you did about the future of the NBA? Who would take Michael Jordan’s place? How could you follow that act? Would any team ever stir as much rock ‘n’ roll interest as the Chicago Bulls?
Done deal. After one game of the NBA Finals, it’s already clear that the Lakers can do to the Bulls what Elvis did to Pat Boone.
Let me say this right here: The Lakers will be bigger than the Bulls in about the time it takes Nike to film a commercial. As soon as they win this championship — and unless Shaq breaks both legs, both arms and the team plane, that’s a foregone conclusion — the marketing, movie-casting and other star-making forces will jump so hard on this bandwagon, the wheels will disappear into the dirt.
You thought Chicago had a following? Break it down. The Bulls had one action hero (Jordan), one cartoon character (Dennis Rodman) and one stoic who was only big because of Jordan’s spotlight (Scottie Pippen) — plus a cast of chorus-liners that could have been anywhere, and after Jordan left, quickly were.
The Lakers? They already have an action hero (Kobe Bryant), a cartoon character (Shaquille O’Neal), a stoic (A.C. Green, who I believe is still abstaining from sex, which may explain the very serious look on his face). They also have a gunner (Glen Rice), a wily veteran (Ron Harper) and a GQ cover model (Rick Fox, who is married to former Miss America Vanessa Williams. Question: Did we ever know anyone who was married to a Chicago Bull, except Rodman, who once married himself?)
The Lakers also have the Bulls’ zen-master coach, Phil Jackson. And that crowd? It has more Hollywood stars than brunch in Santa Monica.
We never said that in Chicago. Who came to a Bulls game? Bill Murray? And half the time, he doesn’t even look like Bill Murray.
Meanwhile, every night in Los Angeles, it’s the Oscars lobby. Jack Nicholson. Dustin Hoffman. Denzel Washington. Don’t you love when NBC pans from one star to the next, as Bob Costas announces their presence?
It’s like roll call at Beverly Hills High.
Listen to what Salley says
For further weight to my argument, I went to center John Salley, who won a championship with Jordan in Chicago, and is now backing up Shaquille O’Neal. I asked Salley whether the Lakers could be bigger than the Bulls.
“The Lakers have always been bigger than the Bulls,” he answered. “The Bulls came from a nothing tradition until Michael. The Lakers are just going back to where they once were.
“They had Showtime here. They had Magic. Even before that, they were playing for championships.
“You watch. Shaq will get his title at 28 — same age as Michael got his first one. And Kobe? He’s a handsome kid, like Jordan, and he’s got Jordanesque moves. He’s just like Michael, only he doesn’t stick his tongue out.”
And, oh yeah, he’s only 21.
Now, Dave. I’ve heard the talk. “Michael was unique. Michael transcended the game. No one will ever approach his status.”
Yeah. Well. That may be the recording on David Falk’s answering machine, but it doesn’t make it so.
Don’t forget, when Jordan won his first championship, he wasn’t anywhere near the icon he is now. The god Jordan grew into was a result of accumulated championships and very careful marketing. Remember the early Nike commercials, by Spike Lee? All Jordan did was stand there and dunk. Never said a word.
His handlers watched this work, and Jordan became the great silent hero. Sneakers. Soft drinks. Underwear. His image was everywhere; his voice was not. Even now, Jordan is, as John Wayne once said of himself, “not an actor, but a reactor.”
You don’t think you can do that with Kobe? Come on. You don’t think Shaq will be selling everything from diapers to weed killer? Gimme a break. You don’t think Rice can be bigger than Steve Kerr? You don’t think Fox can get his own sitcom on …Fox?
Watch for the gold and purple
Let me put this simply, Dave. You have, in the Lakers, the next America’s Team. Every free agent will want to play for them. Every media outlet will want a feature story.
Opposing fans will come out to peek. They will gape at Shaq, who is, let’s face it, the Incredible Hulk. They will coo at Kobe, who is far ahead of where Jordan was at the same age. Even the Lakers’ gold and purple uniforms will carry a certain magic, like the star on the Cowboys helmet, or the pinstripes on the Yankees uniforms.
And, as with the Cowboys and Yankees, the number of fans who love them will be matched only by the number who hate them. That’s what you want, Dave. Equal parts yin and yang. It all adds up to a very big audience.
So all this worrying about the NBA becoming passe, losing its appeal, turning off the young fans? Forget it, Commish. You’re home free.
Of course, this is one small detail:
They have to win.
Then again, after what the refs did to ensure that in the Portland series, I don’t suppose this will be too big a problem.
See you at Spago’s …
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).