The NBA's new season is underway--does anybody care?

Despite its repeated attempts at suicide, what passes for the National Basketball Association is still around. It actually started its season a couple of weeks back when nobody was looking. Or caring.

It's a shame, really. What used to be the best-run sports league in America no longer is. What used to be "must-see" sports television is now "maybe I'll watch it when they get to the third round of the playoffs." What used to be a showcase for magnificently talented athletes playing a game of speed, strength and exquisite teamwork is now little more than an extended commercial for a hip-hop world where style always triumphs over substance, and winning is shoved aside by stats and personal entourages.

Some Weekly readers might shake their heads and mutter, "This isn't a sports page," but you have to understand that a lot of people gain early life lessons from sports.

They used to be good lessons; now, they're not. When I was growing up, the NBA taught me that blacks and whites could work together, without animosity, towards a common goal. I learned that being the superior athlete (Wilt Chamberlain) didn't guarantee success against someone who was more focused and more determined (Bill Russell). And I learned that teamwork was a beautiful thing that allowed five like-minded people to overcome all kinds of obstacles.

Today's NBA teaches kids that college is for chumps, that young, rich guys apparently can't start and operate their own vehicles, and that hard work is for people who have real jobs.

Among the things to note about this season:

· The NBA averted a strike earlier this year when several hundred young millionaires woke up one day and said, "What the hell's wrong with us?" Fans generally used to side with players in such disputes, but such is no longer the case, since salaries have skyrocketed.

This will show you just how stupid some NBA players are: One of the sticking points in the negotiations was whether the NBA should ban the practice of having players jump right into the league from high school. Over the past decade, the league's product has been diluted by such players who possess incredible individual skills, but can't play the team game worth a damn. It's legal to do this if the union agrees; it's been part of the NFL for decades.

Now the logical person will see that such a rule would benefit players already in the league, both by making the game a better product and, on an individual basis, by allowing veterans to stay in the league another year or two without losing their lucrative jobs to an 18-year-old. But the geniuses in the union fought the proposal tooth and nail, and some players even labeled it as "racist."

· The NBA has instituted a public dress code for its players when they are in work-related situations (arriving at arenas, post-game press conferences, etc.). This hasn't gone over particularly well. Some players have labeled it as "racist."

The dress code is incredibly mild. They don't care if the players show up dressed like Cosmo Kramer in his Technicolor velvet pimp coat; they just don't want sandals and torn jeans.

The most outspoken (although it's often difficult to tell if he is being so in English) is Allen Iverson, the poster child for ballin' and livin' the thug life. Iverson, a spectacularly talented athlete, went to prison in high school for starting a riot. After he got out, then-Georgetown coach John Thompson sold his college's integrity to get Iverson to play for the Washington, D.C., school. Iverson played a year and, during that time, went to class a total of one or fewer times. Then he went into the NBA, where he has become fabulously wealthy by taking a lot of shots and scoring a lot of points, but not winning dookie.

He still hasn't mastered that obeying-the-law thing and has barely stayed out of jail, but is nevertheless the idol of millions of Eminem clones. He showed up to complain about the dress code in a do-rag, a sideways baseball cap and clothes several sizes too big for him. Hey, if dressing like a slob is a racial thing, then call me Tom X.

Oh yeah, Marcus Camby, who has a $45 million contract, says that the league should give players a clothing allowance to help them comply with the dress code.

· Finally, the league is being overrun by foreign (mostly white) players who grow up actually practicing things other than the dunk. These players can dribble, pass and shoot the mid-range jump shot. There was an aborted movement to try to limit the number of such players on NBA rosters. Some current players labeled the trend toward foreign players as "racist."

So, the league has started. I hope the Suns win a lot of games, because they play team basketball, and some of it might rub off on young fans. Meanwhile, I'll tune in, in May, after the college season is long over and my only choices are the NBA playoffs or (ugh) early season baseball.

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