Nifty Fifty

The Best-Run Sports League In The World Goes Gold.
By Tom Danehy

THE NATIONAL BASKETBALL Association is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It's the best-run, most efficient professional sports league in the world, and it's on the verge of turning what was once an American inner-city pastime into a global passion.

Danehy There is much that's right about the NBA. It's the only American pro league never to have a work stoppage. It was one of the first to integrate its teams, and it did so without any fanfare or uproar. It had the first black coach and led (and still leads) in integrating the front offices of franchises. It is now international and will probably be the first to expand worldwide.

There are some downsides to the NBA. The season is too long. The players talk way too much shit, and do so in such (an unpunished) way that it trickles down to the lower levels of basketball and distorts the game. And, while the NBA was the vanguard in player salary sanity, instituting a league-saving salary cap back in the 1980s, it now appears to have lost its way, with salaries going through the roof and no end in sight.

This hasn't stopped the league from congratulating itself on its first 50 years. Last week, to kick off the season, the NBA released a list of its best 50 players of all time.

The only name I object to is Shaquille O'Neal. What has this guy shown us in his four years in the league? That he raps worse than Vanilla Ice? Maybe he stands out in that regard. That he can score when he gets within three feet of the basket? Bob Dole could score from that range. That he can out-rebound Sean Rooks? Dead people can out-rebound Sean Rooks.

It's obviously some kind of bizarre marketing ploy on behalf of the NBA. They appear to be extrapolating his numbers and hoping his presence in L.A. will turn him into a winner instead of just a big-ass stat machine who folds under pressure.

What's strange is how the number 50 applies to many facets of this season. It's like some sort of new harmonic convergence. Oops. Just saying that increased the population of Sedona by 37 people, two chickens, a dog named Moondust, and two VW vans.

Among other things, 50 is:

• The percent of Arizona-based players left on the Phoenix Suns' opening-day roster after the final cuts were announced. Ben Davis of Arizona made it; Mario Bennett of Arizona State didn't.

Ben Davis was considered an extreme long long-shot when training camp opened, but he impressed the Suns coaching staff with his hustle, his work on the boards and the quickness with which he learned things. It's been an amazing journey for Davis, who almost screwed himself out of a college career by appearing on more college campuses than Crazy Jeb, the Bible Thumper.

When Davis finally settled in at Arizona (his fourth or fifth school), he was shorter than advertised and couldn't shoot his way out of wet toilet paper. But he worked hard on the boards and on defense, then carried the team deep into the NCAAs after Joseph Blair shot his own career in its little tiny heart by flunking his way off the team.

Davis may not stick with the Suns this whole season, but the fact that he made it this far is remarkable.

On the other hand, Mario Bennett will probably be appearing behind the counter of a fast-food establishment near you. He told his agent to hold out for one where it's all-you-can-eat.

Bennett was a devastating force in college, but he was always too heavy, too lazy and too undisciplined.

If one could make a career out of underachieving, Mario Bennett would be the Bill Gates of that field.

I know a woman named Missy who used to say of Bennett, "That's my boy!" Well Missy, your boy is now wearing a paper hat and working at Inky Dinky Dog.

• The rise in blood pressure among local Bulls fans when they find out that cable station WGN out of Chicago will be blacking out Bulls broadcasts, as per a judge's order.

The NBA and WGN have been duking it out in court the past couple years, with the league claiming the nationwide broadcasts on WGN dilute the league's product through overexposure and concentration on one team. The league finally got an injunction while the matter is settled in the courts--which probably won't happen until the Bulls return to their pre-Jordan level of mediocrity.

In the meantime, local Bulls fans (of which there are a couple) will get movies on WGN during Bulls games. Hey, maybe they could show Raging Bull, or maybe Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

• How many more times the amount of money Michael Jordan will make this season ($31 million) is than the average made by his Bulls teammates, Steve Kerr ($750,000) and Jud Buechler ($600,000). • For that matter, 50 is the number (in millions) of the Bulls' payroll. Amazingly, seven of the 12 players on the roster make $1 million or less. Far more amazingly, Scottie Pippen makes only $2.7 million. It's this kind of pay imbalance which could spell real trouble down the line for the NBA.

• The minimum number of wins the Utah Jazz will have this year. They'll play hard, they'll beat more talented squads through teamwork, then they'll fall just short of the finals.

No one ever said sports is fair. Why do you think the Yankees won?

• Isaiah Rider's IQ. Here's a guy who has all the talent in the world and not a lick of sense. He got popped for his second drug bust in four months the other day. That goes along with an assault conviction and getting busted for having an illegal cellular phone (despite his being a millionaire), all in the past few months. If Mario Bennett's Lazy World had a Stupid Country, Mario and Isaiah would be undisputed kings.

One last number: 8. That's how many months we'll have to wait for the Houston Rockets to knock off the Chicago Bulls for the NBA championship. TW

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