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ISSUE 121 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/9/2007

Inside the Lines: NBA to rebound?

By Matt Everhart
Staff Writer

Friday, November 9, 2007

It seems like the NBA is always battling some sort of image problem or other major crisis. First, there was conflict between the rapidly growing "hip-hop culture" and the general NBA fan base, and then the 1998-99 lockout-shortened season after Michael Jordan's second retirement.

2007 has not been kind to the NBA, featuring a Spurs-Cavaliers final with record low TV ratings, Kobe Bryant's trade demand reinforcing the perception of players as spoiled brats, a sexual harassment suit involving Isaiah Thomas and the Knicks, the Seattle SuperSonics' possible move to Oklahoma City and the Tim Donaghy gambling scandal. Somehow the NBA keeps chugging along despite the litany of discretions. In fact, there are many reasons to believe that this season might be the best one in years.

If you paid attention to sports news over the summer, it was almost impossible to avoid hearing about the Tim Donaghy case. An NBA referee for 13 seasons, Donaghy resigned from his job after an FBI investigation found that he bet on games in which he officiated and altered the point spread by calling more or less fouls on certain teams.

The situation attacks the very heart of professional sports: the compelling unpredictability and integrity of each game. Sport is the true reality show, and it feeds off the unscripted stories of games.

What if the problem goes beyond Donaghy? In fact, NBA commissioner David Stern later found that all referees had gambled recently, but thankfully not on NBA games. The case against Donaghy continues, with no public indication of how many games he may have altered. Earlier, famous point guard-turned coach Isaiah Thomas was charged with sexual harassment by a Knicks staff member. After a graphic and dramatic court case, in which it was revealed that Thomas made sexual advances and used inappropriate language, Thomas and Madison Square Garden settled for $11.6 million. It was another humiliating blow for the Knicks, one of the NBA's most important franchises that has struggled for nearly a decade.

The Kobe Bryant drama began to unfold in May, when he demanded a trade while on Stephen A. Smith's sports talk radio show after the Lakers lost to the Suns in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year. He rescinded his demand three hours later, but the situation is still tenuous and Kobe's future with the Lakers remains uncertain. Many saw this as final proof that Bryant, one of the NBA's leading stars and one of the most famous athletes in the world, is a spoiled, me-first prima donna who's more interested in himself than helping his team win.

Finally, the Seattle SuperSonics, one of the oldest and most beloved franchises in the league, might not be in Seattle next year. New ownership is dissatisfied with the aging Key Arena in downtown Seattle and officially announced their intent to move the team to Oklahoma City in the near future. While Oklahoma City did a great job hosting the New Orleans Hornets during their Katrina-exiled seasons, many NBA fans would consider the league's exodus from Seattle a tragic move. The affair heads to court soon and won't get any prettier.

After this summer, and particularly the Donaghy fiasco, which commissioner David Stern described as "the most serious situation and the worst situation I have ever experienced," it seemed like the recently begun season was destined for disaster. However, this season looks brighter than ever.

The 2007 NBA Draft was widely considered one of the best ever, and at least the best since 2003, when LeBron James, Dywane Wade and Carmelo Anthony were all drafted. The influx of skilled rookies, including Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, has sparked interest in struggling teams like Portland, Seattle and Atlanta, though Oden is out with an injury. These recently floundering teams make this year's NBA the deepest in years.

Meanwhile, the best teams, like the Spurs, Suns and Mavericks, didn't get any worse. At some expense to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the biggest feel-good story of the summer came via Boston, where the storied Celtics franchise rose from the gutter by trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Along with Paul Pierce, the Celtics now feature three All-Stars and possible Hall of Famers on one team, and are a popular favorite in the Eastern Conference.

I haven't even mentioned the league's plethora of young talent, including potential superstars like Deron Williams, Brandon Roy, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Josh Smith. For all of the NBA's problems, the future still looks as bright as the shine on a new basketball.

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