NBA 1997-98: End of an era in the NBA as Bulls exit, lockout looms
Time for a new slogan: The NBA _ Enjoy it while it lasts.
Think of where you are now as a basketball fan. You’re watching Michael Jordan, the greatest player ever. You’re watching the Chicago Bulls, a dynasty unlike anything seen in any pro sport since the 1960s, go for a sixth title.
You have the stalwarts of one generation, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, crossing paths with the most exciting talents of the next generation, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett.
You have Rick Pitino back, you have the old 3-point line back, you have Chuck Daly back, you even have a scorer on Mike Fratello’s team.
Soak it all in, folks. A year from now, it may be gone.
From all indications, this is the NBA’s eve of destruction. The Bulls are breaking up, a lockout looms, a baseball-style labor war is possible and the whole basketball of wax could break apart like a shattered backboard.
A year from now, you’ll be reminiscing about today _ the last time you went into an NBA season saying, ``I love this game.″
The 1997-98 season opens on Halloween night with a scary subplot.
The Chicago Bulls will be going for another title in the final season under coach Phil Jackson, who says ``wild horses couldn’t drag me back.″ That could mean the end of Jordan’s career, since he has said he won’t play anywhere else.
``Yes, I believe him. And yes, I’ll try to talk him out of it,″ Jackson said. ``I appreciate his loyalty and appreciate that he said that, but I don’t want to limit his career. I’ll encourage him to go on if there’s something left in the tank.″
But there’s no guarantee Jackson or anyone else will be able to do that.
And by the time next July 1 rolls around, the dynasty will almost certainly be finished and the start of the 1998-99 season may be in jeopardy.
``We’ve had a great run. What we’ve done is unparalleled in modern day sports,″ Jackson said. ``After this year I’ll step aside, look at the game and the teams and at a lot of things that are going on with the league. The possibility of a lockout will affect the future of everyone.″
Ah, the lockout.
Didn’t we just go through one of those?
Actually, there have been two lockouts in the NBA over the past few years, a three-month one in 1995 and an eight-minute version in 1996.
The league has the right to tear up the six-year labor agreement at the end of the season, which would inevitably lead to another lockout, the possibility of the decertification of the union, an anti-trust case brought by the players and maybe even an attempt by the league to use replacement players.
It’s almost like Donald Fehr and Bud Selig are hovering at the scorer’s table, waiting to check in.
``I’m not prepared to make a prediction on it,″ commissioner David Stern said Wednesday. ``It’s a very volatile area, and there’s no need to make dire pronouncements.″
But Stern will say this: The league is at a crossroads as the Bulls end their run and the game is handed to a younger generation able to command long-term contracts of more than $100 million.
``Our biggest problem is that we’re paying too much money,″ Stern said. ``The result is a cascading salary structure that’s OK if you’re generating enough revenues to keep up with it. But we’re not.
``I’m charged with keeping this league on some economic course that makes sense, and in their totality these contracts are putting us in a cycle where players earn more money, teams earn less money and ticket prices keep going up for the fans. That’s a bad mix.″
The possibility of a lockout will be the No. 1 topic of discussion when the Board of Governors meets Nov. 11.
By then, the defending champions already will have begun their quest for another title.
Chicago will start the season without Scottie Pippen, who will be out until at least January because of foot surgery. Toni Kukoc also has been slowed by a sore foot and Dennis Rodman’s status was up in the air until he finally signed a one-year contract Thursday.
Most observers feel Chicago will drop a notch from the team that over the past two seasons averaged 70 1/2 wins.
That could allow another team to finish with a better record, preventing the Bulls from enjoying homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.
``I told my players at the beginning of camp that we’re in the hunt,″ Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. ``We’ve won championships with less weapons than we have now.″
The Utah Jazz, coming off a 64-win season, an MVP award for Karl Malone and a trip to the Finals, may have a tough start because John Stockton’s knee injury will keep him sidelined for the early part of the season.
Seattle also has potential problems as the team adjusts to life without Shawn Kemp and gets used to the less-flashy All-Star Vin Baker.
Shaquille O’Neal will be starting his second season with the Lakers, and the Spurs not only have David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Chuck Person back healthy, they also have the No. 1 overall pick of the draft in Tim Duncan _ a player who honed his skills in college for four years instead of jumping to the NBA early like so many others these days.
``San Antonio and Los Angeles have the scariest teams with the most potential _ they should be the favorites,″ said Phoenix coach Danny Ainge, whose own team wasa strengthened by the addition of Jason Kidd last year and Antonio McDyess this year.
In the East, most of the contenders improved their rosters _ from Miami adding four capable reserves to Charlotte adding a new backcourt to Orlando adding Derek Harper at point guard and moving Penny Hardaway to off-guard.
All those teams, at least in theory, have a chance of ending Chicago’s run before its front office does.
But come next fall, that run will be over, the lockout will or will not have come and the league may or may not be getting ready for the post-Bulls era.
As for Jackson, ``I’ll be the driver of the bus on Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign.″
He sounded serious.
Enjoy this season for what it is.