US basketball needs bounce

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There are those who think that there’s only one thing wrong with basketball, the sport of urban America: Michael Jordan isn’t playing any more.

You can see their point. Since the most talented player in the game’s history last played nearly three years ago, a lot of the lustre has gone. That and many of the fans. Attendances are down outside the main centres such as New York and so too is the television audience.

One in every five who used to watch on NBC has found something else to do other than watch the three games available back-to-back on the small screen on a Sunday.

So when Jordan says that there is a 99.9% chance that he will not return, all anyone sees is the 0.1% chance that he will do so. For one thing, Abe Pollin, owner of the hapless Washington Wizards, where Jordan is director of basketball operations says: “The odds are that he’s going to come back.”

Then there is “Super” Mario Lemieux, the all-time ice hockey great, who knows something about comebacks himself, having returned for the Pittsburgh Penguins at the end of last year, as good as new after being out for three and a half years.

Lemieux, who has had cancer and problems with his back, is a golf partner of Jordan and says he expects to see the 38-year-old, who won six National Basketball Association titles with the Chicago Bulls, back on the court next year. “I think it’s very exciting for basketball and obviously I’m very excited about it,” said Lemieux. “He’s going to give it a shot and he’s working very hard. I’m sure when he gets back he’ll be the best player again.”

If Jordan does come back, it will not be for the money. He still rakes in about $40m a year in endorsements but it is said that he has kept a close watch on how Tiger Woods has advanced on his redoubt as probably still the world’s most famous sportsman.

But quite a lot has changed since Jordan’s last act as a professional, claiming the basket that won the Bulls their last championship. This is not simply a reference to the damage Jordan did to the tip of his right index finger a couple of years ago – the victim of a cigar cutter – which makes it hard for him to hold the ball as he would wish.

Rather, the views of one of the leading coaches of the day must be taken into account. Jeff Van Gundy, the single-minded designer of plays for the New York Knicks, has identified debilitating factors that go far beyond the NBA’s lack of a transcendent Jordan-like beacon for the game: golf and God.

Van Gundy, a diminutive, self-critical guru of glumness, is the first to say that he is not the most positive of men. His team, he says, are “sleepy and lethargic.”

Nor is he the most culturally aware. He is baffled by the observation that at the age of 39 he is not that much older than some of his players, yet each listens to music that the other cannot fathom (80% of the players in the NBA are black).

And what does he listen to? “One of my college room-mates was into the Police and I got to like them. But I hear one of the guys left the band.” The coach is talking about Sting. “Yeah, that’s it, I understand he’s got a solo career, right?”

But golf and God? He says that they are the nemesis of the modern game: “And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way to God.” So what does he mean? “We let a preacher into our locker room. Spends as much time as he wants with our players before games.

“Now, do people in offices have preachers coming into their place of business, interrupting their work? No. They have to do it before or after work. They don’t get to do it during work. That’s the problem I have.

“As a team and an organisation, you’ve got to try to minimise those distractions. It used to be alcohol and women more. I think we’ve given this guy, this pastor, too much freedom.

“And I think the interaction between people before games, opposing sides, the fraternisation, is wrong for the league, it’s wrong for competition. Everybody’s hugging before games, praying together.”

This guy, this pastor, an assistant minister at a church in Baltimore, says he’s only trying to help with his ten-minute Bible studies and several of the players were upset by the coach’s performance.

Van Gundy says that he stands by his opinions though he wishes he had not expressed them. He had better make an accommodation with the G-force: Michael Jordan plays golf and he is the nearest thing to a god that basketball has seen.

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