A Magic act and a Hollywood finish may have launched pro basketball into its most prosperous and entertaining decade yet. The curtain came down on the National Basketball Association's 34th season Friday night with ebullient rookie Earvin (Magic) Johnson leading the Los Angeles Lakers, minus injured seven-foot center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to a championship-clinching 123-107 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Johnson's 42-point effort, a masterpiece worthy of the National Gallery, led to his selection as the series' Most Valuable Player ahead of Abdul-Jabbar, whose name was scratched from a prematurely drafted news release.
Magic's performance, the cherry on top of a highly appetizing season, has the league whistling "This Could Be the Start of Something Big." Of course, that's the same tune that insiders anticipated would be the NBA's theme during the past decade, when pro basketball was projected as the "sport of the '70s." Television , after all, turned pro football into a giant during the '60s, and the NBA was seemingly next in line for TV moguls to showcase in a big way.
And indeed in the spring of 1977 the league did fulfill some of the mass appeal predicted for it. Pro basketball succeeded in prime time as the Bill Walton-led Portland Trail Blazers outbattled Philadelphia in a championship series that achieved the highest viewer ratings ever.
The NBA, however, has yet to "arrive" in the manner of baseball, which has seen the World Series evolve into a prime-time centerpiece each October. NBA playoff games are often relegated to late-night time slots so as not to disrupt the regularly scheduled fare with its better ratings potential.
Even this season, with a match-up of two glamour teams in the finals, CBS gave its affiliates the option of airing Friday's game live at 9 p.m. eastern daylight time or on a delayed basis later in the evening. Many affiliates elected to go the replay route, including the one in Boston, where NBA interest runs higher than it does in many other parts of the country.
Generally speaking, CBS and the NBA misplayed their cards earlier in a $74 million, multi-year marriage. Instead of nurturing a pure appreciation of the game, all sorts of sideshow-like gimmicks -- pro/celebrity three-on-three tournaments, slam-dunk contests, and the like -- were fed to viewers at halftime. The image was wrong. In addition, regional telecasts proved to be a failure, since the public prefers meaningful games between the best teams.
Grasping this, CBS televised a steady diet of national games this year, almost all involving contending teams. And the carnival-like trappings have been replaced with more substantial lead-in and close-out features, interviews, and analyses.
As a result, TV ratings improved, but not strictly because of better network packaging. The product simply was upgraded, primarily by the arrival of two box-office attractions, L.A.'s Magic Man and Boston's Larry Bird, the league's Rookie of the Year. Their presence not only generated interest in and of itself , it fortified teams in two of the NBA's most important markets.
An effort to schedule more intradivision games, thereby nurturing rivalries, may also have been a factor in increased attendance figures. A slightly shorter season and the adoption of the three-point basket were yet other steps taken to tailor the game to the paying public.
The overview is a good one, states NBA Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien, a former campaign manager for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and twice Democratic National Committee chairman. "I think the NBA is in the most stable situation in my five years," he recently told Basketball Digest, adding that a third of the league's 22 franchises make a "reasonable profit."
O'Brien is also encouraged by the absence of serious labor problems and the addition of an expansion franchise in Dallas next season.
Beyond negotiating the merger of the NBA with the old American Basketball Association, O'Brien deserves credit for his firm stand against violence. He's socked more than one player with a four-figure fine for fighting, an indication of his deep concern with the league's image.
One image that the NBA cannot shake is that of wealth created by its high-paid players, whose average salary exceeds that of their counterparts in football, baseball, and hockey.For this reason, the league knows it must continually combat the fat-cat appearance.
The more intense the competition, the less likely this is to be a problem. The NBA, of course, has not lacked for competitive balance, with the league producing seven different champions in the last eight years. The only franchise to secure two titles during this period is Boston, with crowns in 1974 and 1976.
The Lakers' triumph, their first since the Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West team of 1972, was nailed down not only with a do-everything rookie player (6 ft. 8 in. Johnson played center, guard, and forward in the final game), but also with a rookie coach, Paul Westhead. Westhead actually began the year as an assistant to his close friend Jack McKinney, who also was in his first year.
After McKinney was injured in a serious bicycle accident early in the season. Westhead took over and eventually was named to succeed McKinney in a rare, and ironic changing of the guard.