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Sunday, June 14, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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NBA: From Struggling League To Global Success

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

LONG BEACH, Calif. - With his gravelly voice, down-home nickname and Napoleonic stature, Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons should have been the talk of Kansas City, even though the teams he coached generally were mediocre.

But it was the early '80s. The National Basketball Association's Kings were based in the heartland. Nobody cared.

And the bad news for the NBA was that the Kings hardly were the exception.

In terms of popularity, an NBA team in Kansas City couldn't compete with baseball's Royals. It couldn't compete with football's Chiefs. It couldn't even compete with its Kemper Arena co-tenant, the Kansas City Comets of what then was the Major Indoor Soccer League.

"It was like just trying to keep something alive until something good happened," Fitzsimmons recently recalled. "I couldn't even buy a Kansas City King T-shirt in Kansas City."

Ten years have passed. The generally terrible Kings, now based in Sacramento, never fail to sell out a home game. And Fitzsimmons is in Phoenix, where he recently retired from coaching to a front-office job with the wildly popular Suns. Success stories nowadays are the rule in the NBA.

"Let's talk about day and night," Fitzsimmons said. "Back then, only one, two or three franchises were making money. But marketing got into it. We hung on. Now, you can buy a Sacramento King T-shirt anywhere in the world."

Fitzsimmons' tale is the NBA's last 10 years in microcosm. It is one small piece of a global basketball explosion that has put dollar bills in league coffers the way Michael Jordan puts fans in front of televisions.

In 1980-81, ticket revenues and television fees were worth $110 million to the NBA. The league didn't even keep track of how much money it made from the sales of licensed products. Sixteen of the league's 23 teams lost money that year. Six teams were in danger of folding. The league was rumored to be riddled with drug problems.

Teams played to an average 58 percent of capacity. And the year before, CBS hadn't even seen fit to broadcast live the Lakers' championship-clinching victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Fast-forward to the 1990-91 season. Ticket revenues and TV rights fees brought in $700 million. Licensed products brought in $1 billion. This year's NBA Finals were telecast in 93 countries. The average worth of a franchise is up from $20 million in the early '80s to $65 million, meaning that no owner can say with a straight face that he is losing money. A progressive policy has brought the drug problem under control. The typical game is close to being a sellout. And NBC - which in 1989 paid $600 million over four years for the NBA's network television rights - not only broadcast the entire NBA Finals live, it carried live prime time telecasts of four conference final games.

As 31-year Laker announcer Chick Hearn would bellow, "Slaaaaaaaaam dunk!"

"Through the '70s, the game was dominated by four teams: Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia," Hearn said, recalling the state of the NBA before boom times. "There were no salary caps. You could go out and buy or trade for any player you wanted. Most of the owners in the league at that time were not wise. They didn't have a handle on what was going on. They were in it because of egotism, a lot of them. That's changed a lot. These are shrewd businessmen that are out there."

And the shrewdest of them all is David Stern, the NBA's commissioner since 1983. It is Stern's hiring, coupled with the arrival several years earlier of the highly marketable Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, that is credited widely with the change in the NBA's fortunes. Recently, rankings by The Sporting News listed Stern as the most powerful person in sports.

"David Stern understood the great potential basketball had, and what hay could be made if it was handled properly," said Michael Goldberg, who runs National Media Group, a New York sports and entertainment marketing firm. "He had the foresight to see that the game taking place on the court was extremely marketable and had not been marketed by his predecessors. He started from the ground up and built a marketing program to market what Bird, Johnson and Julius Erving had brought."

Every year, it seemed, the NBA added a new wrinkle designed to improve image, get a grip on the owners' finances or create exposure:

-- In 1983, Stern brought management and labor together, working with Larry Fleisher, late president of the NBA Players Association, to devise the landmark salary cap rule. By mandating that teams were limited to spending 53 percent of their gross revenue on player salaries, financial restraint ceased being optional.

Nonetheless, a salary explosion followed. In 1983, the salary cap was $3 million a team. Next year, it will be $14 million.

-- Also in 1983, the league attacked its biggest image problem: published reports that up to 75 percent of its players were on drugs. The league instituted a policy that encourages users to come forward, in which case they would be directed to treatment without punishment.

The league, however, has the right to test a player if it has probable cause, and in worst-case scenarios, the league can suspend a player for life, with the player having to wait two years before applying for reinstatement.

Certainly, the image problem was addressed, though Denver guard Chris Jackson just this week said that drug use in the NBA hardly has been eradicated.

-- In 1984, the league instituted its All-Star Weekend, turning what had been a one-day event into a made-for-television three-ring circus of old-timers' games, three-point shooting contests and slam-dunk showdowns.

"The ABA was the forerunner of a lot of the excitement," said Goldberg, former general counsel of the NBA's long-defunct competitor. "A different brand of ball was played in the ABA, with the Julius Ervings, the David Thompsons, the slam dunks. These things were invented by the ABA and became part of the NBA's structures."

-- In 1985, however, the NBA came up with an invention of its own with the inception of the Draft Lottery, which turned the doling out of the No. 1 selection from an award for absolute ineptitude into a campy competition between teams of varying degrees of mediocrity - televised, of course.

-- In 1987, the NBA began in earnest its international push, with the annual preseason McDonald's Open, which pitted an NBA team against three European teams in a different European locale each year. Two years ago, the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz opened the regular season with a pair of sold out games in Tokyo. According to international basketball officials, on a global scale there are more league-affiliated athletes playing basketball than soccer.

Said Laker general manager Jerry West, "This game is being played worldwide more than any other game there is."

The NBA seeds this growth among everyone from couch potatoes to Scandinavian basketball dreamers. Staffing at the NBA offices in New York has swelled from about 40 in 1980 to close to 300, a teeming mass of marketers and public-relations functionaries. One branch of the NBA office, Team Services, exists for clubs to share information with each other. That's the reason if a particular dance number by the Laker Girls is a hit, the Knick City Dancers hear about it.

And in Secaucus, N.J., a 45,000-square foot production facility generates much of the NBA television programming seen around the world.

Meanwhile, Jordan's face is everywhere, hawking everything from Gatorade to his own line of Nike sports apparel. And when it's not Jordan, it's Johnson or Bird or someone else.

But Johnson has retired, Bird seems on the verge and Jordan has become something of the Teflon basketball player - his profile remains high even as his public image takes a consistent battering.

Before the boom, this confluence of events might have spelled trouble.

Had you taken out Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell and a few others in the 1960s, what would you have had left?

And how big would the NBA have been in the '70s minus Dr. J, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a couple of other stars?

Media-made or not, today almost every team - contender or not - has a drawing card. Television's ever-increasing exposure of college basketball means more players nowadays are household names before they ever play in the NBA than ever before.

Even if Louisiana State superstar Shaquille O'Neal does not turn draft-lottery king Orlando into an instant powerhouse next season, the Magic nonetheless will be among the NBA's most watched.

"Basketball was not a marketed league at all," West said. "Now, there are players bigger than life who might be just average players. People get concerned about the direction this league is going to go, but we get attractive players every year. They are a product of a game that is widely publicized, widely marketed."

And this summer, the wave the league caught in the past decade will become a tsunami, presuming the first Olympic team of NBA players brings its anticipated gold medal back from Barcelona, Spain.

The world will be watching NBA Showtime, as it has never watched NFL football or Major League Baseball.

Somewhere in France or Iceland, a kid will lace on a pair of Air Jordans, pull on his Sacramento King T-shirt, fill his squirt bottle with Gatorade, find a hoop and dream of being like Mike.

Said Goldberg, "No sport is growing faster globally. All you need is a real confined space. A baseball field is huge. A football field is huge. To play basketball, all you need is a ball and a hoop, and you're in business."

Big business, that is.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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