EASTWARD ho! With pro basketball already well-stocked with West Coast franchises, the National Basketball Association decided to explore three new markets and ``retake'' an old one when it announced expansion plans last week. Beginning with the 1988-89 season, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Miami will join 23 franchises, with Orlando, Florida, and Minneapolis to follow in '89-90. Minneapolis actually was the original home of the Lakers, a nickname that made more sense there than in Los Angeles.
This expansion strategy, which until the last minute was going to include just one of the Florida cities, is a reflection of the NBA's new prosperity. Not that long ago the league was struggling financially, at least in places, but it's been on the move throughout the '80s.
Some believe that the simultaneous arrival in 1979 of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, two major gate attractions, spelled the beginning of this new era, in which a steady stream of fresh stars, increased TV coverage, and better management and marketing have thrust the NBA front and center.
During the just-ended regular season, attendance topped the 12 million mark for the first time in the league's 41-year history. The progress has been steady, too, with the league's attendance record broken each of the past four years.
Basketball is sometimes called the city game; its courts are often right in town. The game is well attended by folks of all races and incomes, and includes large numbers of minorities on its rosters - and to an extent, even in its front offices.
It is an indication that major league sports, when they reach out to all Americans irrespective of color or class - can build public support.