Professional Basketball's Player Draft Turns Into a Gale-Force Production

THE announcement that this year's National Basketball Association draft will be held at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis June 29 is the latest evidence of promotional alchemy in action.

What used to be a speedy, no-frills exercise that escaped public notice until after it happened is now trumpeted as an important event on the NBA calendar. It's the NBA Draft (note the capital ``D''), a genuine fan attraction.

Anybody who doubts that a selection process - in which top players wear street duds and nobody takes a shot - could appeal to a mass audience should look at what happened outside Detroit last year. More than 15,000 fans witnessed the draft at The Palace of Auburn Hills, home of the Detroit Pistons.

``The outstanding fan turnout at the draft has convinced us it was a good idea to give fans in different NBA cities an opportunity to experience this event live,'' says NBA Commissioner David Stern. ``We expect an extraordinary turnout of knowledgeable fans in Indianapolis.''

The NBA has basically taken a page out of the National Football League's book in milking the draft for all it's worth. The metamorphosis began in 1979, when the pro-basketball draft became a public event, a major change. (This reporter remembers ``attending'' the draft when it consisted of a conference phone call among NBA teams.)

During the first 13 years of its public existence, the NBA draft was held in New York, near league headquarters. In 1992, however, the NBA put the draft out for bid, with Portland, Ore., and the Trail Blazers hosting the first draft held outside the Big Apple.

So what's in it for the fans, who pay to get in? Not much, really. The teams take turns announcing their selections, with two rounds taking several hours to complete. Some interviews with the players may be shown on big-screen video, but that's about it.

Tim Edwards, a media-relations assistant with the NBA's Indiana Pacers, says the league is hoping that about 20,000 fans will attend the draft. Many, he suspects, will be eager to see which teams draft native Hoosiers Damon Bailey of Indiana University, Eric Montross of the University of North Carolina, and Glenn Robinson of Purdue University (if he decides to test the NBA waters before his senior season). Magnificent Mascots

THROUGH the years, a menagerie of animal mascots has paraded onto the Olympic landscape, accompanied by one stylized star named ``Magique'' at the French-hosted 1992 Winter Games. The folks in Lillehammer deserve credit for putting on the first Olympics to use humans as mascots, and children to boot. Kristin and Hakon were rooted in Norwegian history.

This decision rates a gold because it helped surround the Games with a warm family feeling. A lovable mascot is important in the sale of Olympic souvenirs, and the cartoon versions of Kristin and Hakon were readily adaptable to a full line of merchandise, from pins to dolls. Furthermore, choosing human figures for mascots allowed the organizers to enlist real children to portray Hakon and Kristin before and during the Games.

The next two Olympics will not follow Lillehammer's example. Organizers of the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta have made a funny-looking cartoon character named Izzy the mascot of the Centennial Games. (Officials are calling it the first Olympic character for children.) The 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, will add a new twist by using four owls, called ``Snowlets.'' In press materials from the Nagano Olympic Organizing Committee in Lillehammer, a long description of the mascots was given. It explains that ``owlets'' are young owls and the use of four of them signifies the quadrennial cycle of the Olympics. Owls also figure prominently in Greek myth as attendants to Athena, the goddess of wisdom.Touching Other Bases

* National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman clearly wants to find a way to create a ``Dream Tournament'' in the Olympics. During a visit to Boston last week he laid out one option for including NHL players in greater numbers without seriously disrupting the pro season. His idea is to have less hockey-minded countries like Japan, Great Britain, and France engage in a 12-team tournament during the first week of the Winter Games. The top two teams would then join the seeded entries (those with NHL players) in the second week. The danger in this format is that it could be perceived as a holding operation until the real competition began.

* An Associated Press reporter raised what seems an interesting question after the Lillehammer Winter Games, namely, why not include ballroom dancing in the summer Olympics? Ice dancing, after all, has been on the winter program since 1976. A subtle but important difference may be that ice dancing is a clear extension of figure skating, an established sport, whereas ballroom dancing has no sporting roots.

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