BOSTON — It truly is an exceptionally ill wind that blows no good. And so it is that the National Basketball Association (NBA) lockout of the players by the owners, which seemed one of the most ill winds ever in sport when it commenced July 1, in fact turned out to be a lyrical trade wind.
While the lockout was going on, it was difficult to get worked up over how the warring sides should divide billions of dollars in profits or develop interest in sorting out the acrimony over whether a veteran player should be limited to a salary of only $14 million a year. Meanwhile, we're standing in a grocery store aisle trying to determine if our 6-cents-off coupon for vinegar has expired.
Incredibly, what the lockout blew in was the best NBA season in history. That's because at 50 games, it was 32 games shorter than usual. It was just the right length. Few pay much attention to hoops in October, November, December, or January anyway. That's football season.
So, when the lockout ended and the first game was Feb. 5, that was perfect. We hadn't seen the games we don't want to see in the first place. Then, we paid casual attention to pro hoops as winter changed into its spring clothes, which we always do. And, presto, the playoffs - when pro hoops finally are converted from the lackadaisical to the scintillating - were upon us before we knew it.
There's definitely a lesson here for baseball, which drags us through a 162-game regular season; for hockey, which inflicts 82 games per team on us; for golf, which is so proud to have found ways to play year around.
Understanding that less can be more is a difficult life lesson for anyone to learn.
Regardless, and no offense Michael Jordan, but pro basketball already is enormously more fun without you. You were just too good for all the other guys. You were Picasso and they, in comparison, were dot-to-dot.
Early and often this season, the Jordan-less Bulls fell on their own horns. They finished dead last in the Central Conference, 13-37, and 20 games out of first place. Of 27 games the Bulls played that were decided by 10 points or more, they lost 22. Only two of the 29 NBA teams had fewer wins than the Bulls. Their leading scorer, Toni Kukoc, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "I think we gave a good effort."
As the Bulls previously dominated the NBA, winning seven titles in the last nine years, it was less and less about good competition and more and more about the screaming domination of Jordan.
For the most part, we tend to root against dynasties. Time was - and is - that Yankees detractors are everywhere. The Boston Celtics won eight straight NBA crowns between 1958 and 1966, 11 in 13 years, and many fans outside of Massachusetts couldn't cheer loudly enough against the Celts. Notre Dame football engenders a similar response.
As the playoffs roll along these days, there are at least five teams that have excellent shots at winning. Utah, commanded by oldies but goodies John Stockton and Karl Malone, seems most likely to succeed.
But perhaps it will be San Antonio with Tim Duncan and David Robinson, plus terrific backcourt play; Portland, with deep talent and star play from Isaiah Rider; Miami, with Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning; or Indianapolis and clutch-shooting Reggie Miller who, among his wonders, led the league in free-throw shooting at 91.5 percent.
And in this competitive season, the winner absolutely might not come from these candidates. Who's to say it won't be Atlanta, Los Angeles, Orlando, or Philadelphia?
Sport in which the outcome is truly up for grabs is sport at its best. For most of the '90s, not many thought the Bulls would be beaten by anybody.
Indeed, the best NBA championship series - seven games, first team to have four wins - are hotly contested, evenly matched, and conclude with a seventh and decisive contest. In the Bulls six title wins, there was never a seventh game.
The winds of change are blowing, and it feels good.
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What a difference a year made for the Chicago Bulls
1997-98 regular season (with Michael Jordan) 62 wins 20 losses .756 % Tied for league's best record. Won sixth NBA championship and third in a row.
1998-99 regular season (strike-shortened; without Michael Jordan) 13 wins 37 losses .260 %
Missed playoffs; averaged 81.9 points, lowest in NBA since shot clock was introduced; scored record-low 49 points in one game.