Shadows over a new season

The Kobe Bryant trial and other off-court missteps distract NBA fans from on-court competition.

As the National Basketball Association tipped off its 58th season this week, many around the league worried aloud about fans watching Court TV - the kind that had nothing to do with hoops. They weren't joking. With the possible exception of rookie phenom LeBron James, the forthcoming trial of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant has eclipsed all else in professional basketball in recent months.

League executives and marketing experts, as well as players past and present, offer compelling evidence of the NBA's strengths. Still, even the most bullish observers acknowledge painful days and months ahead as Mr. Bryant's celebrity-circus trial exhumes the sordid details of the NBA star's sexual liaison at a Colorado resort last summer.

At minimum, Bryant, a warm, grinning pitchman for Sprite, Nike, and other corporate brands during the Lakers' recent championship runs, is an admitted adulterer. At worst, he is a rapist. Even the best-case scenario for Bryant, an acquittal, leaves him tainted in the eyes of marketers and fans.

The case "will continue to be a huge story not only in the NBA, but in the world of sports," says Dean Bonham, a former Denver Nuggets executive who now serves as chief executive at The Bonham Group, a sports marketing firm. "It's going to go to trial and it's going to be long, drawn out, graphic, and negative."

The NBA finds itself in a curious paradox: Even as some of its players slide into embarrassing judicial tangles, the league's outlook overall appears healthy.

Merchandise sales are expected to exceed $3 billion this year, a 20 percent gain and a sign that the league's pop-culture cachet remains healthy. Chinese import Yao Ming and a fleet of European stars also give the NBA global recognition unmatched by the NFL, NHL, or Major League Baseball.

"The fact that a 12-year-old kid in Spain will watch the Memphis Grizzlies because of [Spanish player] Pau Gasol is amazing," says Tom O'Grady, chief creative officer at Game Plan Branding Group. "That's something the NBA didn't have in the past."

Attendance last season for the 29 franchises totaled 20 million, a 0.5 percent decline from the previous year. Not bad in light of a sluggish economy and the Iraq war. Even so, attendance figures reveal a slow, steady decline since the late-1990s.

David Stern, the oft-lauded NBA commissioner, delivered a typically cheery portrait of the league during a teleconference with reporters this month. The Bryant case, he says, will ebb and flow, but will not supersede the floor shows put on by the 29 NBA teams during the coming months.

"I think that the people will focus on basketball," Mr. Stern said. "I think that there will be periodic media disruptions based on various court dates."

It's true that even beyond Bryant, the league suffers from image problems related to other player arrests and controversies.

In Portland, for example, so many players have been arrested or suspended that wags have dubbed the Trail Blazers as the "Jail Blazers." Guard Damon Stoudamire continued the Blazers' foibles over the summer, setting off an airport metal detector in July while carrying an aluminum foil container filled with marijuana.

League executives have pledged suspensions for Sacramento Kings star Chris Webber and Golden State's Jason Richardson. Mr. Webber, who is in rehab for an injured knee, will be suspended once he is healthy. The veteran all-star admitted lying to a grand jury about his relationship with a booster at the University of Michigan. Mr. Richardson, in an unrelated case, was convicted on a misdemeanor domestic-violence charge.

This week brought yet more legal problems. Eddie Griffin of the Houston Rockets, already suspended by the club for missing flights and practices, has been accused by his girlfriend of punching her in the face and shooting at her.

"The league has some hurdles to overcome," says Len Elmore, who played eight seasons in the NBA and now covers college basketball at ESPN. "Much of it has to do with image, notwithstanding the Kobe Bryant situation. There are a lot of blemishes from the past five years - drug use, children out of wedlock, the whole hip-hop culture."

The NBA has won kudos for its aggressive rookie training seminars, started in the mid-1980s. The sessions warn players of the many perils their celebrity brings: drugs, hangers-on, solicitous female fans, and extended family feuds capable of draining multimillion-dollar checking accounts.

The NBA faces mounting challenges, however, because of the increasingly cherubic faces filling out NBA rosters. Players are more inexperienced and immature than ever. Bryant, along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Garnett, ushered in an era of ever-younger stars, many of whom never attended college. Even those who play college hoops routinely leave after a season or two, a dramatic shift from even the 1980s.

"The NBA has to be more sensitive to how young these guys are," says Kenny Smith, a former player who now serves as a TV sports analyst at TNT. "They need more daily safeguards in place. It can't just be a week of seminars and, boom, you're done. There are a lot of pitfalls out there that can trap guys."

Mr. Smith suggests teams hire several chaperons to be with players on a daily basis. If young stars are worth $50 million contracts, he says, why not spend $300,000 on several staffers who can insure that hefty investment?

League executives say the issue of player awareness and responsibility is a constant concern. Programs are enhanced and adjusted on a regular basis.

"Our player group continues to get younger," says Russ Granik, NBA deputy commissioner. "We are working with all of the clubs to improve our player programs. It is an issue of major importance to us."

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