FOR the past decade or so, the Midas-like National Basketball Association has been on a roll. One salable idea or development has followed another, turning its courts to gold.
The oft-cited triggering agent in this renaissance was the joint arrival of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in 1979. Just as important, though, was the infusion of people with vision, inspiration, and energy who came on to fill the office jobs. Foremost among them is commissioner David Stern, who recognized untapped potential in many areas, including the annual midseason All-Star Game. What once was a rather ho-hum event has been converted into a fun-filled showcase, which has become a model for others in t he sports-entertainment business.
The league's 43rd all-star game will be played Sunday in Salt Lake City. But before that, there will be shooting contests, an old-timers' game, and something called a Jam Session, an interactive festival of 50-plus basketball-themed challenges. Casual fans who may not appreciate the overnight synergy of the NBA's all-star squads can admire the individual talents and root for players in the slam-dunk championship or the long-distance shootout.
In other major professional team sports, football and hockey, all-star games are problematic, partly because of the physical nature of the sports. With no checking, the National Hockey League's game does not always resemble the genuine product. Case in point: the Wales Conference crushed the Campbell Conference in an almost laughable 16-6 goalfest on Feb. 6 in Montreal.
The very next day, the National Football League held its all-star game in Honolulu, the Pro Bowl's regular site. The risk of player injury prevents the game from being scheduled until a week after the Super Bowl, and probably few players go all out then. In an incident perhaps reflective of player attitudes, Super Bowl MVP Troy Aikman departed the Pro Bowl early to attend a charity meeting in Dallas. The league fined the Cowboy quarterback $10,000 for his unexpected departure.
The NFL could drop the Pro Bowl and probably few would notice. There's a precedent here, too, since in 1971 the league stopped holding the Playoff Bowl, which for 10 years pitted conference runners-up. Olympic golf `putters' out
Last fall, Atlanta's Olympic organizers enthusiastically laid out their proposal to use the Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club, the home of the Masters tournament, as the setting for the sport's Olympic return (it was included in 1900 and 1904).
Earlier this month, the clearly doomed bid was withdrawn. The shanked effort not only never garnered support, it quickly headed toward the political rough. Augusta National has only one black member and no women, facts that spell trouble for an Olympic community that can't afford the appearance of gender or racial bias.
The plan was to hold two tournaments, one for men and the other for women, with individual medals awarded to the low scorers. None of the top players, though, seemed especially excited about the "open" format, and some viewed it as just another tournament. Then, too, Olympic officials are concerned about overloading the program, especially with a sport in which so few countries produce world-caliber competitors. Super Bowl end zone not Payton's place
With the recent announcement that Walter Payton had been elected to the Pro Football of Fame came a reminder of an oddity in Payton's 13-year playing career. Although his team, the Chicago Bears, finally made it to the Super Bowl in 1986, and won big (46-10) against the New England Patriots, Walter did not score a touchdown.
The last of the Bears' four rushing TDs was credited to huge lineman William (Refrigerator) Perry, who became famous for his goal-line lunges. But it was Payton, the NFL's all-time rushing leader with 16,726 yards (2,500 more than anyone else), who should have been given every opportunity to score in Super Bowl XX. Coach Mike Ditka later apologized for calling Perry's number. Payton is seeking out new goals today as a member of a St. Louis group trying to bring an NFL expansion franchise to that city. He
would be an owner-partner if the bid succeeds.