The NBA is back.
In recent years, soporific play made fans more likely to watch infomercials than basketball playoff games. But a new generation of classy superstars - and a revival of inspired team play - has the game on the rebound.
And the buzz over Thursday's opening game of the NBA finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat is proof positive that basketball has a future in the post-Michael Jordan era.
"There is the opportunity this year that the NBA could recapture some of the global imagination it hasn't seen since the years of Michael Jordan," says Roland Lazenby, who has written several books on the league, including "The NBA Finals."
This season's attendance levels were the highest in league history, and TV ratings for the playoffs - which have featured nine overtime games so far - are up 20 percent over last year. It's no mystery why.
Younger players, led by stars of the 2003 draft such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade have captured the spotlight as charismatic athletes who excel as role models both on and off the court. The game itself, meanwhile, has restored the competitive artistry it lost when one-on-one play became the norm. Remember the 2004 Olympics, when the US hoops squad loaded with talent - and egos - got pummeled by foreign teams with balanced scoring?
"For a long time there has been the image of professional basketball stars, rooted somewhat in truth, as just a bunch of people cashing big checks they hadn't earned," says Mr. Roland. "Now we seem to have a younger generation of players that really cares. They are more mature, they are dedicated, and they care very much how they are viewed."
Exhibit "A," he and others say, is Miami's 6'4" Dwyane Wade - just three years into the league - who plays with the poise of many veterans. Turning on a dime, exploding high in the air, smoothly eluding the reach of taller defenders, Wade has the precocious flash and panache of a future Hall of Famer but none of the swagger of more egotistic players.
Exhibit "B" is Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki, a 7-footer who plays with such grace and élan that he could be mistaken for an agile point guard. Mild-mannered, and soft-spoken, Nowitzki displays a quiet confidence that draws teammates to his leadership. Where other stars have fostered division through bluster, Nowitzki has promoted unity through character.
Exhibit "C" is improving team play.
"I think this is a really important time in basketball history. We are starting to see the appreciation for the multiskilled player like the early days of Bob Cousy or the [Larry] Bird/Magic [Johnson] years of the 80s," says Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Boston's Northeastern University. "We are moving back to what the game is supposed to be about ... making teammates better, playing both ends of the court, creating opportunities to score, passing, rebounding, doing it all. The pendulum is swinging back."
The contest between the Heat and the Mavericks - two younger franchises both in the finals for the first time - reflects a growing economic parity in the NBA.
The diffusion of talent throughout the league helped create playoffs this year full of younger, up-and-coming teams playing nail-biting games, many ending in buzzer-beating plays.
The fast pace of play and appealing players on the Mavericks and Heat should sustain that playoff buzz well into Finals. "This is a great chance to see a contrasting battle of newer NBA styles with a new cast of players," says Stan McNeal, managing editor of Sporting News. But the championship also features as many storylines as an episode of "Lost."
"There are a host of really interesting subplots this year that are building all kinds of interest," says Adam Zimmerman, a senior vice president at Career Sports & Entertainment, a sports marketing agency based in Atlanta.
Some say that the Wade vs. Nowitzki matchup features two of the NBA's best players in a competition for who shines most under pressure. Some see Wade as the next Michael Jordan; others see Nowitzki as redefining the future of the power-forward/center position.
But a second subplot concerns Miami's aging superstar center, 7'1" Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal has won three championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers and is playing in his sixth finals. He is an old-style, inside center: Get the ball near the basket, back into the defense, turn, and stuff the ball. Fans wonder if he can win a championship without his old teammate, Kobe Bryant.
A third subplot is that of Miami's veteran coach, Pat Riley, who won four titles as coach of the Lakers in the 1980s, vs. newcomer Avery Johnson of Dallas, who won coach-of-the year overwhelmingly in his first full season with the Mavs.
"This is a tough one," says Andrew Feinstein, a veteran NBA-watcher who also syndicates a comic strip called "Girls and Sports." "You want to root for Riley to come back for another title, but Avery Johnson is universally considered the best guy in the NBA period."
Though he can be explosively tough on players, Johnson is popular among his team and fans alike. Despite being just 5'11", he became a longtime NBA player who scored the winning shot in the 1999 Finals. He earned further goodwill recently when he hired his high school coach as a Mavs assistant after the school was destroyed by hurricane Katrina.