NBA picks bad time to air dirty laundry

Somewhere NBA commissioner David Stern has to be shaking his head.

This is his time. His league unveils a Jordan-esque superstar in LeBron James. A potentially epic final round is a few days away. The national sports spotlight is focused on the NBA. And what occurs? The league effectively shoots itself in the foot.

TNT’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday in which James scored the Cavaliers’ last 25 points and beat the Pistons in double overtime must be rated one of the great sports telecasts. But so much went wrong for the NBA during its special week that the incredible game almost got pushed aside.

The day before came the radio and TV revelation that Kobe Bryant wanted the Lakers to trade him. He told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, “There’s no alternative. … At this point I’ll go play on Pluto.” Kobe later returned to Planet Earth, but what a time to hang out one’s laundry.

Then there was the deciding game of the Spurs-Jazz Western Conference finals Wednesday. ESPN’s Lisa Salters talked to Utah coach Jerry Sloan at halftime and quoted him on his players as follows: “I don’t know if they’re going to fight or if they’re going to treat this like a preseason game.”

Whoa! This is national TV and a coach reveals his players may treat a conference finals like an exhibition? Talk about reinforcing the impression that NBA players pick and choose their times to mail it in!

Finally, there was the fiasco in Cleveland on Saturday when the Cavs advanced to the finals. First the automated buzzer machine failed at the start of the second period, then the 24-second clock crashed, and finally the mammoth overhead scoreboard blinked off.

For 21 minutes, players sat on the floor, officials scurried about and an exasperated Marv Albert of TNT rightly wondered why it was taking the NBA’s Keystone Kops officials so much time to fix the clocks when the P.A. announcer could just as easily report the score and time.

“Do you feel you’re watching a Peter Sellers movie?” Albert asked his audience. Meanwhile, thousands of TV viewers no doubt switched channels. Twenty-one minutes is an eon in live TV. These were viewers a ratings-starved league could ill afford to lose.

STEPHEN A. — After Smith’s scoop on Kobe last week, I’m thinking of starting a Stephen A. Defense Fund. He’s one of the sharpest and most compelling personalities in sports TV, and ESPN needs not to bury him but to give him a special commentary role. Another underused resource who deserves a platform is Charles Barkley of TNT. It’s uncanny. He speaks and you listen.

BONDS WATCH — Joe Buck, Fox’s lead baseball voice, has weighed in on whether Hank Aaron and commissioner Bud Selig should attend when Barry Bonds breaks Aaron’s home run record.

“If Hank Aaron wants to be there he should go; if he wants to golf, he should golf,” Buck said. “But from an MLB standpoint, there has never been anything that has condemned Bonds. That being the case, I think the commissioner should be there. There should be some kind of celebration of the game, and I don’t think the commissioner would be sending the wrong message by being there.”

I couldn’t disagree more. What kind of celebration would Buck suggest? Free jars of flaxseed oil for those in attendance? The strongest and best message Selig could send would be his absence and complete silence. He owes nothing less to the game he professes to love.

STANLEY CUP — If the NBA has ratings woes, double them for the NHL.

Though splendidly produced by NBC, the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals were on Comcast-owned Versus alone (Channel 67 for those on the Cox system here). That’s a ratings kiss of death since only about 70 million U.S. TV homes get Versus. About 110 million homes receive NBC.

Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on Monday were carried in prime time by NBC, as will be the rest of the series.

Never have I seen hockey better produced. Play-caller Mike Emrick’s call is at once classical, buoyant and infectious. And several of the production effects NBC has added — mikes on certain players, mikes in the corners of the rink that pick up the sounds of players crashing into the boards — are dynamic.

At least on the Peacock, network, hockey isn’t so dead after all.

Bill Taaffe was an award-winning TV-Radio sports columnist for Sports Illustrated. His “Remote Control” column is published Tuesday. He can be reached at taaffe-reviewjournal@earthlink.net.

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