Sports views: Stern's plan for world domination stays on schedule

Posted: Thursday, June 16, 2005

Though he's only been back in the fold for a day, attempts to clone Phil Jackson are proceeding apace.

Commissioner David Stern's plan for world domination is going to require lots of bodies in a hurry, and if they come attached to one of the more recognizable faces on the sporting planet, well, so much the better.

At the end of a long day, in the middle of a week of mixed reviews, Stern announced that four NBA teams will hold training camps overseas the next two years and play preseason games against top European clubs. He also hinted he might stage exhibition games in China and Latin America in 2006, an All-Star game in Paris soon, and the 2015 NBA Finals on Mars.

The commish didn't stick pins in any maps — Mars is my idea, not his — but he promised to do that in October.

''If you began to guess at large European cities, and teams that have some sort of international flavor, you could begin to sort of see the list from which we are working,'' he said just before Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

It's a small miracle Stern got word of his itinerary out, considering how much action the NBA packed into the Tuesday already. First, there was Jackson's return to Los Angeles, artfully hyped by the Zen Master himself as a tale of ''reconciliation,'' and timed so Shaq could add his two cents about the reunion of his old coach and Kobe Bryant, whom Jackson labeled ''uncoachable'' in his latest book.

No sooner had the sports shows signed off than a sitcom by the NBA's TV partner picked up the cross-promotional ball. Stern loves synergy and it showed. Michael Jordan did a cameo on ''My Wife & Kids,'' which in turn led into the telecast of the game. The transition was seamless, assuming you didn't mind Stevie Wonder hawking his new CD, or his jazzy throwback version of the national anthem. After all that came the actual game, finally, followed by a not very entertaining 96-79 win by the Pistons.

TV ratings have been flat this season, no matter how the league or network spins them. What no one argues is that the fracturing of the triangle in LA is at fault. That's why some think Stern should devote more energy toward getting his house in order — domestically speaking — before worrying about the export market.

But that's not how the commissioner works. Stern deftly used Yao Ming to get a foot inside the door of China's lucrative markets, just like he used the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics to put Europe in play. If the returns seem limited right now, know that Stern's ambitions are not. He's in this for the long haul. He plans to replace soccer as the world's game.

''What we are doing here tonight, and have done, is to assure that elite athletes will increasingly bounce the ball rather than kick it,'' Stern said. ''I think we're increasing the viability of the sport on a global basis.''

It's no coincidence the Spurs lineup includes Tony Parker from France, Tim Duncan from the Virgin Islands and Manu Ginobili from Argentina, the reigning Olympic champion. Or that Detroit and San Antonio are coached by Larry Brown and astute disciple Gregg Popovich, guys who realized years ago that players here needed to learn the international game, instead of the other way around.

Both were on hand for the close shaves and eventual beatings suffered by U.S. teams that were too arrogant, lazy or thrown together too late to hold back the tide. Both have scouted and coached accordingly ever since.

The NBA Finals between the Pistons and Spurs features purposeful, fluid, team-oriented basketball, full of effort and rugged defense — basically, what every brainy fan clamored for right after a team of NBA players got hammered by Argentina, Yugoslavia and even Spain (yes, Spain!) at the 2002 World Championships.

A nice side effect is that both teams are filled with unselfish, hustling players who know highlight-reel dunks are a lousy way to measure success. The shame is their rosters combined can't generate a Q-rating in Jackson's neighborhood. The proof: the ink was still drying on Jackson's return to Bryant's den when he popped up in a new commercial wearing a monk's robe and spouting lessons on karma for Toyota.

There is Stern's dilemma in a nutshell. When he became commissioner in 1984, the NBA Finals were still shown on tape-delay. He changed that by cleverly marketing a succession of transcendent stars — Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, then Jordan — but his league has paid for failing to find their replacements.

Shaq, Kobe and Jackson are the best the NBA has come up with so far, and LeBron James might be ready soon. But none of them are in uniform for its showcase series this year — unless you count commercials.

Stern views that as just a temporary problem, just like the bumpy labor negotiations, or the fact that flagship franchises in New York and Boston haven't contended in a while. He's got the game being played the way the rest of the world can relate to. And once Stern figures out a way to stick Jackson and a few other recognizable faces in a few strategic locales, he can turn his attention to outer space.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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