At least the ''Bad Boys'' kept their shenanigans on the court when they were wreaking havoc in the NBA.
Nowadays there are enough mug shots out there to spawn a new trading card industry. Players are doing and saying things that defy common sense, annoying fans with their high-priced whines. Wins seem to rank only slightly ahead of endorsement opportunities and monster contracts, and those ''knuckleheads'' Karl Malone once dissed haven't gotten a clue yet.
Even the Christmas Day games, once a showcase for the class of the league, have attitude. One game is Kobe vs. Shaq, dueling egos that helped bring down what could have been the NBA's next dynasty. The other is the first meeting of the Pistons and Pacers since that Nov. 19 brawl that spilled into the stands, one of the ugliest fights in sports history.
What happened to all that love and goodwill created by Michael, Magic and Bird?
''People don't realize the things we do as players can really affect a lot of lives,'' said Antonio Davis, first vice president of the players union. ''We're not trying to take away their own sense of self. If you want to braid your hair, wear your jeans hanging off your butt, do some of those things because they're you, that's fine.
''But regardless of what organization, corporation you work for, you can't go out and have run-ins with the law, hurt the people that drive your business,'' Davis said. ''You just can't do some of those things.''
Like everything else in society, the NBA goes through cycles. This latest one seems to be driven, largely, by the influx of younger players. The average age in the league has dropped by almost a year, down from 27.82 in 1998 to 27.028 this year.
More and more kids are jumping straight from high school to the pros a record eight were taken in last summer's draft, all in the first round and those who do go to college rarely stay all four years.
Many of the youngsters coming into the league lack fundamentals, making their first few years an on-the-job training program. Some never learned the life lessons necessary for the adult world, either, put on pedestals at increasingly young ages.
Couple that with the huge salaries players get these days and there can be problems. Teenagers who had to ask their parents for spending money only a year or two ago are suddenly millionaires carrying $100 bills for pocket change. Tricked-out SUVs are a given, and some players sport more bling than Jennifer Lopez.
''I really do think that the perception from the fans is that players are selfish, that the only thing that matters is the money because the money has gotten so big and the players don't really respect or care about the fans,'' said Chicago Bulls general manager John Paxson, who won three NBA titles as a player.
''I don't think that's necessarily the reality, but as they say, perception is reality.''
The personal antics don't help. Kobe Bryant no longer faces criminal charges, but he's still being sued by a woman who claims he raped her. Police had to use a stun gun on Michael Olowokandi last month to get him to leave an Indianapolis bar.
Carmelo Anthony has been in a bar fight, charged briefly with drug possession after a friend's marijuana was found in his backpack and seen on a homemade DVD with a man who warns that people who tip police about drug deals ''get a hole in their head'' and that's just since September.
Latrell Sprewell said ''I've got my family to feed'' when he demanded the Minnesota Timberwolves extend the contract that pays him $14.6 million this year, then got suspended for yelling a sexual vulgarity at a female fan. A week after signing a six-year, $84 million contract extension with Portland, Zach Randolph had to find his own way to a game in Toronto because his alarm clock didn't go off and he missed the team flight.
And, of course, there's the brawl. Ron Artest, last year's defensive player of the year, has been suspended for the rest of the season after charging into the stands in Detroit and punching a fan, and eight other players got suspensions ranging from eight to 30 games. Five Indiana Pacers are facing charges, and the civil lawsuits are already starting.
''Any professional sport has a problem to some degree when an incident like this takes place,'' San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. ''The salaries that professional athletes make can be a problem if players aren't aware of what that responsibility might be, what comes along with that contract. Some players understand it, some teams understand it, some don't.
''But to make a broad stroke, 'The NBA or this sport or those players have a problem,' I think, is dangerous.''
Even if fans are grumbling, they haven't turned their backs on the NBA. Ratings for Game 5 of the NBA Finals was the second-highest since 1998, and the entire series drew its highest ratings in three years.
According to Forbes magazine's annual valuation of the league, the average franchise is now worth $302 million, a 14 percent increase from the previous year. Forbes also said teams made an average of $4.4 million on licensing in 2003, up 20 percent.
''There probably are still some people holding out, saying, 'I remember sports when people played for the glory of sport alone.' But most people are sophisticated to understand why it's the business that it is,'' said Ken Shropshire, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School who specializes in sports business.
There is still plenty about the league that's good, too. No other pro sport is as accessible, with fans seated right at courtside and no hats or helmets to obscure players' faces. LeBron James has more than lived up to his considerable hype on and off the court.
And on the same day the Pistons and Pacers were fighting with fans, New Jersey's Richard Jefferson offered to replace a 5-year-old girl's wheelchair after he learned it had been destroyed during a school field trip.
''You just can't condemn the other guys. You can't say, 'Hey, you knucklehead, I don't want to deal with you,''' Davis said. ''You have to pull them aside and say, 'There were guys before you who worked real hard so you can be in the position you're in today. Don't let them down by making bad decisions, whether it's on the court or off the court.'''
But one of those guys who paved the way for the NBA's phenomenal success in the last two decades has no doubt the kids will be all right.
It's not easy making the jump from high school to the pros, either on the court or off, Pacers president Larry Bird said. Give the young players some time, and they'll figure it out, Bird said.
''I've got a good feeling that the league, in a couple of years, is going to be a lot better than it is today,'' he said. ''Some of the young players, they're only going to get better. They're great players now, but they'll figure it out and get better.''
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