By Terry Lyons, Editor-in-Chief
NEW ORLEANS – February 14, 2014 — The last time the National Basketball Association tipped-off an All-Star Game without David Stern at the helm, we were “looking live” at The Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, California where Showtime was certainly underway with the LA Lakers, but the NBA’s scope of an all encompassing All-Star Weekend consisted of a few media pick-up games as the prelim to the Continental Basketball Association’s All-Star Game on Saturday morning. The Saturday activities were scheduled adjacent to the East and West All-Star practice sessions and the general public was admitted free of charge, if they dared to spend a day indoors on a beautiful Southern California afternoon. The NBA barely had a sponsor signed and only the likes of Red Auerbach and Tommy Heinsohn breaking through a Miller LITE advertising banner could be mistaken with anything close to sports marketing.
Little did anyone know, but the foundation for a league about to explode, “globally,” as Stern often says, was being laid in quick-dry cement just a season after the NBA held its All-Star celebration at the brand, spanking new Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey when there were two franchise folders on former Commissioner Larry O’Brien’s desk. Those franchise folders, assigned to the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, were destined to be merged into one back in 1982, as the Jazz franchise was damn-near belly-up less than a decade after becoming the NBA’s 18th franchise, established in 1974 in this very Louisiana town.
The writing was on the wall and in the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times. The NBA was a league where some “75 percent of the players were on drugs,” read the scandalous article which was picked up nationally and published after the next deadline passed because there was no such communication vehicle like the Internet available to fans. No Twitter, no Facebook, no USA Today, No TNT. Just a vast landscape of six and eleven o’clock sportscasts sprinkled alongside a start-up in Bristol, Connecticut, called The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
Julius “Dr J” Erving and Kareem Abdul Jabbar ruled the roost. It was “still” their league as Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird were yet to renew their rivalry from that memorable 1979 NCAA championship game between Michigan State and Indiana State. Yes, the Lakers had won in 1980 and ‘82 and Bird celebrated his first NBA Championship Series victory cigar with Boston’s legendary GM, in Auerbach, back in ‘81, but there was a league to be saved and no one seemed to know how to begin the resuscitation process. Clearly, CBS Sports was not a factor, as the network reduced the NBA regular season to about eight broadcasts and the playoffs, as long as they didn’t interfere with a Boom Boom Mancini fight of the week, the Daytona 500 or The Memorial golf tournament.
Back in ‘83, before Commissioner Stern made the decisions, the NBA pretty much rolled out the ball racks, emblazoned with the Wilson (not Spalding) basketballs with O’Brien’s signature etched in black ink. That Sunday game was just a regular part of the weekend programming on CBS but there was a very important aspect of the NBA’s glorious history being hatched in those very CBS Sports production trucks parked deep in the ramp at The Forum. There was a groundswell of enthusiasm in those trucks, led, believe-it-or-not, by the color commentator hired by CBS, the same guy cracking open those “old school” LITE cans, alongside Red, and the Jones boys, Sam and KC. Yes, Tommy Heisohn was teaching the nuances of the NBA game to the great CBS Sports director Sandy Grossman and his young counterpart, Mike Burks, the lead producer for the NBA on CBS.
Their boss, a guy named Ted Shaker, saw the same thing Stern saw in the discarded gem the NBA property had become. The game needed a little polish, a fresh coat of paint or luster and it needed someone to give it a chance.
Shaker, Burks and Grossman saw it and helped polish the stone. They saw it better, maybe sooner than anyone before them. Heinsohn taught them what to look for and he coached his play-by-play partner, the great Dick Stockton, to play it straight. The game plan — to let the game speak for itself and let the players play. Burks liked to plot and plan and he placed the cameras as close as physically possible and he fought for more and better equipment to be loaded into his trucks. He “made it cool” to work on the NBA and the many talented technicians and cameramen drank the Kool Aide. In fact they partied with it and embraced the game, like never before. The foundation was being poured and CBS Sports was laying the cables right into the very Super Slo-Mo cameras that would now capture, “The World’s Greatest Athletes.”
That ‘83 All-Star Game came well after the memorable rookie debut of Magic Johnson, aired on late night TV. It came well after the amazing performances by Johnson and Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes in the ‘80 championship series when Magic jumped center to fill-in for the injured Jabbar. It came a couple of years after Bird and Cedric Maxwell schooled Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets. But it came right into your living room with the hip, back-beat sound of Marvin Gaye crooning a live version of the U.S. National anthem that will never, ever be equaled. It came after Grossman had his cameras zooming in to the faces that sports fans already knew on a first name basis, but had somehow forgotten when it came to viewing choices, albeit the few they had at the time. Grossman relied on his main game cameras, but he often cut to those court-side cameras to show viewers the faces and the sweat dripping off of those faces belonging to athletes who were as physical as boxers but as versatile as acrobats or ballet dancers.
When it came time for a commercial, the advertisers started to jump on the band wagon and along came major league marketers shopping razors and blades and airline tickets. When it came time for a public service announcement, the NBA began telling fans that “The NBA … was Fan-tastic,” and the league showed the highlights to prove it. Kids and adults, alike, stampeded back to their TVs from a halftime bathroom break just to see the 30-second spot, created by NBA Entertainment’s very first employee, Paul Gilbert, stolen from CNN Sports, by one David Stern.
Grossman’s cameras focused on that February, ‘83 All-Star Game and captured one of the most entertaining All-Star contests ever staged. After a turnover or two to start the game, the play-by-play typist (yes, typist), could barely keep up with the action when guards like Johnson and Gus Williams pushed the ball at a pace nearly impossible to the weekend warrior. Erving and Bird countered and the likes of Maurice Cheeks, Bernard King and Sidney Moncrief displayed their athleticism and pure desire. The play continued until a time-out, mandated by TV, brought the opening salvo to a halt.
The memory runs so clear, because that night, late after the game, in a hotel hospitality room at Century City in LA, Grossman had a three-quarter inch tape of the All-Star game that he had recorded and he played the sequence again and again as a small gathering watched in awe. Grossman re-wound the tape to Gaye’s national anthem and hit “play,” much to the delight of every person who walked into the room. If you were new and missed the previous showtime but had heard the oohs and aahs from a roomful of the congregation already converted by Heinsohn’s wisdom, old Sandy played it again. And again.
While there were obvious first steps to the NBA’s renaissance, including CBS’ very own pounding of the drum for NCAA March Madness, the glorious Doctors of Dunk from Louisville, the drafting and subsequent success of Magic and Larry, then the whole Michael Jordan phenomenon, it was that ‘83 game that started the NBA’s full monty of a comeback. It started in a CBS truck and carried into a hospitality suite, then to a boardroom at 51 West 52nd Street — Black Rock — to those who know it. The NBA had become must see programming.
O’Brien passed the baton to Stern on February 1, 1984, and as we know from the recent wave of publicity brought to you on a half-a-dozen 24-hour sports channels and hundreds if not thousands of sports radio stations, brought to you online via Twitter and Facebook and 1,000 other IPO wanna-bes, brought to you from 215 countries and territories in three dozen languages spoken by people in every corner of the globe, Stern passed the baton to his protege, Adam Silver, just a few days ago.
Happily, the names of Grossman, Burks and Shaker came up at Stern’s small, classy, dignified retirement party in late January, and thankfully, Shaker was there to shake the outgoing Commissioner’s hand and welcome the young Commissioner Silver to an NBA world that no one could’ve ever imagined 30 years ago.