NBA, NHL Set to Begin Long Playoff Path

Teams in the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League are each entering playoff mode. Robert Siegel talks to Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal about what to expect on the ice and the courts.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The six-month-long preliminary known as the regular season is over, in both the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. Now the real season, the playoffs, begin. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal joins us. And, Stefan, the National Hockey League came back after a season-long shutdown because of a labor dispute, and its playoffs start tonight. Pro hockey seems to be a lot healthier than it was before.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Sportswriter, The Wall Street Journal): Absolutely. It worked. The owners extracted very tough confessions from players, and they implemented a hard cap on team payrolls, and even wound up with tons of parity in the NHL this year.

In the Eastern Conference, in the top seed, and the eighth seed, the last team in the playoffs were separated by just a few wins. And more important for teams, profits are starting to happen, or they're on the horizon. One big reason for that, fans did not abandon the NHL despite this year-long shutdown, which was the first of its kind in pro sports. Attendance actually went up by about 2.4 percent over the previous season.

SIEGEL: Now, the NHL also changed the rules a little bit to try to make the game more attractive, a little more scoring. Did that work?

Mr. FATSIS: That did, too. Several rules changes to increase offense. The biggest impact came from forcing referees to call more penalties, particularly the kind that really slowed down the game, clutching and grabbing. The result was offense. Goals were up about 20 percent. And now, in the playoffs, though, you typically see more conservative play, defensive-minded play. It'll be interesting to see whether the refs continue to call penalties as rigidly as they did in the regular season.

SIEGEL: Well, that's the good news about the National Hockey League. The bad news is when it comes to television, they're stuck on a cable channel, OLN.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, the ratings were just terrible. The NHL looked like it wasn't even going to get a TV deal. They went with a payday from OLN, choosing it over a renewal on ESPN, which offered far less money but much more exposure. OLN is in far fewer homes than ESPN and the rating numbers were just terrible, about 165,000 viewers per game on OLN. NBC, on network television, showed a few regular season games. They drew about a million viewers per game, and that's still very low.

SIEGEL: Well, now, on to the National Basketball Association. The NBA playoffs begin tomorrow, and the big story this year?

Mr. FATSIS: Kobe Bryant scoring 81 points in a game, second only to Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points in a game back in the early 1960s. Bryant wound up the year averaging more than 35 points a game, and it was the first time somebody had scored more than 35 in a game since Michael Jordan in 1987. There's no single reason, the way there is in hockey, but scoring was up. Three players averaged 30-plus points this year, Bryant, Allen Iverson and Lebron James, and it was the first time that had happened in almost a quarter-century.

SIEGEL: Now, Lebron James of Cleveland, his team is in the playoffs this year, and he'll play in the playoffs for the first time. Are we now officially in the Lebron James age of professional basketball?

Mr. FATSIS: Yes. We can forget about the Michael Jordan era. You don't hear a lot of doomsday talk about how the NBA is struggling without Jordan. The league also had record attendance this year, TV ratings were stable, a lot of younger players show a lot of potential and there's a lot to like in them. James, Dwayne Wade of The Miami Heat who are in the playoffs and Chris Paul of The New Orleans Hornets, who is almost certain to be rookie of the year. And, like it or not, even Kobe Bryant's image seems to be rehabbing after the sexual assault allegation from a couple of years ago.

SIEGEL: Okay, now your bonus question about professional basketball. Explain the persistent, unrelieved failure of The New York Knicks to me.

Mr. FATSIS: Ownership, I think. Willingness to spend lots of money on players who are either former stars, like Stefan Marbury, players who are in their peak, who probably need a great team to make better, and a lot of just bad personnel decisions that go back, I think, to the team's decision to let Patrick Ewing leave at the end of his career, rather than just celebrating him as a New York Knick for life.

SIEGEL: Problems with the Knicks that not even the arrival of Larry Brown as the Knicks coach could solve.

Mr. FATSIS: The great coach had his worst season ever as a pro basketball coach. He could not motivate this collection of young players who weren't ready, and old players who didn't seem to care.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Sports writer Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal, who talks with us on Fridays about sports and the business of sports.

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