NBA Experiences a Rebound

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Higher ratings, blockbuster trades and a resurgence of flagship teams in Boston and Los Angeles have led to a turnaround year for the NBA. The league had been reeling from flagging TV audiences, lackluster playoffs and a crooked, point-shaving ref.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

The Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association are doing something they're not supposed to be doing; winning. Late last month, Houston lost its dominating center, Yao Ming to a season-ending injury. Last night the Rockets won their 18th straight game; a 106 to 96 victory over New Orleans, one of the NBA's best.

Houston's success is the latest good news story for a league that lately has been battered by scandal and low TV ratings. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: In the NBA you lose a seven-foot six-inch all-star center, you lose your season. Except no one told the Houston Rockets. They've won six in a row since losing Yao Ming. The streak of 18 is the NBA's longest in eight years. Shooting guard Tracy McGrady has been the star of a team that has suddenly bonded like superglue.

Mr. TRACY MCGRADY (Houston Rockets): We all believe, man. When you got a roster full of guys that really believe in themselves, great chemistry amongst the team, and we go out and play extremely hard every night, I'm not surprised.

GOLDMAN: In other years, the Rockets might be the top story of the NBA season. This year Houston may as well take a number.

Mr. HENRY ABBOTT (True Hoop): It's almost like the circus came to town, isn't it? Like over here we got the dancing bears and over here - like there's just every darn thing is going on all over the league.

GOLDMAN: And it's got Henry Abbott's keyboard smokin'. Abbott writes the popular blog, "True Hoop" on ESPN.com. The circus, he says, started early in the season. The Boston Celtics traded for superstar Kevin Garnett, beat everyone in sight and reestablished themselves as an NBA power. On the west coast the Celtics' classic rival, the L.A. Lakers bolted to the top of the standings, thanks to a major trade.

Several star players changed teams and loaded up the league's Western Conference, which already was bursting with talent. Henry Abbott says not only has the basketball been exciting, but so too a new generation of NBA players.

Mr. ABBOTT: It just seems like for whatever reason, the last few draft classes of young players have had a little bit of a different attitude, not your stereotypical selfish athletes, but you know, the kind of kids you want to have hanging around your house.

Unidentified Man: Now Roy with five to shoot has to take a long (unintelligible) hit in the corner.

Mr. ABBOTT: One such kid is 23-year-old Brandon Roy of the Portland Trailblazers. Last year's Rookie of the Year and an all-star this season, Roy is the leader of a team that until recently was dubbed the Jailblazers. But Portland got rid of its lawbreaking players, and now its identity is tied up in Roy.

He's an NBA rarity who went to college four years. He readily acknowledges the importance of his time at the University of Washington with basketball coach Lorenzo Romar.

Mr. BRANDON ROY (Portland Trailblazers): He held me accountable for being an adult. I was no longer a teenager. And he really taught me the game of basketball and how to work hard every day. And then he also taught me off the court how to be responsible and how to work hard every day. And he never allowed me to use any excuses.

GOLDMAN: Mature young athletes playing exciting basketball have helped goose the flat TV ratings of recent years. Variety reports that national television audiences are flocking back to the NBA with ratings up by double digits over last season. But no major pro-sports league is immune to trouble. Later this spring, the NBA referee scandal of last year will be back in the news.

Also, some teams are losing money. And the Supersonics are poised to leave Seattle for financial reasons. But for now the NBA circus is in town, and who knows what next thrill awaits under the big tent.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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