Jordan's Bulls still hold all the aces

Richard Taylor previews the 50th NBA season that tips off today
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The Independent Online
The game goes hyperactive today, along with a few investment brokers and bank managers, when the jump-shooting, shot-blocking, slam-dunking megabuck National Basketball Association tips off for its 50th season.

On 1 November 1946 post-war America launched a new sporting league, the Basketball Association of America, when the Toronto Huskies hosted the New York Knickerbockers. Tommy Byrnes stole the game 68-66 for the Knicks with two free throws.

The Knicks are still here, opening the schedule today at Toronto again, but against the second-year franchise Raptors. Tommy Byrnes would have marvelled at today's NBA: how one of his peers is unhappy with a four- year $46m (pounds 29m) contract; and how another is earning $121m (pounds 76m) over seven years but cannot shoot free throws to save his life. It is as well that the game 50 years ago did not depend on Shaquille O'Neal standing on the line.

The incredible salaries are made possible by the insatiable demand for licensed products and merchandise, fed by NBA games and magazine programmes beamed to 180 countries by satellite and terrestrial TV stations.

The world market in replica kit, balls and other products is worth $3,000m (pounds 1,900m) to the NBA, with 10 per cent of that from Europe, where they have offices in Geneva, Paris and London, including $60m (pounds 37.75m) from the UK. Sky TV and Channel 4 both broadcast NBA games and magazine programmes this season.

The demand for NBA products is almost matched by the players' demands for dollars. Indiana's Reggie Miller, an Olympic gold medal winner in the summer with the USA's "Dream Team", was holding out for a five-year deal with the Pacers, but settled for $9m (pounds 5.7m) a season over four years. "I wanted people to understand Reggie Miller is not a greedy person," he said.

O'Neal, at 7ft 4in, has cut and run from the Orlando Magic after his 26 points and 12 rebounds per game failed to turn the young franchise into champions. The once all-powerful Los Angeles Lakers are close enough to Hollywood for O'Neal's rap and movie careers, but will examine his credentials to be considered alongside the true greats in the purple and gold, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.

If the old Lakers and their legends are the benchmark for O'Neal, the rest of the League still have to measure up to the black and red of the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls are still Michael Jordan's team, but to stop Chicago winning the title for the fifth time in seven years, opponents will have to beat Dennis Rodman. Alongside Jordan and Scottie Pippen, he gives Chicago the most potent triple threat in the League.

The extraordinary Rodman, at only 6ft 10in arguably the greatest rebounder in NBA history, dyes his hair a different colour each game and is a cross dresser who sets out to shock and thrill on and off the court. He should have won the Most Valuable Player at last season's finals, but it predictably went to Jordan.

The Bulls beat Seattle 4-2 and the challenge from the west may have to come from the Sonics again. The Houston Rockets, champions in '94 and '95 during Jordan's temporary retirement, signed Charles Barkley from Phoenix but decimated their line-up to get him by allowing Robert Horry, Chucky Brown, Mark Bryant and Sam Cassell to make the return trip to the Suns. Unless, of course, further down the west coast, the challenge comes from the Lakers if "Shaq" starts repaying some of that massive investment.

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