Fans' Hoop Dreams Tainted by N.B.A. Rift
By NICHOLE M. CHRISTIAN
Published: Saturday, November 7, 1998
On a nippy November afternoon, when he would ordinarily be leaping toward the basketball rim trying to imitate the aerodynamic glide of his hero, Michael Jordan, 11-year-old Jonathan Figueroa grimaced at the mention of basketball.
Instead, Jonathan, who once aspired to be a point guard, was transforming the Goat Courts at 99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue -- one of New York City's most hallowed hoops grounds -- into an asphalt baseball field. And with repeated swings of his wooden bat, he tried to forget ever having loved Jordan or professional basketball, which he says is so ''messed up'' in a labor dispute that fans like him have been pushed to the sidelines.
''Basketball is dead,'' Jonathan declared, continuing to swipe the air with his bat. ''The players only really care about getting a lot of money. I don't care if it ever comes back. It's all about baseball now.''
By the calendar at least, basketball loyalists like Jonathan should be tethered to their televisions, trying to glimpse the latest moves, newest phenoms and hottest highlights of the National Basketball Association. But this season, a high-stakes labor battle between the N.B.A.'s more than 400 players and 29 team owners has already canceled 194 games in November and is threatening to call off the entire schedule.
The two sides are at odds over how best to divide basketball's billion dollar revenue base, and the owners have locked out the players. The players want 60 percent of that total; the owners are offering 50.
On the basketball courts and public playgrounds of New York City, which have launched legions of basketball dreamers -- and more than a few N.B.A. stars -- hard-core fans of all ages are directing sharp words at both the players and the owners. While almost no one is well versed or even particularly interested in the details of the day-to-day negotiations, many fans say they have heard enough to know this much: Basketball is disintegrating into a game of greed.
As in many urban areas across the country, basketball has long been more than just a sport in New York. It has also been a way for young people in poor neighborhoods to grasp at America's modern pastime: success, and the wealth that comes along with it. But as with other such pursuits, basketball has a heartbreaking trail of disappointments -- none better known in New York than that of Earl (the Goat) Manigault, for whom the Amsterdam courts are named. Manigault became a local legend for his ability to defy gravity on the court, but a heroin addiction spoiled his chances of pursuing a professional career.
So perhaps the N.B.A. impasse has a particularly sharp resonance on the city's concrete playgrounds, where those who sweat and dream of an N.B.A. career and its comforts feel betrayed by the few who have made it.
Players at the famed West Fourth Street court in Manhattan recently joked about the predicament of Kenny Anderson, a former point guard for the New Jersey Nets. Anderson said recently that he might have to sell one of his eight luxury cars now that he is unable to collect his $5.8 million salary from his new team, the Boston Celtics.
Anderson, who has homes in New York and Los Angeles and a fledgling entertainment company, has said that he spends $75,000 a year on the upkeep of his cars and is currently losing $76,000 for every game that he does not play.
''It's insulting,'' said Stephen Breslin, 15, a West Fourth Street regular. ''They can go out and buy a whole bunch of cars and apartments and we're supposed to feel bad. Get real. Even the ones who make only a couple hundred thousand still have it better than most people out here. I don't have sympathy for either side.''
Some basketball devotees have so distanced themselves from the N.B.A.'s troubles that they had to be reminded that the official start of the season came and went this week.
Last year, Eddo Smalls, 16, spent his time and money collecting memorabilia related to his favorite sports heroes at the time, the Orlando Magic guard Penny Hardaway and the Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal. But the two have now been dethroned by the likes of ''Big Sexy Kevin Nash'' and ''Stone Cold Steve Austin,'' stars from the world of professional wrestling.
''Wrestling is the last pure sport,'' Eddo said. ''They don't have big N.B.A egos. Everything they do is for the fans.''
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