News - Paid to play, not pray

But first, there has to be a game on the schedule

If David Stern wonders why nobody is paying attention to his precious playoffs, the NBA commissioner should take a look at his stupid television schedule.

Playoff series are supposed to be intense, as anyone watching the early brackets of March Madness or the every-other-day battles in the ongoing NHL playoffs knows. Too bad the NBA cares more about showcasing the Knicks and Toronto's Vince Carter on weekends than it does about the quality of the games. If the Knicks-Raptors best-of-five series goes the distance, it will take two weeks to complete. And that's only the opening round, folks.

Think about what the NBA is doing. It's forced the live audience out of the arena with their ridiculous ticket prices. The league would rather go after corporate clients who can write off the expense of leasing so-called luxury boxes where occupants who are not necessarily fans of the sport or the home team eat non-stop while watching the game going on right in front of them on an in-suite monitor instead.

The NBA doesn't care. It has fat contracts with NBC, TNT and TBS. The NBC contract is worth more, so NBC gets the marquee matchups, which they want in prime time. How prime is it when there are three off days between games?

Are you watching?

Meanwhile, an unintended by-product of this leisurely pace is all the free time we have to devote to considering Charlie Ward's latest display of ignorance. Not for the first time has the Knicks point guard employed his particular brand of closed-minded religion as a weapon of prejudice.

A while back, God supposedly didn't want female reporters in the Knicks locker room. Even Ward's wife was shaking her head over that one. In the latest episode, reported in the April 22 New York Times Magazine, Ward was asking why Jews would "persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn't want to accept? They had his blood on their hands."

Ward's initial taken-out-of-context excuse didn't fly in this instance because this quote (and a few others in a similar vein) was set in a specific context: a Knicks Bible-study class headed by Ward.

David Stern declined to fine or suspend Ward for his skewed vision, saying he had no desire to make a martyr out him. He may have been thinking of Major League Baseball's handling of the John Rocker episode. Stern had no problem making a martyr out of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf a few years ago when he refused to stand for the National Anthem, citing his Muslim beliefs.

Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy also tiptoed through the mine field, saying he wanted to support a player who had made a mistake. (Not that Ward thinks it was a mistake.) That's because Van Gundy is still trying to live down a recent comment in New York magazine that, "The two worst things to happen to the NBA were God and golf."

You can get a condemnation of golf from any trainer in the NBA — the swing is all wrong for a cager's back. (see Blaylock, Mookie.) As to the God part of Van Gundy's lament, the gym-rat coach was not expressing his opposition to religion. He was expressing irritation at the team chaplain constantly traipsing through the locker room before games while Van Gundy was trying to get his team ready to play.

Think about it. Pro basketball teams practice two hours a day. (Three, if Pat Riley or Larry Brown is the coach.) That counts stretching, a critical exercise designed to lessen injuries. (Imagine how many players would be out with pulled quad and hamstrings if they didn't.) Then there is weight work, adding on another hour. Two hours, for the truly dedicated or the truly scrawny. On game days, the morning shoot-around lasts an hour. Players generally report to the arena an hour and a half before a game that takes a little more than two hours to play.

At most, then, the job of being a professional basketball player requires four or five hours on off days, six hours on game days.

If I were being paid $10 million a year to dribble a ball, I'd be searching for justification, too. On my own time. And with the schedule the NBA has given the Knicks, there's more than enough hours in the day for Bible study. Outside the locker room.

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