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Sports | This year's NBA Finals bombed in the ratings, down 27 percent from the first game of last year's finals

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

Game winners, ratings killers

Perhaps basketball fans, sensing oncoming labor strife, tried a preemptive strike against the NBA. For whatever reason, NBA executives have reason to worry. This year's NBA Finals bombed in the ratings, down 27 percent from the first game of last year's finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons. Game 1 between the defending champs Detroit and the San Antonio Spurs drew the second smallest television-watching crowd for a Finals Game 1 ever. Game 1 this year couldn't even beat out a rerun of CBS's CSI.

Why such low interest? Don't blame the Pistons. Last year's squad drew impressive ratings against the Lakers. The league may have accidentally tipped its hand. An official NBA press release, trying to spin the abysmal TV numbers, noted the Pistons-Spurs matchup actually drew 9 percent more viewers than the last Finals Game 1 (2003) that didn't involve the popular Lakers. The problem: The Spurs were playing in 2003, too.

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And there's the bad sign for the NBA. Fans don't seem to care for the Spurs style of basketball. What's good for winning games-tough defense, consistent post play from Tim Duncan, and solid passing-isn't much good for attracting fans. What's worse, the Spurs could conceivably spawn a whole league full of copycat teams who neither attract new fans nor excite the ones they already have.

Extraordinary and commonplace

By now the Lance Armstrong story almost seems cliché. This July, Mr. Armstrong will race for his seventh Tour de France championship in a row before retiring. Looking back, his ride from cancer patient to champion seems even beyond fairy tales.

In October 1996, Mr. Armstrong, a young, up-and-coming American cyclist, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Once the cancer spread to his lungs and his brain, doctors gave him a 50/50 chance of survival. After surgery to remove a testicle and brain tumors-and sessions upon sessions of chemotherapy treatments on his lungs-doctors declared Mr. Armstrong cancer-free in 1997. In the summer of 1999, Mr. Armstrong entered the Tour de France-cycling's major event-and, though he was considered an underdog, he stunned cycling fans, winning the race.

One victory would have been sufficient to cement Mr. Armstrong's place in sports lore. But with victory came questions. Surely a former cancer patient couldn't walk away with a Tour de France victory? The French media began whispering about steroid allegations. Mr. Armstrong never failed a drug test and maintains to this day he's clean. His subsequent five victories have only served to solidify some Europeans' belief that the American dopes.

Win or lose this July, Mr. Armstrong won't be able to escape those claims. He can't prove a negative.

But if Mr. Armstrong wins his seventh Tour de France in a row, will anybody be surprised? Will anyone be impressed? Has Mr. Armstrong become too much like the Harlem Globetrotters and his competition too similar to the Washington Generals? If Mr. Armstrong's story were a fictional movie, cynical film critics would denounce it for lacking realism, for being too triumphant. That may be Mr. Armstrong's most impressive accomplishment-making the truly extraordinary seem commonplace.

Around the Horn

• One of baseball's most exclusive clubs will soon likely add its second Baltimore first baseman. Rafael Palmeiro, who during 2003 collected his 500th home run, is closing in on his 3,000th hit. Only three major leaguers have ever amassed 3,000 hits and 500 homers. Hank Aaron and Willie Mays accomplished the feat decades ago. Former Oriole Eddie Murray joined the club in 1996.

• It's not the way to attract a fan base. Just before the running of Formula One's United States Grand Prix on June 19, bad tires knocked out 70 percent of the field. During a practice lap, several teams using Michelin tires noticed their F1 cars struggled to maintain traction during a banked high-speed turn. As a result, all 14 cars using Michelins pulled out leaving just six cars in the race. Fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway showed their displeasure, showering the racers, including winner Michael Schumacher, with boos.

• Aaron Kinloch's business model was part baseball, part traffic jam, and part information super highway. The Omaha, Neb., resident, like others living in the neighborhoods surrounding College World Series home Rosenblatt Stadium, carved up pieces of his property to create 20 parking spots. But Mr. Kinloch went one step further, putting his parking spots up for auction on eBay, the internet bidding site. Mr. Kinloch says his parking spots won't necessarily go for more, but he won't have to stand on the street waving flags or signs trying to get people in his parking lot.

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