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Monday, June 10, 2002
Updated: June 13, 1:22 PM ET
You don't hear the NBA complaining

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

As we're typing these words, over in another sport, the Lakers are one win from announcing their latest parade route. That's three in a row if you're counting parade routes at home.

Funny, isn't it, that we still haven't heard one word from anyone in the NBA, complaining that the Lakers are ruining a once-great sport?

OK, we know what you're thinking. You're thinking: "Wait. Isn't this supposed to be a column about baseball?" Well, you're right. This is a column about baseball. But watching the Lakers makes us think about the Yankees -- and about the differences between life in one sport and life in another.

It's about time baseball started doing more to sell everything that's right about its sport instead of everything that's wrong. The NBA has problems, too. It just doesn't turn them into a national marketing campaign.

Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer and lead labor negotiator, was gracious enough to visit us on the ESPN campus the other day. Here's what he said when the topic turned to MLB's favorite rallying cry -- competitive balance:

"Having one team in the World Series every year," DuPuy said, "is not competitive balance."

He was talking, of course, about the Yankees, a team that has made it to four straight World Series and won three of them. We don't deny that there's some truth in DuPuy's words. But like so much else in life, the good and the evil in the Yankees' run of greatness is in the perception.

So we asked DuPuy what the difference was between the dominance of the Lakers in one sport and the dominance of the Yankees in our sport.

He mentioned at one point that "more people were rooting for Sacramento" in the Western Conference finals than were rooting for the Lakers. We observed that undoubtedly, more people were rooting for the A's, Mariners and Diamondbacks last year, too.

DuPuy mentioned at another point how close the Lakers had come to losing to the Kings. We observed that the A's almost beat the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs two years in a row.

DuPuy then conceded, "I don't think there's anything wrong with the Yankees being good. And our system (in the owners' current labor proposal) won't stop the Yankees from being good. But it would be nice if somone like Oakland would stop them once in a while."

We won't even get into the fact that the Yankees would have to pay $100 million a year in revenue sharing and luxury taxes under that proposal. Just think for a moment how close Oakland actually came to stopping them just eight months ago. All right, let's all recite together: "If Jeremy Giambi had only slid ..."

Finally, DuPuy went to his NBA payroll chart and announced that the Lakers were 12th in the league in payroll this year. Which is true. But they were sixth and fourth the previous two years. And this is basketball, where two stars can dominate every game and allow you to play the Three Stooges at the other three spots and still win.

Still, DuPuy says -- with indisputable accuracy -- that except for three teams (the Knicks, Trail Blazers and Nets), the NBA's cap has produced a "flat" payroll chart. And that's great for their owners' bottom lines -- but does it mean that NBA system has produced more competitive balance than baseball?

Heck, no. As our colleague, Darren Rovell, has pointed out on our Sports Business page, it's produced far less competitive balance.

In the NBA, 22 of the last 23 finals have featured at least one team from the four largest cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston). The NBA system also has consistently churned out dynasties or mini-dynasties. In the last 20 years, only six franchises have won an NBA title -- and five of them either won at least two in a row or went to back-to-back finals.

The NBA system also has given us some of the worst teams in modern sports history. Just since 1988, there have been 28 losing streaks by NBA teams of 15 games or longer. In baseball, there have been two. Two.

So when you hear the baseball people speaking admiringly of the NBA's "flat" payroll chart, don't mistake that for a road map to competitive balance. It's been anything but.

We're not arguing it's a good thing for baseball to have a situation in which the Yankees' payroll is $100 million higher than the payroll of a team in their own division (the Devil Rays). Money in baseball equals depth. And depth shows up in the people on the Yankees' bench, in the guys who sit in their bullpen, in their fourth and fifth starters.

But it's a funny thing about that depth. Theoretically, it ought to make its biggest impact in the regular season, not in the postseason. So how come, over the last three years, the Yankees have never had the best regular-season record in the major leagues? They finished third, ninth and third, respectively.

In October, though, you don't win because you're rich. You win because your front-line players make plays. And in October, the Yankees haven't been a rich team. They've been a great team. There's a difference.

That greatness isn't a reflection of how much money the Yankees spend. It's a reflection of how well they spend it, how well they're run. Then it's up to the Derek Jeters and the Mariano Riveras to find ways to show the world the difference between all those other teams and the teams that are truly great in those moments when greatness is defined.

It has always been our feeling that it's good for any sport -- baseball included -- to have a great team in its midst. It's a team for everyone else to measure itself against, a team to set the standard, a team that emits a special charisma everywhere it travels.

So we couldn't help but think that that buzz at the Meadowlands on Sunday night sounded familiar. It sounded exactly like a buzz we heard last October -- when the Diamondbacks and Mariners and A's took a lead at home against the Yankees. And that buzz is what makes those events so exhilarating and so memorable.

"It's the nature of sports," says agent Tom Reich, "that everybody wants to see somone beat the 800-pound gorilla. That's why so many fans turn out when the Yankees come to town. They love it when people beat the 800-pound gorilla. That's true in baseball. That's true in basketball. It's true in every sport."

If the Yankees are so bad for baseball, how come they're on national TV every time you turn on your set? If the Yankees are so bad for baseball, how come they outdraw every team in the sport in road attendance? If the Yankees are so bad for baseball, why were we all so worked up last weekend when Barry Bonds finally came to the Bronx?

Because, in so many ways, they're not bad for baseball. They're great for baseball.

So what bothers us about the way Bud Selig's crowd complains about the Yankees isn't the merits of their arguments. It's all in the attitude with which they make those arguments.

It's about time baseball started doing more to sell everything that's right about its sport instead of everything that's wrong. The NBA has problems, too. It just doesn't turn them into a national marketing campaign.

So listen closely as David Stern presents the championship trophy to Jerry Buss and Shaq and Kobe this week. We bet he won't mention competitive balance for one mili-second -- even though his league has had so little of it, it makes baseball look like the World Cup.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.