The NBA, in the minds and hearts of collectors and fans, is no longer a Bull market. But just because Michael Jordan has decided to call it quits, again, is no reason to believe the rumors that he is going to make a run at pro volleyball or skeet shooting. It also doesn't mean the bottom will fall out of the market for NBA collectibles.
True, the league is in for some tough times. The lockout damaged the momentum the league established during the 1990s; momentum that was due in no small part to Jordan's marketing and on-court skills. Additionally, many feel that this year's 50-game season will be mostly a sham, with too many games to weed out the few teams that will go to the playoffs.
But come playoff time, there should be major contention to see which team will inherit the Bulls' throne. The league, after all, still boasts Patrick Ewing, Akeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Shaquille O'Neal. The real drop off is likely to come when all of the aforementioned, save O'Neal, opt to retire in the next year or two (O'Neal may follow suit soon if the sirens' call of Hollywood and rap music convinces him to follow the golden road away from the Los Angeles Lakers).
It is true that no sport can match Jordan when it comes to marketing skill and fan interest. And as much as the NBA would like the fans and collectors to believe that there is another Jordan already playing, just waiting for the opportunity to shine, it isn't likely that will happen. Jordan combined once-in-a-generation skills with a willingness to market himself in such a way that everything he touched turned to gold. His positive image made every collectable worth more than that of anyone else, and that figures to be the case for years to come-even as he eases into retirement. The Jordan name commands big dollars for everything from autographs to perfume to underwear.
In this writer's opinion, for the NBA to survive and continue to be a viable investment for collectors, it should look toward re-establishing rivalries, rather than finding Jordan's successor. More than a dozen highly touted, flashy players have entered the league in the 1990s as the 'next Jordan' only to fall far short of his Airness's wizardry on the court. Let's face it: there isn't going to be another Michael Jordan for years to come and comparing others to him will only make those Jordan-wannabes pale that much more by comparison.
It was the intensity of the team rivalries, particularly between the Lakers and Celtics, that enabled the NBA to revive itself in the late 1970s. With players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson serving as the cornerstones of that competition.
Unfortunately, with a switch in focus to superstardom and celebrity status, the team rivalries have waned through the years. Jordan actually LOST four straight playoff series before he could lead his team past Detroit and Los Angeles to the NBA title, but there was one simple truth: fans turned out to see Jordan and forgot about the rivalries within a division, conference or league.
Still, this season could be interesting with the Lakers battling it out with Seattle, Portland and Phoenix for supremacy. Additionally, San Antonio, the Jazz aging and Houston are prime to develop some rancor within their division. With Jordan gone, the Pacers, Knicks and Heat are the teams to beat. Fortunately for the NBA, there is plenty of acrimony between New York and Miami and will continue to be as long as Pat Riley is involved in the mix. Detroit could come back to playoff prominence with Grant Hill, generally regarded as the next best hope to fill Jordan's shoes. Likewise Boston, under Rick Pitino, seems to be on an upward spiral and could recharge some of its longtime rivalries with the Knicks and Lakers. Even the Jordan-less Chicago Bulls will continue to be a draw, even if it is simply for teams that got beat up by Jordan & Co. in the past to exact some revenge.
Whatever the case, the NBA has its work cut out with the double blow dealt by the departure of Jordan and the lockout. If their marketing strategy works, the league could survive and prosper. Otherwise, fans and collectors alike better hope that Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa hits 71 home runs next year and ball No. 71 fetches the $3 million pricetag achieved by No. 70. Unfortunately for the NBA, basketball cards, autographs and memorabilia won't be worth very much in comparison.