Hoop Dreams

A matchup between two NBA long shots 
is far from a hometown franchise


The NBA season ended with a thrilling seven-game series between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. At any given time, a half-dozen future Hall of Fame players were on the floor. Up until the last game, it was impossible to figure out which team would win the series. The Heat were pronounced dead and LeBron called a fraud seemingly every day until the end; the Spurs, the underdogs, avoided such castigation.

Will the Heat be an official dynasty, like the Lakers and Celtics of bygone eras? Who really knows? Much changes in the NBA on a yearly basis. It's easy to imagine a key injury or two driving the Heat back to the pack. It's equally easy to imagine other franchises rising to take the Miami club's place.

Some franchises are closer to that goal than others. Two that don't seem especially close to championship glory — at least at this time — will meet in an October preseason tilt in Jacksonville: the Orlando Magic and the New Orleans Pelicans. This will be the Magic's third preseason trip to Northeast Florida and the first since 2008, just eight days after the team opens training camp in Orlando. In discussing the initiative, Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown was his usual restrained self.

"When the 2013 NBA preseason begins, Jacksonville will be getting a piece of the action," Brown said in a news conference. "We're very excited to be working with the NBA again … one of the strongest and most recognized brands in the world."

Brown said the game allows Jacksonville to show the world that it's a great destination for sports and entertainment.

"We want this to be a spotlight that helps fans everywhere get an interest in Jacksonville and in Jacksonville's story, because we have a great story to tell," he said, referring to a revitalized Downtown, parks, beaches and a "re-energized job market."

After his remarks, Magic representative and former star Nick Anderson and Jacksonville University hoops legend Artis Gilmore added a few anodyne comments. But what stood out was the mayor's oversized rhetoric about a midweek preseason game between two squads that have been something less than watchable in recent years. I understand what he's trying to do, but his rhetoric is such that it sets Jacksonville up for failure on all counts, because it oversells the event — a preseason game between two squads that are very much in transition.

Let's be real: If you expect basketball on par with the just-concluded playoffs, or even with a midweek game in December, you aren't going to get it. What you will see is a lot of experimentation — coaches trying to figure out what they have on the roster and where the parts fit. Given that Orlando is coming off a 20-win season, and New Orleans off a 27-55 campaign, that's about the best you can hope for.

Sure, it's better than no basketball at all. It's also the best available opportunity Jacksonville will have this year to prove it's an NBA market. And it's also Brown's personal chance to prove that what he said on the subject earlier this year has some merit.

"Oh, we are going to have an NBA [team]. Absolutely, yes, my goodness!" Brown told onyxmagazine in March. "It may take five years or eight years, but we are going to have an NBA team in Jacksonville. I'm a sports fan. I believe we should not have to go into Orlando or Miami. We can have a team right here in Jacksonville. I'm going to take Jacksonville to the next level, and that's one of the ways we are going to do it."

If Jacksonville packs this preseason game, it will send a definite message to the NBA. But what if it doesn't? Will the city have failed if attendance is less than 10,000? Not necessarily.

Consider that the Pelicans (formerly the Hornets) were not a draw last year, with an average attendance less than 14,000, and that's on paper. Orlando was in the middle of the attendance pack, an achievement given its record in the post-Dwight Howard era. And local sports fans have been taught by the Jaguars how little the preseason matters.

I'm all for "the next level." However, we should be aware of the loose connection between a practice game with two bottom-feeder franchises and actual civic advancement.

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