Fans embracing NBA exhibiting sheep mentality

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    By BETH PALMER

    You know how people sometimes wait at crosswalks — even if no cars are coming — for the walk signal to flash so they can cross the street? And yet other times they walk out in the middle of traffic just because the crowd waiting there decides to go?

    I call this sheep mentality. Everyone else is going — and the truth is you really want to even though you know you shouldn’t — so it gives you an excuse to. Crosswalks are a good example of it, but I’ve seen another prime one lately.

    The droves of fans returning to NBA games since the lockout was lifted reek of it so much I half-expect to hear bleating out of the crowds entering the gates.

    Right after the lockout was lifted last month, nearly 19,000 fans showed up at a Jazz scrimmage in Salt Lake City.

    A scrimmage.

    Does no one else remember the pettiness and selfishness both owners and players have been demonstrating for the last few months?

    Okay, so the Jazz intrasquad game boasted free admission, but when the season kicked off for real last weekend nearly 20,000 fans packed the Delta Center to see the Jazz play the shell of the defending world champion Bulls.

    So maybe that wasn’t such a big surprise. Most people expected the Jazz to recover quickly from the public relations nightmare the lockout was; after all, this is Utah. There’s not a lot of competition as far as professional sports entertainment goes. But the quick recovery is happening everywhere.

    So many people wanted to get into the SkyDome to watch a Raptors-Celtics exhibition game there was a virtual stampede and several people were hurt when thousands of fans tried to get through a single gate.

    Across the league, attendance for last weekend’s season-opening games averaged about 17,500. Only the Clippers had two crowds under 15,000, but that’s the Clippers. No one watches their games anyway.

    When baseball went through a similar labor dispute four years ago, fans were disillusioned and in large part stayed away. Owners did everything they could to try to draw fans back in, including risking alienating the traditional fans with juiced balls and drawn-in fences. Not until McGwire and Sosa’s assault of the homerun record last summer did the game re-find its place on the national stage.

    So why aren’t we forcing the NBA to earn its fans back too?

    We don’t need to stay away forever, but let’s not let the owners and players off the hook so easily.

    Returning right away sends a clear message that whenever the players feel like $10 million a year isn’t enough they can walk out and the fans will be panting outside the gates as soon as the owners cave in.

    Sports and their fans have always had an intimate relationship, so consider this analogy: if you were dumped by your “significant other” for reasons you didn’t really understand — but which sounded really shallow — with the assurance that, eventually, he or she would most likely come back to you, how would you feel? And when that person did come back, would you run back into his or her arms like no time had passed and nothing out of the ordinary had happened?

    Please, who would take that?

    So why are we giving the NBA that treatment? Of course, any sports junkie understands the reasons — as much as we say we’ll stay away, eventually we give in. But can’t we even last a couple of weeks?

    Let’s stay away for a while. Let’s hold out long enough to let the owners and players know they can’t get away with their childish behavior — just long enough to make them squirm. Granted, a few games wouldn’t hurt these people much, but at least it would make a statement.

    A statement other than “baa.”

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