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Kovacevic: Why Pittsburghers reject the NBA

| Friday, June 1, 2012, 12:26 a.m.
Miami Heat's LeBron James fails to shoot under pressure from Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce in the second quarter during Game 2 of their Eastern Conference Finals game in Miami on Wednesday, May 30, 2012. Reuters

I'm getting word daily now from a couple of people — and no more — that there's this wonderful NBA playoff taking place. They gush about the Heat, Celtics, Spurs and some Oklahoma City franchise like they're Spike Lee in the front row. They tell tales of big upsets, buzzer-beaters, the whole deal.

Haven't seen a solitary minute.

This has zilch to do with basketball. I thoroughly enjoy most every other form, from high school gyms to big-time colleges to Suzie McConnell-Serio's surging women at Duquesne to McKeesport's Swin Cash going for Olympic gold. As the old ad used to go, I love this game.

I just tune out the NBA. Which is to say, I'm a born and bred Pittsburgher.

So is Bob Miller, owner of Sidelines Bar and Grill in Millvale, and he's got the scars to prove it.

Two months ago, a local radio station approached Miller with an idea to convert Sidelines — just for a night — into a Clippers bar. The business would get a boost, and the station could have a little fun.

Miller was cool with it but, just to be sure, he sent an email blast to the 1,200 customers on his “Beer Club” list to get their thoughts.

More than 100 replies torched his inbox.

“If you show the NBA, I'll stop coming there forever!” one read.

Others were less civil, including at least hints of racism. Miller recalled one worrying the NBA would attract “the wrong crowd.”

Alas, Millvale never became L.A. East.

On Wednesday night at Sidelines, the 10 mounted TVs were broken down thusly: Five were on Root Sports' Pirates-Reds game (with sound), four on NBC's Kings-Devils Stanley Cup Final matchup, and just one — back in the corner — on ESPN's Heat-Celtics NBA semifinal.

Sounds about right.

The overnight Nielsen ratings in Pittsburgh for those broadcasts: Pirates (6.6), Stanley Cup (3.4) and NBA (3.1). That's not a huge gap in the last two, but the NBA had its main attraction, LeBron James, on the marquee. The previous night, the Spurs and Oklahoma City drew a more typical 2.6.

The Penguins aren't in this equation, but they've boasted some breathtaking numbers in recent years: Their average 8.03 rating on Root Sports this season not only was best in the NHL but also better than any NBA team .

That's unheard of.

“Nobody fills my place like the Penguins, not even the Steelers, maybe because we get a younger crowd,” Miller said. “I'll have people come as early as 5 for a 7 o'clock faceoff just to make sure they have a seat. And I'm talking regular season.”

Yes, the NBA kills the NHL in national ratings, often 3 to 1. Even in Los Angeles on Wednesday, with the Kings vying for a first Cup, Heat-Celtics won the night, 6.1 to 4.2.

Yes, the NBA is blessed with such star power that Sidney Crosby couldn't touch the third -most famous player on one NBA team's roster. (For real. It's Chris Bosh of the Heat.)

And yes, the NBA benefits from the cheerleading of TV rights-holder ESPN and the rest of the national media, most of which is run by folks too ingrained to look into a) why the NHL outdraws the NBA at the gate and b) why eight markets with teams in both leagues, including Philadelphia and Chicago, now get better local ratings for hockey.

But us, we're the total oddballs. We enjoy hoops. We play hoops, including at the highest level. But we never wanted an NBA franchise, and you can bet your Zydrunas Ilgauskas rookie card we'll never have one.

Maybe we're tapped out. Pittsburgh is the smallest U.S. market with as many as three major league franchises. And we do just fine. We sell out every game for two teams, and we support the other way more than most cities would amid a 19-year losing streak.

Or maybe it's inherited. All eight attempts at professional basketball in this town were epic failures. Even the Pittsburgh Pipers, who claimed the American Basketball Association crown in 1968, averaged fewer than 1,000 fans at Civic Arena and bolted for Minnesota the next season.

We're no closer now. No one has publicly expressed interest in bringing an NBA team here since 2000. (It was wholly ignored.) And not a single suitor has seriously approached the Penguins about sharing their home — which would be a must in our city — since Consol Energy Center opened.

That last nugget never had been reported. I'll presume it's because no one cared enough to ask.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at

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