07/01/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
ATHLETES OFTEN DEFEND THEIR huge salaries by saying they're really just entertainers—like rock stars or actors. Based on this year's hockey and basketball playoffs, one obvious question poses itself: You guys call this entertainment? If Roseanne, Jay Leno or Janet Jackson
performed as badly as superstars Shaquille O'Neal, Eric Lindros, David Robinson and the entire Detroit Red Wings hockey team have recently, they would all be back trolling for chuckles in the Catskills.
A few years ago, when Michael Jordan temporarily retired, the NBA began feverishly marketing young stars O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Chris Webber as heirs to Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Jordan. So far, the callow youths have failed to live up to the hoopla. Webber spends most of his time injured or getting his coach fired, Mourning's teams invariably crash and burn in the playoffs, and O'Neal's Orlando Magic have disgraced themselves two years straight at the playoffs by phoning in 0-4 tank jobs.
Meanwhile, over in the NHL, league legends like Lindros, Mario Lemieux and, yes, the entire Red Wings team failed to show up in critical series, resulting in a league nightmare: a Stanley Cup final between the obscure Colorado Avalanche and the gallant but exasperatingly dull Florida Panthers. Not only did the Panthers get massacred, losing in four straight games, but their fans embarrassed a league struggling to erase its down-market image by repeatedly showering the ice with hundreds of plastic rats (the team's jokey good-luck symbol).
As entertainment, the NHL has served up two consecutive dud finals; and the NBA, after last year's 4-and-out humiliation of the Magic by the Houston Rockets, produced a championship in which the Seattle Super-Sonics didn't click until they were hopelessly behind 0-3 games against the Chicago Bulls—and then won only two home games. As for amusement, these finals have resembled a 3 Tenors concert where José Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti show up with laryngitis.
The only high-priced jocks who have consistently provided top entertainment are Jordan's champion Bulls. That's because Jordan understands that there's nothing entertaining about losing.