It's been a while since I cared about pro basketball.

I'm usually among the first to pounce on the league when high-profile players spend more time dragging the game through the gutter than working on their jump shots.

They're an easy target.

If you grew up watching guys like John Havlicek, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, Dave Cowens, Willis Reed and Walt Frazier play the game in short pants, you couldn't help but fall in love with guys like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. After that, everybody knew the game was headed for trouble.

The peak of basketball's popularity may have begun in 1979 when Bird's Indiana State team battled Johnson's Michigan State club in the most-watched NCAA title game in history. They topped that off by taking their talents to the NBA where they spearheaded the heated rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers during the 1980s.

But basketball went through a demographic change in the 1990s that moved it from suburbia to the city streets, a shift from rock 'n' roll to rap, a transition that, unfortunately, reflected the segregated mentality of the country at large.

Pimp convention

What happened between then and now may someday be known as the dark ages of pro basketball, a time when the game was known more for disrespect than respect.

The downward spiral culminated in a nasty brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons on a November night in 2004 when players went into the stands and attacked fans.

It wasn't pretty. Even NBA commissioner David Stern knew it was rock bottom, a benchmark for bad behavior, and he set about changing the game's image.

For the most part, his efforts worked. He cleaned up the look of the league and raised the bar on personal responsibility.

But the biggest change has come on the court, where the quality of play and players has come full circle, back to the way it was.

Great basketball

When the NBA finals begin tonight, America will be watching. All of America.

That's because this best-of-seven showdown between the perennial powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers and the rejuvenated Boston Celtics is bound to be a classic in the classic sense of the word.

L.A. coach Phil Jackson finally has the right mix of teammates to keep Kobe Bryant, the best player of his generation, from self-destructing.

Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce have brought the Celtics back to life and rekindled a passion for basketball that Boston has not had since the days of Red Auerbach.

This series is not about what the players wear or the style of their hair. For once, finally, it's about basketball. Good basketball. Great basketball.

After too many years of looking the other way, finding other things to do and hoping our kids don't emulate what they see on TV, we have every reason to watch what could be the best basketball series this century.

Reach Ken Burger at 937-5598 or kburger@postandcourier.com.