The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy by Bill Simmons:
Here’s where the perception that the NBA was in trouble took hold, thanks to tape-delayed playoff games, declining attendance, star players mailing in games, Walton’s continued absence, Buffalo’s move to San Diego, Erving’s disappointing play in Philly, a 75:25 black-to-white ratio and something of a smear campaign from various newspaper columnists and even Sports Illustrated. Since sports fans in 1978 and 1979 took their cue from SI, everyone was thinking the same thing: “The NBA is in trouble.” Even if it wasn’t necessarily true. With Boston already owning Bird’s draft rights, Indiana State’s undefeated ’79 season assumed greater significance for NBA fans as it unfolded. Bird loomed as the potential savior of a floundering Celtics franchise, and when Bird battled Magic’s Michigan State squad in the 1979 NCAA Finals, that boosted Magic’s profile to savior status as well. By sheer coincidence, two of the league’s three biggest markets (L.A. and Chicago) controlled the first two picks in the ’79 draft. The Lakers won the coin toss and Magic, while Chicago’s ensuing tailspin ended with Jordan saving them five years later. Throw in Boston signing Bird and everyone wins! Within a year, Bird saved the Celtics, Magic gave Kareem a pulse for the first time in five years, Philly finally built the right cast of role players around Doc, all three teams on 60-plus games and made the Conference Finals, and Magic put himself on the map with the clinching game of the Finals.
A bigger savior was coming that summer: cable. Just weeks after the NBA signed a three-year, $1.5 million deal with the USA Network for Thursday night doubleheaders and early round playoff games, ESPN launched the first-ever twenty-four-hour sports network on September 7, 1979, paving the way for SportsCenter, fun-to-watch highlights, and an eventual competitor for the league’s cable rights. You couldn’t find better advertising than slickly packaged game summaries that featured every exciting dunk, pass, and big shot and left out all the unseemly stuff. (You know, like fistfights, empty seats, utter indifference and players jog around and looking spent for the wrong reasons.) David Stern believe the arrival of ESPN and cable TV had more to do with saving the NBA than Bird and Magic, although he feels like the whole “saving” part has been totally overblown. Which it probably was. Remember, the Dallas Mavericks joined in 1980-81 for a cool expansion fee of $12 million, finishing 15-67 that season and spawning countless “Yeesh, maybe they should have had J. R. Ewing coach the team” jokes that were hysterically funny twenty-nine years ago. How bad could things have been if rich guys were throwing out $12 million checks to join the NBA?