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NBA Commissioner Calls For Legalization Of Sports Gambling

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

LeBron James is back in Cleveland with the Cavaliers. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are struggling in LA. And the 76ers are off to a rough start in Philadelphia. And the most compelling news in basketball this week is happening off the court. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis is here to talk about all of the above. Hey there, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: All right. I'm going to go to the off-the-court stuff first. The commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, dropped a blockbuster in an op-ed in The New York Times. He writes that he supports legalized gambling on professional sports. What's going on there?

FATSIS: Well, Silver had alluded to his feelings a couple of times before. But now he's codified his and the NBA's new stance. And it is in contrast to that of his predecessor, David Stern, and at first glance to the NBA's own opposition to an effort by New Jersey to legalize sports betting, which is being considered now by a federal judge. Silver argues that sports betting, which is illegal in every state but Nevada, should be regulated by the federal government to get it out of the underground of shady bookies and offshore businesses. There is an obvious appetite among sports fans for a safe and legal way to wager on professional sporting events, Silver wrote in the Times.

CORNISH: But Stefan, it wasn't that long ago that the NBA had a problem with a referee betting on games, right? I mean, isn't this a risky position for the league?

FATSIS: Yes. Tim Donaghy. He was accused of betting on games that he was working and of making calls that would influence the points spread in those games. He wound up going to prison. Silver doesn't mention that, of course. But the NBA's counterargument here might be what Silver calls strict regulatory requirements to provide ways to monitor gambling activity, meaning if it were legal it might be harder to rig games. As to why the NBA might want to legalize gambling, the fact is that it stimulates interest in pro sports. It also could destigmatize Las Vegas, making it a potential site for an NBA team.

CORNISH: Another thing about Commissioner Silver - he found himself responding this week to some pretty charged comments made by the new head of the NBA's players' union. Her name's Michele Roberts. Tell us the story.

FATSIS: Well, Roberts is a Washington trial lawyer with the firm Skadden Arps. She was hired by the NBA players in July - first woman to head a major sports league union. In an interview with ESPN this week, Roberts called a cap on player salaries, which is common in sports. The NBA's had one for 30 years. She called it incredibly un-American. She also scoffed at the current 50-50 revenue split between players and owners saying why don't we have the owners play half the games? Adam Silver, the commissioner, found himself defending both his owners and the league's salary cap system. And this was really the first skirmish in labor talks that are going to begin in a couple of years.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, back on the court, let's talk LeBron, right? - NBA's best player. That's why I'm only saying his first name. I mean, he's off to a slow start after this big, dramatic return to Cleveland, his hometown team, which of course he left for Miami a few years back. It was such a drama, but what's happened?

FATSIS: Well, he won those two championships with the Heat, decided to come home as a free agent, pledged to do his best to bring a championship to Cleveland for the first time since 1964. He made this black and white Nike propaganda commercial about doing it all for the city. The Cavaliers managed to add a second superstar, power forward Kevin Love, to go along with the great, young point guard Kyrie Irving. Then the team lost three of its first four games, and everyone got worried. LeBron told his 16 million Twitter followers to relax in all capital letters. LeBron is right. The Cavs have won their last two games. It is a long season.

CORNISH: And of course it's already feeling like a long season for two teams we mentioned at the top - Los Angeles and Philadelphia. What is going on there?

FATSIS: Well, the Lakers have lost seven of their first eight games. Kobe Bryant this week did set the NBA career record for most missed shots, which isn't surprising given that it is his 19th season in the league. But missing shots is also the story of the first couple of weeks this year for Kobe. He's leading the NBA in scoring, but he's taking five more shots per game than anybody else. And he's making a career low with 39 percent of them. As for Philadelphia, the 76ers' no-name roster has built once again to land the number one pick in the NBA draft. They're winless in eight tries. Last night they lost to Dallas 123 to 70. That's 53 points. I'll do the math for you, Audie. They have to play 7 and 1 Houston tonight to conclude back-to-back road games. It should be ugly.

CORNISH: Stefan, thanks so much for catching us up.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: That's Stefan Fatsis. He joins us on Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. Follow him on Twitter - @stefanfatsis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.