“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell wrote in London’s Tribunemore than half a century ago. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”
War minus the shooting. That’s a condemning reflection on sport if I’ve ever heard one, and one with which I don’t necessarily agree. See, sports are different today than they were in 1945, having grown beyond limited audiences in small townships through the undeniable power of coaxial cables, television networks, and, more recently, the Internet. What has changed most since Orwell scrutinized the Sporting Spirit is the delinquent disregard of sporting rules—it isn’t as evident. But while sportsmanship today is probably at an all-time high (since many professional athletes are content to play for the money, and the money is good), “serious sport” is dominated by the referee’s whistle, though not because of increased subordination inside the lines.
It’s because the rules of the game have changed. Take the Hoop World’s Order, for instance: both National Basketball Association (NBA) and the International Basketball Federation‘s (FIBA) official rule books are more than 60 pages long. Today’s official sporting guides, with their rules and sections and articles, live in stark contrast to the regulations created by basketball’s law-giving father, James Naismith, in the wicked December of 1891. (Naismith, a physical fitness instructor at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, had but 13 rules which were tacked to a bulletin board in the gymnasium so that his students could learn the rules.)
As we race forward into the future in a rapidly changing world, it’s always entertaining to take a moment and remember we have come from. In a similar light, when children’s games like Naismith’s peach-basket pastime are, as Orwell put it, built up into heavily-financed activities “capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions,” it’s fascinating to imagine what the sport once represented and how the game was played.
James Naismith’s 13 rules of basketball, sold for $4.3 million in 2010 (transcript below):
The ball to be an ordinary Association foot ball. [Editor's note: what modern day Americans would call a soccer ball.]
The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.
The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist).
A player cannot run with the ball, the player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball when running at a good speed.
The ball must be held in or between the hands, the arms or body must not be used for holding it.
No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed. The first infringement of this rule by any person shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed.
A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of rules 3 and 4, and such as described in rule 5.
If either side makes three consecutive fouls it shall count a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the meantime making a foul).
A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges and the opponent moves the basket it shall count as a goal.
When the ball goes out of bounds it shall be thrown into the field, and played by the person first touching it. In case of a dispute the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower in is allowed five seconds, if he holds it longer it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on them.
The umpire shall be judge of the men, and shall note the fouls, and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify men according to Rule 5.
The referee shall be judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, and to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time. He shall decide when a goal has been made, and keep account of the goals with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee.
The time shall be two fifteen minute halves, with five minutes rest between.
The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winners. In case of a draw the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made.
First draft of Basket Ball rules. Hung in the gym that the boys might learn the rules – Dec 1891
In sports and life in general, we observe points of data and create narratives. Some make sense, have basis in tangible reality. But those aren’t as fun as the narratives based in emotion and psychology. As much as we love the chess match between coaches, the technical virtuosity of the players, it’s the personal, sentimental stories that really sink the hook in the casual fan.
This yearning can inspire people, from writers to the guy at the local sports bar, to impose storylines where they don’t belong. But sometimes the sport provides the most compelling narratives all on its own.
The story arc of last night’s Dallas victory was straight out of Disney, or Rocky, or any number of highly conventional hero tales. Example: Cinderella (via sivers.org).
On Thursday night, the scene was set perfectly: the Mavericks had their backs to the wall, it was all or nothing, do or die, win or go home with a 2-0 deficit, cliché, cliché, clichéd cliché. And things did look bleak after Game 1, in which the Mavericks did little of note other than convince us of their underdog status. Columnists’ keyboards clicked with proclamations of the impending Miami dynasty.
And then this:
Act I: Our heroes prove they belong
We find the Dallas Mavericks in a low state. They got kicked around at the end of Game 1, and few, if any, are giving them a chance to get back in the series. The game begins and the Mavericks and Heat trade jabs. They remain deadlocked a fast and loose first half. The score is tied, but even that is a win for the downtrodden Mavericks. They are officially back on the horse after been so rudely bucked to the dirt in the 4th quarter of Game 1. The audience is engaged, there may be hope after all.
Act II: Tragedy befalls our heroes
The third and 3rd of the 4th quarter belong to Miami. Dallas looks old, a little unnerved by Miami’s swarming, reaching defense. Jason Kidd throws the ball away. Dirk Nowitzki can’t get on track. Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are making it look easy in the open court with alley oops and full throttle dunks. After Wade splashes a corner 3 right in front of the Mavericks’ bench, he holds his hand in the goose-neck pose. On the brink, Dallas has no answers, and we wonder if there exists a way to hold back these two superlative talents. There’s a sadness about the apparent inevitability of it all.
Act III: Unexpected glory
All of the sudden the Mavericks dam the levee, the tide of Miami fastbreak points slackens. Now everything is flowing the other way. The signature moves: Jason Kidd spots up for a 3, Marion hits an awkward quasi-layup, Jason Terry dribbles hard to his right and pulls up for a 12-footer. The points are coming faster now, Dirk Nowitzki looked tired just minutes before but now he’s taken the lead on fastbreaks and a 3-pointer!
But the Heat won’t die that easily. Mario Chalmers gets wide, wide, wide open triple and calmly ties the game from directly in front of the hollering Mavericks bench. Thus the scene is set for The Final Showdown.
Everything is as it should be. Dirk accomplishes two worthy feats: further distancing himself from the soft stigmata and winning the game by powering past Chris Bosh and deftly rolling the ball home off the splinted finger, torn tendon and all.
Sometimes the narrative does not require adornment. We were thrilled by Game 2′s conventional hero story, a satisfying structure we know and love. And as the series shifts back to Dallas, we now have something even better in the world of athletics and competition: no clue what will happen next.
In his thorough and very official preview of the Western Conference Finals between Dallas and Oklahoma City, Rob Mahoney imparted some sage thoughts about how the Mavericks, despite lacking an elite perimeter defender, could frustrate the dynamic Russell Westbrook:
Kidd doesn’t try to go chest-to-chest with [Westbrook], but backs away, affording Westbrook all the opportunity to give into temptation and fire off his pet pull-up jumper. Westbrook isn’t a horrible shooter, but this is far and away the preferred result of any Thunder possession. Not only does it often result in a low-percentage shot, but it creates a scenario in which Westbrook has to turn down open shots on every single possession in order to get the ball to Durant or any other Thunder player.
The result in Game 1: Westbrook got to the line 18 times, but also only shot 3-15 from the field and recorded only three assists against four turnovers. He routinely failed to initiate productive offense, particularly against Dallas’s zone, and spent multiple possessions dribbling out the shot clock before finally hoisting a mid-range attempt.
The cause of his frustration seemed to be the ready availability of decent, but not great, shot opportunities. I doubt very much that Westbrook will shoot quite so poorly on those same attempts for the rest of the series, but the question that plagued Westbrook in Game 1 will persist: is this the best shot my team can get on this possession?
Joachim de Posada (no relation to Joakim Noah OR Jorge Posada) has some advice for the young point guard: wait. Posada conducted a study with a bunch of kindergarten age kids to see how many could go 15 minutes alone in a room without eating a marshmallow, tantalizingly left in front of them, with the reward being two marshmallows. He found that those children who were able to withstand this barbaric test were much more likely to have success later in life.
That’s because the children who could wait had learned an invaluable lesson. Argues Posada “already four, the child understood the most important principle for success, which is the ability to delay gratification–self discipline.”
Watch video of Posada’s presentation:
Now, I don’t want to suggest that Westbrook, a young man who has quite obviously put thousands of hours of hard work into his game and takes the effort necessary to reach greatness very seriously, lacks some discipline gene. But I do think he likes to shoot, and score, and that he struggles when asked to delay this impulse for the betterment of his team and his own play.
It’s arguable that Scott Brooks has spent two seasons indulging Westbrook in his aggressive desire. It was likely a pragmatic decision: the Thunder needed points, Westbrook could provide them. In fact the ability to relentlessly pressure the rim is Westbrook’s greatest strength. But Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has turned this strength into a liability through shrewd gameplanning.
Westbrook is truly a superior scorer and in order to reach the Finals his team will need him to do just that. But Dallas is going to keep asking him to wait, to police his reflexive reaction to open space. For an instinctive player like Westbrook, this is problematic. He’s a 22 year old second year point guard, and reigning in his impulses, learning when to take and when patience will be rewarded by a second marshmallow, is the next lesson he must learn.
One way or another, this series will be a meaningfully instructive moment on Westbrook’s journey to point guard greatness. He’s got the perfect tutor opposite of him in Jason Kidd. It’s Kidd’s habit to shotfake, penetrate and then, with an open 16-footer slapping him in the face, wait, keep his dribble alive and find an open teammate.
Westbrook has been rewarded for gorging on that first marshmallow all year. Now, the Thunder must hope he can break a positively reinforced habit by learning on the fly.
[Editor's Note: Benjamin Polk is a writer at the ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog A Wolf Among Wolves. Here, Polk explores the idea of the NBA's fall from grace, articulated in Harvey Araton's Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home, in light of the fantastic state of the sport today.--Beckley]
Has anybody else noticed how awesome the NBA playoffs are? Most obviously: the players. Chris Paul’s shuddering crossovers; Kevin Durant’s willowy grace; the giddy terror of watching Derrick Rose scythe through the Pacers’ defense over and over again–these are just the beginning. We’re seeing offenses that score in florid bunches, that move the ball and run the floor, that flow and hum; we’re seeing unprecedented defensive creativity and commitment. And of course there are the feverish, bracingly competitive games themselves: the ridiculous upsets and comebacks, the monochromatic, totally geeked-out crowds.
Thinking about all this, watching these games, it’s a little funny to consider the fact that just six years ago many observers of the NBA were talking doom. Remember this apocalyptic scene? Remember the young, desperately unstable Ron Artest of 2004? This is not the smiley guy with the champagne who thanked his therapist on TV. I’m talking about the Ron Artest who, for a long moment, embodied one of the deepest, darkest terrors of the white, comfortably seated American sports spectator: the fear that angry, hypertrophicallly muscled young black manhood could burst through the fourth wall and have its vengeance.
This moment, commonly known as “The Malice at the Palace,” in which Artest and the city of Detroit walk hand in hand into insanity, is easily the low point of the NBA’s public image in the past three decades. For many people–and, perhaps most crucially, in the league’s own nightmares–the brawl represented a culmination of more than ten years worth of machismo and thuggishness. The Malice was a literal depiction of the NBA’s bad conscience.
As such, it’s the jumping off place for Harvey Araton’s 2005 book, Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home.Araton’s thesis, if I understand it correctly, has two main strands. First: beginning with the fading of the NBA’s last golden age–call it the Dream Team Era–American professional basketball slowly degraded into a supremely athletic, but selfish and fundamentally unsound spectacle, especially when compared with the international game. Second: partially for the aforementioned reasons but also because of socio-economic factors, NBA players and fans have grown into a state of mutual antagonism. Both of these strands, Araton believes, reached their zenith that scary night in Auburn Hills.
I call it a thesis, but “Crashing the Borders” is really more of a combination basketball travelogue and strident op-ed than anything resembling a rigorous argument. Which is mostly fine. Araton covers a lot of interesting ground, marshals an impressive collection of anecdotes and vignettes, and brings a reporter’s natural, voracious curiosity to bear on a subject that should be of interest to all of us connoisseurs of basketball culture: just what exactly happened to the game between 1997 and 2004?
We get dispatches from the Dream Team Olympics–that moment of great triumphalist optimism at the dawn of the ’90′s–and from the increasingly desultory international competitions that followed. We get conversations with everyone from social theorists to season-ticket holders to European coaches, all offering their perspective on the American game’s slow decline. We find Araton in Treviso, Italy, Sydney, Australia and Tbilisi, Georgia charting the game’s rapid internationalization and the influx of highly skilled, highly motivated Europeans and South Americans into the Association.
All of this legwork yields some valuable observations on the contradictions, injustices and absurdities inherent to the NBA’s presence in mass culture. Among them: the exclusion of actual basketball fans from NBA arenas as a result of astonishingly high ticket prices; and the resultant alienation and mutual mistrust between players and fans; the ill-conceived promotion of Vince Carter as Michael Jordan’s heir; the grossly exploitive, haphazardly coached system of elite youth basketball in the U.S. and the NCAA’s role in perpetuating said exploitation. (Araton calls out college coaches for their “delusional belief in themselves as educators.” Always good to remember at tournament time.)
But the kinds of connections that Araton wants to make–between the culture and the style and the economics of NBA basketball, and all of these things to one rotten night in suburban Detroit–would require some seriously heavy conceptual lifting. And unfortunately, as you can maybe already tell, Araton’s peripatetic approach, his broad collection of anecdotes and opinions, while intermittently entertaining, don’t quite do the job. How again does the Palace brawl relate to Team U.S.A.’s fading fortunes in international competition? How is an argument on the post-Jordan generation’s supposed moral decline bolstered by reportage from the front lines of Nikoloz Tskitishvili’s quixotic NBA voyage? And is the story of a middle school boy who died while attempting to hang on a rim and “was buried with the jersey of his favorite player, Shaquille O’Neal,”–while certainly a nasty little irony–apropos of anything at all?
So the book’s scattershot structure is one problem. The other, more serious problem is Araton’s quip-y, stylized language itself. We are told that Jordan’s heirs were “impaled by the double-edged sword of his legacy.” The Barcelona Olympics were an “orgasmic marketing orgy.” The Phoenix Suns’ offense under Mike D’Antoni “flowed through the league like a cool desert breeze.”
These purply emanations would be harmless enough I guess. But his style becomes much more problematic–more aggrieved and more easily offended–when applied to the deeply complex tensions at work within the NBA’s culture. Allen Iverson is described as “an urban persona” in search of “street cred.” The post-Jordan stars are the NBA’s “hip-hop generation.” Shaq’s mid-’90′s backboard assaults are “socially repugnant.” We are told that “basketball on all levels became more about receiving one’s props than learning the precepts.” Throughout “Crashing the Borders,” players are taken to task for their “selfishness,” for their flight away from the “fundamentals” and toward “individualism.”
Within the discourse of pro basketball, this is pretty loaded, well-worn terminology, historically fraught with sub-textual paternalism and racial resentment (thinking now about the venerable stereotypes of African American players: thuggish, selfish, athletic but fundamentally unsound). To deploy it as casually and un-rigorously as Araton does veers, I think, into the realm of irresponsible cliche. What, after all, is meant by “individualism” (used, evidently, as a pejorative, as a synonym for selfishness) in a basketball context? And which basketball skills, exactly, constitute “fundamentals?” (It seems clear, for instance, that post-Isiah/Magic/Jordan, the general level of ballhandling skill, plus the intricacy and techniques of NBA defense have skyrocketed.) Araton never really defines his terms, never gives us satisfying answers to these hard questions.
My claim here is not that Araton has any malicious intent; indeed, throughout much of the book he earnestly takes the pro basketball culture to task for its hypocrisies and lingering racism. Nevertheless, un-interrogated quips like those above actually contribute to the one-dimensional conventional wisdom that we swim in every day, the kind that we can’t stop reading on newspaper op-ed pages and in online comment sections. These nuggets help perpetuate the cynical commodification of the game and its players that Araton so rightly critiques.
Waxing nostalgic for the golden age (when players were unselfish and noble and could really throw a chest pass), opining on the game’s perpetual decline, complaining of the younger generation’s decadence: these are favorites among old-timers, coaches and “purists” of all stripes. Araton quotes the Big O himself, Oscar Robertson, complaining in 2004 that “many [players] can’t dribble, can’t shoot from outside, can’t create off the dribble.” Magic Johnson, who Araton calls “arguably the most flamboyant fundamentalist in history” (a good thing?) adds that “individual play was back in the NBA, and that made it come back in the college game and that made it come back in high school. Dunks and threes, dunks and threes, and kids weren’t working on anything in between.” (No mention is made, by the way, of the fact that dunks and threes are the most efficient shots in the game.)
I certainly don’t question the assertion that the late ’90′s, with all of the clearouts and isolations, with the sludgy, stagnant play and painfully low-scoring games were a low point in the history of basketball style. And no one would contest the point that Jordan’s rise precipitated a sea change in the style and culture of the game. Jordan was, as we all know, a real visionary. With his ability to use his skills and transcendent athleticism to singlehandedly disintegrate a defense, he radically redefined the geometries and dynamics of the game and opened up entirely new modes of individual expression. This had the oft-discussed effect of creating a generation of players who defined themselves within these new modes, who aspired to these new possibilities of skill and style.
But the response Jordan created in NBA defenses was probably just as influential. Defenses were faced with the task of containing this new generation of players within the constraints of the league’s illegal defense rules. Which rules, by the way, actively encouraged isos and the ever-appealing sight of eight dudes standing around watching two others play a nice, plodding game of one-on-one. This, in combination with the players’ ever-increasing size, strength and athleticism, plus the leeway given hand-checking yielded a defensive approach of physicality on the perimeter and intimidation on the inside. We got the Bad Boys; we got Jeff van Gundy hanging on Alonzo Mournings leg; we got Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason. The aftermath of Jordan’s revolutionary career was a period of uncomfortable transition; the players had literally outgrown the game, had made its previous structures outmoded.
So I suppose its easy to understand why longtime basketball lovers like Magic and Araton (and many others) would look at the game during this era, with its brute physicality and slow pace, with its new breed of charismatic-yet-saturnine stars (your Iversons, your Marburies, Carters and McGradies), with its preponderance of one-on-one play, with the league’s macho, dunk-obsessed marketing, and wonder just what had happened to the smiling, pass-happy players of eras gone by. How could it not seem that something was wrong, not just with the league, but with the players themselves?
Fascinating, then, that when the rules changed, when the league cracked down on hand-checking and greatly loosened its prohibitions of zone defenses, the game and even the players changed with them. The game opened itself up for the hugely creative guards that are melting faces in these very playoffs, fellas like Paul, Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo. Think, now, about these guys and their immediate forefathers–like Kevin Garnett and Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen, Tim Duncan and Lamar Odom–and wonder if U.S. basketball players were really ever becoming less skilled, or less team-oriented. Consider our current, relentlessly up-tempo, happily ball-sharing Denver Nuggets. Consider the Nash/Amare Suns and the Parker/Ginobili/Duncan Spurs, two distinct iterations of the same essential formula: dynamic guards; constant, fluid ball movement; and plenty of shooters surrounding an elite big man.
All of this strongly suggests to me that the NBA’s post-Jordan malaise was less a matter of moral decline (although its clearly impossible to deny that the NBA has had more than its share of ignorant, self-absorbed, bullying doofuses), less a matter of selfishness and decadence, and more a simple case of people doing what the always do: adapting to the structures and contexts in which they find themselves.
So the Malice at the Palace does not seem to me to be the culmination that many believed it to be (although it was clearly a decisive moment in the psychological life of Ron Artest). Indeed, as Araton himself allows, by 2004 the game had already begun to transform itself, had already become more dynamic and graceful. In the history of the NBA’s self-perception, though, the brawl was indeed a watershed moment. For, as Araton points out, it was both a violent burlesque of the league’s ’90′s promotional machine and the failure of that machine to control its projected image, to maintain its spectatorial illusions of safety and distance.
It’s disappointing, then, that Araton would so clearly see the poison in the league’s exploitation of its players, but then would fail to fully understand that this exploitation–and the structure of the game itself–was not independent of, but actually produced the culture of “individualism” that so many have critiqued. It’s disappointing, also, that he would then traffic in the same easily consumable narratives that were a by-product of that culture, narratives that draw energy from old-skool racial ideologies and grumpy nostalgia.
The NBA is too weird and lifelike, the product of too many layers and tensions, to ever be reduced to a simplistic moralism. After all: Magic Johnson was once an uppity young turk who upstaged an entire league and got his coach fired. Ron-Ron, the walking nightmare himself, has become a lovable eccentric. The brash kids of the late ’90′s have become the league’s venerable elder statesman. The easy story almost never fits.
[Editor’s note: John Krolik owns and operates the excellent Cavaliers-themed TrueHoop Network site Cavs: The Blog. Here, Krolik takes a smart look at Phil Jackson’s book about the 2003-4 Lakers titled The Last Season. The title and tone of Jackson’s work suggest finality, but seven years later, time has undone elements of the book’s intended impact. As Krolik explains, instead of a future dominated by players and ideas on the rise in 2004, in the intervening years Jackson’s ideology, and team, have invalidated the “last season” historical paradigm.—Beckley]
Phil Jackson’s The Last Season, a published form of the diary Jackson supposedly writes each season he coaches, is an exceptionally odd read seven years later. The book was written after the 2003-04 season, which was allegedly the last season of the Laker dynasty.
The 2003-04 Lakers had four future Hall-of-Famers — Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and new additions Gary Payton and Karl Malone. The team had fallen to San Antonio in the conference finals the year before, but were unquestionably the most buzzed-about team in the league coming into the season.
It didn’t take long for the Lakers to start running into problems both on and off the court. On July 2nd, 2003, Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault. While the case was ultimately dismissed in September of 2004, controversy hovered around the team all season, Bryant was forced to fly back and forth between trial hearings and games, and he “only” managed to score 24.0 points per game that season, his lowest scoring average since the 1999-2000 season. Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone’s age finally began to catch up to them, and both of them missed time with injuries and saw their scoring averages drop precipitously. A clearly past-his-prime Payton never understood his role in the Triangle Offense.
Kobe and Shaq split, but the star rejoined with Jackson
The Lakers managed to snag the #2 seed in the Western Conference and get into the NBA Finals despite playing inconsistently all season, but fell in five games to the Detroit Pistons, who were the 1st team since the 1989-90 Pistons to have won an NBA Championship without a reigning, former, or (barring a miracle) future league MVP on its roster. After the season, O’Neal was traded to the Heat, Jackson and Malone announced their retirements, and Payton ended up going to the Celtics. The Lakers’ run atop the NBA seemed to be at an end.
Jackson’s book reads like a calm, sober evisceration of the problems with modern NBA superstars. Shaq comes across like an arrogant, slightly lazy behemoth who was so talented that he could be great doing things his way, but could have been so much better. Jackson lamented Shaq’s refusal to try and shoot free-throws underhanded because Shaq was afraid of looking silly. He disagreed with Shaq’s tendency to rest throughout halftime rather than go on the court and take warmup shots. He recounts the tale of when Shaq refused to learn post footwork, calling it “kid stuff.” Jackson wrote that he believed a center’s primary responsibilities are to defend and rebound, and that he believed Shaq lost sight of that from time to time. And of course, there was the issue of Shaq attempting to defend pick-and-rolls.
None of Jackson’s comments about Shaq are particularly shocking — anyone who has followed Shaq’s career at all has made similar observations and laments, and it is clear throughout the book that Jackson respects how dominant of a player Shaq was.
Jackson’s most controversial statements in the book are about Kobe Bryant. Jackson didn’t say that he thought Kobe was guilty of sexual assault, but he wrote that he could see how Kobe could have been capable of it; he stated that Bryant can be “consumed with surprising anger.” He criticized Bryant’s effort at the defensive end. He told GM Mitch Kupchack that Bryant was “uncoachable.” He clearly states that Bryant forced the team to trade Shaq away before he would re-sign with the team, and quotes Kobe as saying he was “tired of being a sidekick.” While the party line is now that Shaq was traded away because of his own demands for a contract extension, the fact that Bryant re-signed the day after O’Neal was traded does make Jackson’s version of events credible.
“The Last Season” seemed to refer to more than Jackson’s last season with the team. The 2003-04 season was also the rookie season of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and the rest of the 2003 draft class, who were supposed to be a new generation of stars. The star-studded Lakers fell to the Pistons, who represented a more democratic form of dominance. Kevin Garnett was named the league’s MVP in 2004, and had seemingly finally claimed the title of the league’s best all-around player.
After the 2003-04 season, the hand-check rules were enforced differently, shifting the balance of power from big men to slashing guards and paving the way for a fast-break renaissance. The year after “The Last Season,” Steve Nash won his first of two consecutive MVP awards. The next season, when Jackson did return, the Lakers fell to Nash’s Suns, and Kobe’s season of historic gunning ended with one of the worst halves of basketball he has ever played. Those playoffs ended with Dwayne Wade, with Shaq in tow, slashing to the basket with impunity to defeat a Mavericks team defined by offensive balance and led by Dirk Nowitzki, a superstar as unique as they come.
The irony, of course, is that nothing really changed. Jackson came back, the Lakers turned Caron Butler into Kwame Brown, turned that contract into Pau Gasol, and the Laker dynasty returned. Kobe Bryant won a regular-season MVP award and two finals MVP awards, and is now universally regarded as perhaps the best player of his generation and is the most respected athlete in basketball. Shaq’s age caught up with him, and the decision to trade him looks like a stroke of genius in hindsight.
The Suns were the league’s darlings, but could never get past the Spurs. The only teams to have won a championship since “The Last Season” have employed either Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, or Shaquille O’Neal. Wade has not won a playoff series since he won the title in 2006. The Pistons never won another title. LeBron James, who was supposed to take the league from Kobe, never won a finals game with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and eventually left for the Heat. The Hawks’ dream of fielding a title contender comprised entirely of athletic 6-9 players never came to fruition. Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh failed to take their teams to the promised land before they left for better climates and/or a more impressive urban sprawl. Dwight Howard’s free throw shooting cost the Magic the best chance they had to beat the Lakers and prove that championship teams can live by the three.
The Last Season was not the last season. The revolution never came. Kobe’s fall, which seemed inevitable in Jackson’s book, was just an intermission between the first and second acts of a legendary career. Good defense and great big men are still the best way to win a championship. A few teams still control the NBA, and they are still driven by superstars.
This season is supposed to be Jackson’s actual last season, and change may be on the horizon this time. Chicago and Miami appear ready to rise as potential new superpowers, although they were built in diametrically opposite ways. The new-look Nuggets and Thunder may be ready to challenge the Spurs and Lakers in the west. The Spurs are finally beginning to transform into a team that may be able to thrive without relying on Duncan. Maybe this playoffs will be the dawn of a new era in the NBA. But if there’s one thing the post Last-Season NBA has taught us, it’s that the constant search for The Next Big Thing can cause us to overlook players and teams that don’t deserve to be overlooked.
[Editor's Note: Spencer Ryan Hall is the proprietor of the ESPN TrueHoop Network Utah Jazz blog SaltCity Hoops. Here, Spencer writes about the first lady of basketball, dubbed "Lady Magic," Nancy Lieberman. Including an enlightening interview, this post makes clear how Lieberman has gone from a 13 year old Jewish girl playing at Rucker Park, to a successful head coach in the NBA's D-League.--Beckley]
A typical introduction for Nancy Lieberman might include a list of accomplishments and firsts. She’s the head coach of the Texas Legends in the D-League, the first woman to coach a men’s professional team. Her roster includes former Pacer Antonio Daniels, Mandarin-speaking NBA lottery pick Joe Alexander, and baller hobbyist Rashad McCants. She played two seasons against men in the USBL. She barnstormed with the Washington Generals playing against the Harlem Globetrotters. She played a game in the WNBA at the age of 50.
But all you really need to know about the aura of the woman nicknamed “Lady Magic” you can learn by watching the following clip:
That’s the evidence of her baller status. Clearly, the first female basketball superstar is comfortable in the rare air she inhabits. She considers herself lucky, but not a fluke. She knows she belongs. How many can casually include themselves in a list of legendary New York icons? Who gets included in coffee table books with sepia photos of PS 104 and uses the familiar when referencing Kareem and Dr. J?
We spoke on the phone after I read her autobiography, Lady Magic, written in 1991. In that conversation, as in the previous clip, she shouted out Warren Buffett and Donald Trump and Jerry Jones (with a story that started “…so I’m talking to Warren and Bill Gates…”), providing further evidence of her influence beyond basketball.
A conversation with Nancy Lieberman is a reminder that most of the influence in basketball is shared through stories; and Lieberman is full of them. Every story is punctuated with a maxim or aphorism to sell the idea she is pitching.
“Behind every great man is a great woman.”
“No excuses, no explanations, no deflections.”
“Every day is a chance for you to be better.”
“Warren Buffet says you never take a shot you can’t make.”
Her stories rely on the mythology of sport and she can call down the names of all the gods of basketball, baseball, boxing, and tennis.
Even the stories surrounding her rough upbringing in New York read like a sporting version of Horatio Alger, if Horatio Alger were a tough young Jewish girl who loved basketball:
Nancy and her brother, Cliff, grew up in a one-parent home in Queens, New York, in a tough section of town. She reflects on her early memories: “You don’t know what poor is when your grandparents are coming over three days a week putting food in the refrigerator and your grandma is cooking for you.” Being poor finally hit her one day when the electricity was suddenly turned off. “Why did the lights go out?” eight-year-old Nancy asked her mom, who answered quite frankly, “Well, your dad didn’t pay the bill.” What followed was a scene in her mom’s room where they dumped all her mom’s purses on the floor to search for loose change so that they could buy gas and go look for her father.
“It was one of those epiphanies. I looked at my brother and I said, I ain’t living like this! And he said, Nancy, we’re poor. And I said, You’re poor, not me. I’m not doing this!” It was in this moment that Nancy made up her mind: If you want to live like this, go ahead. But my life’s going to be different. “I looked at my mom and I said, This is not going to happen to me
“I would take the A train by myself from Far Rockaway, which was a fifty-minute train ride to Harlem. I had my head down because you don’t want to make eye contact on the train. I’d stuffed my jacket with T-shirts, and I’d feel someone looking at me, and I’d look back at them like, Whatcha lookin’ at? Is there something wrong with me? I was always pro-active, so they thought I was crazier than they were – which was awesome – so nobody ever said anything to me.”
“So there I was, a thirteen-year-old Jewish white girl, getting off the train at 155th Street, walking into the famous Rucker Park. And I had my basketball, which was my ticket to getting into the games.
“All these black guys would look at me, and I’d look at them, and they’d look at me. And I just said, I know, I’m white. Thank you, I wasn’t sure until you were staring at me like that. I said, I didn’t take the train here for fifty minutes for you to stare at me, you know, I’m not afraid of you. I got next – I wanna play. Either these guys were thinking This little girl is crazy or they were like, God bless her.” Revealing this part of her life, Nancy stops herself and laughs. “I can’t believe I did that, by the way! But they would let me play.”
“I was the odd duck. I was the Jewish girl playing sports.”
“When the guys in the park said, We’ll take the girl, that was saying, I love you, I want you, I need you. I need you to be a part of my team, because if I take you we’ll be successful and we’ll win. So the more reinforcement that my skills meant something to somebody else besides myself, that was very important to me.” (Source)
Here is a paraphrased re-telling of our conversation. Lady Magic isn’t a role she inhabits, it’s a legend she lives:
“I’ve done this since I was 15 years old. This is really normal for me being in this role. I’ve been around men my whole life in sports, business, TV, playing, in communicating, as a mom, as a wife. I’ve done this my whole life.”
Spencer Ryan Hall: I like the way you’ve responded to the questions about coaching in the D-League, saying that men are used to having women in their lives and it’s nothing new for a young man to receive advice from a woman.
Nancy Lieberman: Exactly. It’s no different than being the youngest coach in the NBA, for example. Coach Spoelstra with the Heat is up against some of the same challenges. The bottom line is whether you can do your job. It’s the same thing.
Imagine someone starting a new job or getting a new boss and saying ‘I can’t work for a women, she’s too emotional.’ Or ‘I can’t work for an African American.’ It sounds ridiculous because it is. People have to be judged on whether they can do the job or not, and I’m glad we live in a world where people have opportunities to chase their dreams.
I’ve actually played in the minor leagues, I’ve coached and played in the WNBA, I’ve been a commentator with ESPN. I actually know a lot about the things these guys are going through.
If I were to give up on my dreams simply because people said I couldn’t do something, I would have quit a long time ago. We have a rule on the team that says “No excuses, no explanations, no deflections.” And that goes for me, too. I can’t make excuses for myself or ask for special treatment because I’m a woman. I have to get the job done.
SRH: That leads into my next question about Title IX. With the rise of opportunity for female athletes and the increased enrollment of women in universities, are we entering a post Title IX world? Is it still necessary?
NL: Title IX is not an opinion, it’s a law. Any parent wants their children to have every opportunity. That being said, we all have to have the drive to take advantage of every opportunity available. I always tell the guys on the team, “History is not having a woman for a coach. History is winning in the D-League.” We need to focus on our goals and those opportunities should be available for everyone, regardless of their skin color, their gender, etc.
I had a player come up to me after I told the players that and he said ‘Coach, I’ve never been a part of history.’ It really stuck with him, that each of us has a chance to make history if we work hard enough, and a lot of that is a legacy of Title IX.
SRH: What needs to happen for the women’s game to get to the next level?
NL: Just time. Everything needs time. The NBA didn’t become what it is overnight. The Britney Griners of the world now have an opportunity to play and to compete and can set goals to play professionally. Those kinds of things set an example for others to follow. The best part about basketball, though, is that it breaks down every barrier. You and I have only spoken for a short time but I’m sure we could sit down and talk for hours. That’s the beauty of basketball.
Miss B:Do you ever wonder what it’s like for the kids in Coney Island who don’t play basketball? What are they supposed to do?
Disco:What do you mean, “kids who don’t play ball?” … Basketball is all we got. There ain’t nothing else to do in Coney Island.
Miss B:I know. That’s exactly my point.
Space is a funny thing.
I’m not talking about space like Mars space, or some Star Trek “Final Frontier”-type space. I mean the actual personal concept – having a space. Think about what you’re doing right now. You’re probably sitting at a desk or on a couch, pouring your mind into a computer screen, reading words that are in a space – but not a physical space, a cyberspace. Depending on your social class, you’re probably doing it in a room in your house or apartment. Or maybe you’re out – lucky enough to have a desk job that allows you to use a computer, or perhaps at a library or coffee shop, or even using HoopSpeak to distract you from a class. (If you’re in Yago’s class, turn this off now! Pay attention!) This is probably taking place in your rural, suburban, or urban area, mostly defined by the economic similarities between the landowners.
Or maybe you’re at Coney Island. The space, originally designated for immigrants coming to the New World, has since been stripped down and rebuilt as a multitude of housing projects for poor minority families, buried deep in the southeast corner of New York City. That’s the area where Darcy Frey’s The Last Shot is set. If it were a stage, it’d be described as “dimly lit.” Coney Island is a “final stop” on four NYC subway lines (D/F/N/Q, and yes, I know that by heart), more than any other subway stop. As a man raised in the New York metro (suburban) area & carries a subway map in his wallet, I can say with confidence: you don’t go through Coney Island, you would only go to Coney Island. Unless you live in that space, there are rarely reasons to enter.
In short, Coney Island is constructed to be devoid of art – just block upon block of housing projects, empty space, and basketball hoops. Yet, it’s here, on those basketball courts, that our protagonists Tchaka Shipp, Russell Thomas, Corey Johnson, and Stephon Marbury burst with creativity. There are pages upon pages with vivid descriptions of Marbury’s dribbling wizardry, Thomas’s uncanny shooting ability, Shipp’s toughness, and Johnson’s athletic displays. Frey’s truly describing, as Tupac said, roses growing from concrete.
But The Last Shot isn’t really a book about basketball. Well, it’s kind of about basketball. But to call it a book about basketball would be silly and reductionist. It’s a closer look into the recruiting practices of NCAA men’s basketball, which at its core was (and still is) a business in the market of buying and selling young, male, usually black bodies. It’s similarly a thorough criticism of the desolate state of urban education, where most all top basketball players from the Coney Island area struggled to score the base 700 on their SAT’s to qualify for Division I basketball. It’s a glimpse of what it means to be poor & black in a nation that mostly rewards its rich, white citizens. It’s a time capsule examination of young Marbury, who since the book, has transitioned seamlessly from a basketball star to a star in his own tragic comedy.
But none of this happens without the space that was constructed for these kids, this overpopulated stretch of thirty blocks where New York City tosses aside its embarrassingly poor. To make things slightly less depressing, they threw in a couple of hoops on vacant lots. The Coney Island population, lacking nearly all else, gravitated towards them.
The most dire of social circumstances often beget the most strongly knit communities. That’s a commonly understood phenomenon, and the Garden in Coney Island is a testament to that. Residents simultaneously profess love for their neighborhood and a strong desire to get the hell out of there as fast as possible. It sounds confusing, but it makes perfect sense to those involved. However, there’s an inherently tragic element in that. Frey discusses the three pillars of a young basketball player’s life: his schooling, his family, and his neighborhood. An intelligent player can overcome a depravity in one, and an even sharper one can overcome two. But no matter who you are, it’s damn near impossible to overcome a depravity in all three.
Basketball’s not on that list of pillars. It can foster a community, but there has to be a community already in place. It’s not a foundation. It builds upon one. Coney Island, with three pillars damaged by a faulty system, with no solution in sight, looked to basketball to surrogate all three. And it couldn’t. It can’t.
Because of that, The Last Shot is a tragedy well before the afterword. While the final pages do serve as a harsh reminder of what’s awaiting most of these kids post-graduation, The Last Shot is about the deplorable social, cultural, & economic circumstances that make that harsh other side too often a reality for Coney Island youth. It’s about the cruel nature of The American Dream, which seems to only work for specific people in specific contexts, and leaves places like Coney Island to rot. Stephon Marbury was the first Coney Island ballplayer to really succeed, and he should be commended for it. But too many of them end up like the other three – lost in a world their upbringing couldn’t have prepared them for.
[Editor's Note: Ryan DeGama is a writer for the ESPN TrueHoop Blog CelticsHub. Here, he looks at one of the most sacred collective NBA memories and describes how two men came to be so revered and, in a symbolic sense, untouchable. It was all true, which is what makes the story so great.-Beckley]
Everyone knows the story.
Which, in a way, is the story.
In When The Game Was Ours (2009), Jackie MacMullan details that familiar period in NBA history when the league, mired in low ratings and financial uncertainty, plagued by drug use, and struggling to grab a foothold in the national – much less global – sports conversation, was in a precarious position. As the 1980s dawned, without some fundamental change, it was conceivable the NBA could cease operations by the end of the Reagan era.
Keep in mind the NBA Finals were shown on tape delay back then. The league was considering contracting Denver and Utah. Sponsorships were a rarity. All-star tickets were given away, if people could be bothered to take them. And an overwhelmingly African American league was failing to draw sufficient white customers – its primary fan base — to the arenas during the regular season.
And then along came Larry Joe Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson to save the NBA.
Or so the story goes.
Bird and Magic were, in many respects, vastly different men, particularly in the ways they engaged with the world off the court.
Bird was prickly, enormously private, and cared little for how he was perceived beyond his basketball accomplishments. Magic was born for the emerging media-saturation age, his million-dollar smile on offer to all who’d accept it.
But as any dramatist will tell you, a person is not their personality, but what lies beneath it – at their core. And for all the differences that made them legitimate enemies in the early years – primary among them the desire to crush the other — Magic and Bird’s common approach to basketball would eventually build a deep bond between them.
They both had a tenacity born of hardscrabble working class upbringings. And while they both kept tabs on each other’s individual numbers in the daily box scores, they also both believed championships, as won by teams, were the best measure of individual greatness.
MacMullan details a particularly instructive social encounter between Dream Team members. During the run up to the 2002 Barcelona Olympics, the players were arguing about the greatest NBA teams of all time (the nominees included the 60s Celtics (per Bird), the Magic Johnson-led Laker teams (per Magic) and the 1986 Celtics, who were noted by inexplicable-gathering-attendee Ahmad Rashad).
When everyone – including Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing – began squabbling over their individual places in history, Bird quickly shut them down.
“Quiet,” Bird said. “Charles, you ain’t won nothing. You’re out of this discussion. Ahmad, same thing. You’re gone. Patrick, you don’t have any championships either, so you need to shut up and sit down and learn some things.”
It was a fair comment from Bird, who pointedly excluded Johnson from his wrath. After all, the two had just spent the last decade teaching their peers what excellence in the modern NBA (eight total championships) was all about.
The Golden Age
It’s fair to say that the way Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers played the game remains the gold standard for our sport. There have been better players (maybe) and better teams (possibly), but none capture the fluid five-men-working-as-one ideal of professional basketball quite as adroitly as those 80s Celtics and Lakers squads.
At least none do in our collective imagination.
No other two players in NBA history could have come along and changed the league the way Bird and Magic did. They were not just the perfect odd couple for their time but the only odd couple for their time.
At least that’s what’s been ingrained into our thoughts.
And sure –- memories of Magic and Bird, particularly to those too young to have seen them in their primes, are buoyed by nostalgia. But by the time Commissioner David Stern agreed to go all-in marketing the NBA via the Magic-Bird rivalry, his two megastars had already racked up two careers worth of achievements.
By the summer of 1984, after the first Celtics-Lakers final since 1969, Bird had a rookie of the year trophy in his pocket, two championships and the first of three consecutive MVP awards. Magic also had two titles on his resume, as well as one of the greatest single-game performances in NBA history, when, in the deciding game of the 1980 finals, he started at center for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played 47 minutes, all five positions, and tallied 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists. (Johnson, it should be noted, had been informed that Bird had been awarded the rookie of the year award earlier that day).
Like their cultural contemporary Bruce Springsteen, who went supernova around the same time they did in 1984, the hype surrounding Bird and Magic was a result of their achievement, not the cause of it. In the NBA that followed them, that wouldn’t always prove to be the case.
During their prime years, Bird and Magic didn’t just win titles but, as MacMullan’s book details, married the aesthetic beauty of their individual games (exemplified by 70s luminaries like Julius Erving) to the team-centric game of the 60s (when some guy named Russell won all the rings).
The clip below, familiar though its highlights are, still stands up and announces the arrival of something astonishing. If you were even a casual basketball fan in the 1980s, how could you not get onboard with this?
It should have lasted longer.
We didn’t know it at the time but the Magic-Bird-era effectively ended with the 1987 finals. The Lakers would win one more title in 1988 but never again topple the Celtics in the finals, because Boston would never again advance that far.
A mounting series of injuries would undercut Bird’s career. He missed all but six games of the 1988-89 season with heel problems, and chronic back problems would eventually sap his greatness and force him out of the game in 1992.
Magic’s body was built for a longer career but his HIV diagnosis and retirement in 1991 would slam the door on Showtime for good.
The temptation with these two careers, glorious though they were, is to play what if.
What if they’d both stayed healthy and met in the finals again in 1989 and 1990 or beyond? What would their legacies look like then? And what of their contemporaries, like Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas? Would we view them differently had Bird and Magic run the table on titles into the mid-90s?
Ultimately whether Bird would have won 5 career titles, or Johnson 7 – both legitimate possibilities, assuming better health – is probably beside the point. The NBA, almost entirely for better, was permanently imprinted with the footprints of the skinny white kid from Indiana who cared for nothing but basketball, and the Lansing, Michigan kid who dreamed of being a basketball star.
They were entirely different and entirely the same.
Those are oversimplifications, of course, and romantic ones at that.
But that’s the story.
And everyone knows it’s true.
Larry Bird inducts Magic Johnson into the Hall Of Fame:
Magic Johnson at Larry Bird’s Retirement Ceremony:
For a man who owns more individual records than any professional basketball player in history, Wilt Chamberlain’s autobiography, Wilt: Just like any other 7-foot black millionaire (1973), seems hell bent on setting the public record straight. The book, which he wrote with David Shaw, leads the reader chronologically through Wilt’s life—from a strong family in a lower middle class neighborhood in Philadelphia to life as a “swinging bachelor” and NBA Champion as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Chamberlain’s main goals appear to be exercising some control over the way he is remembered, and altering the labels that he picked up along the way.
The most dominant talent the game has ever seen, Wilt’s records would seem to speak for themselves. But somehow averaging fifty points and twenty rebounds for an entire season didn’t prevent the label of “loser” and “underachiever” from stubbornly adhering to Chamberlain throughout his life.
Wilt knew this. In his writing, his awareness of the way others perceived him protrudes from the page to petulantly jab the reader in the eye. “No one as sensitive as I am can become impervious to criticism,” he writes, “my reaction to unfair criticism has come more as a matter of principle—to set the record straight—rather than as an emotional counter-attack.”
As a part of this effort, Wilt regularly bemoans “the image of Wilt Chamberlain as Superman, a guy who should never lose.” In sports, we judge athletes not just by how well they perform, but how well they perform in relation to how we think they should perform. In reading Wilt’s book, I was reminded of something Steve Nash once said about Amar’e Stoudemire. When asked if Stoudemire would ever live up to his potential, Nash noted that Amar’e’s physical abilities push his potential to such heights, he could become the best player in the league and never reach them. Such was life for Wilt, on and off the court.
Know your role
I am no psychologist and do not presume to know the root motivations for Wilt’s life. However the style of the book, written conversationally in Wilt’s voice and given to an unstable rhythm of mostly factual narrative and personal introspection (as when he refers to his own “persecution complex”), invites such analysis of the decisions he made, and the roles he’d chosen to that point in his life.
As articulated by Émile Durkheim, the concept of “roles” in society seeks to explain how the combination of others’ expectations and each individual’s own relationship with those expectations governs our thoughts and behaviors. This tension, sometimes manifested in “social facts” such as laws or religious tenets or social norms (like “don’t fart in an elevator”), creates social constraints that can have a coercive effect on the behavior of the individual. In Durkheim’s model, it doesn’t matter whether the individual actually assents to these facts. That is, inclusion (whether voluntary or otherwise) in a team, family, group, or as a member of society at large presupposes a constraint on individual will and freedom.
We can see a similar social phenomenon on the basketball court: big guys shouldn’t handle the ball, the best player should always take the final shot—informal laws govern hoops behavior.
The idea of roles on the basketball court, as in society, relies to no small degree on tradition. But when Wilt entered the still nascent NBA in 1959, he was a phenomenon unique to the basketball world. His combination of agility, skill, size and strength was unprecedented, and so his role would become something no one else could be expected to fulfill. Wilt’s role was that of the dominator, the decider of fates, the loaded dye.
Understandably, Wilt sometimes struggled to find happiness playing under these expectations. He felt that he was judged too harshly by coaches, teammates and especially “the press,” who he saw as disseminators of bogus storylines that portrayed Wilt as the evil Goliath figure. In the face of unfair perceptions that his physical gifts should allow him to singlehandedly control the outcomes of games, Wilt seems to have focused on what he knew he could control: individual achievements.
Chamberlain describes his career as a progression through three stages of roles: Scorer/Rebounder (1959-1966), Scorer/Passer (1967-68), Defender/Rebounder (1969-73) Determined to faithfully play his role within the team, Wilt appeared to seek out statistical accomplishments that would, in some way, help him fit in with the rest of his basketball society. Of course, Wilt wasn’t really just trying to fit in, he also desired to assert to be different, the best. So he set out to become the best rebounder ever, the best scorer ever, the best passing big man ever as the only center to ever lead the league in assists.
In this way, Chamberlain’s play and eye-popping records assert that he is uniquely great, while also allowing him to cram his superhuman talents into the framework of a game designed for mere mortals.
Wilt gets way, way up
Wilt’s awkward relationship with labels and roles is understandable. Yet it’s worth noting that the attributes he ascribes to himself on the cover of his very own book are of course the type of recursive, surface labels he rails against its pages.
In his basketball life, his teammates often bear these labels–distinct roles demarcate each player’s identity. When teammates failed to perform their jobs, Wilt portrays them as not holding up their end of the bargain. It’s a paradox of teamwork, and one that seems mostly lost on Wilt, that each player must play his role to facilitate team play but that sometimes strict adherence to a particular role can be an unwittingly selfish act of hoop. Maybe it wasn’t Wilt’s role to score big every night for the 1969 Lakers, a squad that also featured legends Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but heck, would it have killed him to demand the ball down the stretch when they got to the playoffs? For Wilt, being the most productive player ever across multiple statistical categories (most impressively, he logged a ridiculous amount of minutes each year), somehow comes off as a limited achievement.
As the title to Wilt’s book suggests, there’s really no way for a 7-foot, internationally famous, millionaire, outspoken, black man to blend in to the rest of society—even if he wants to be treated “just like any” regular guy. Chamberlain understood this well, yet his stories about his life off the court share the same schizophrenic quality as descriptions of his basketball dominance.
Many of Wilt’s life stories, by design or not, center around how incredibly exceptional he was. The fastest runner, the highest jumper, the best driver, the best lover, the best card player, the most cultured (Wilt loved Europe and spent most summers there), best junk salesman, the best foreign language skills (he claims to speak parts of four languages). Throughout the book, Wilt oscillates between tales like when, after the Watts Riots in 1968, he challenged a racist police officer who pointed a gun at his head by saying “OK, (censored), you cocked that thing, you might as well pull the trigger” and stories about just wanting to play beach volleyball for the rest of his days. He often expresses a nuanced consciousness of the effects of race on his life, but also a desire to ignore or deny the typical trappings of racial identity.
Strangely, this narrative structure begins to assume the contours of the Superman comic, with Wilt carrying emotional sensitivities and human frailties in a body built to save the day.
It’s not difficult to pick apart the Dipper’s personal ramblings (somehow the book is 310 pages) for inconsistencies. But it’d be disingenuous to claim that either side of Wilt, the dominator or the regular Joe, is insincere. It’s not that he wanted to have it both ways, it’s that it simply was both ways.
At least, that’s my best guess from Chamberlain’s telling of his own life and career. However, one curious moment, three pages before the close of the book, hints that Wilt falls short of being a complete account. When speculating on his life after basketball, Wilt rules out public speaking, despite the fact “[he’d] overcome a stuttering problem that several members of my family had.”
Wait. What? When? And how? Why was this absent from all the descriptions of his loquaciousness, his penchant to argue, the booming, deep voice, and the chapter on his childhood? How did he miss out on such a great opportunity to humanize himself?
The questions elude a reductive conclusion, but the omission fittingly captures Wilt’s struggles, on and off the court, to find a role that, for a 7-foot black millionaire super-athlete living right next door, would be acceptable to the rest of us.
[Editor's Note: Jared Wade is the one of the founders of the ESPN TrueHoop Blog 8 Points, 9 Seconds, as well as the proprietor of the witty Both Teams Played Hard and a contributor to Hardwood Paroxysm. Often the future writes history, in that we don't know what things means until their consequences are laid bare. For a rebel and ultimately doomed league, the prospect of defining pro basketball for the next half century must have seemed distant indeed. Here, Wade describes how the soul of today's NBA was influenced by if not inherited from the innovations and ethos of the ABA, as captured by Terry Pluto in Loose Balls.--Beckley]
It’s appropriate that we are discussing Loose Balls right after the All-Star break. Terry Pluto’s classic work is the definitive record of the ABA, a short-lived league known as much for its flair, charisma and innovation as its champions and legends. And at no time is the legacy of history’s greatest alt-hoops movement more apparent than during NBA All-Star Weekend.
First off, the ABA invented the dunk contest as a mainstream event. Dr. J’s free-throw-line dunk was a frozen moment for the ages that ushered in a new era of creativity and imagination for a sport that, just two decades prior, had been defined by George Mikan post moves and Bob Cousy high dribbles. It wasn’t just an athletic feat; it was the real-life imprint of a dream that became etched into the consciousness of every kid with a pair of Converses. It was man extending the limits of the possible. With an afro.
In terms of Xs and Os, the three-point shot was an even more important innovation. The ABA did not coin the new rule (that was the ABL), but it did popularize it. And perhaps more than anything else, the three-pointer represented what the league was all about. “For a coach, the 3-point play is a form of mental gymnastics,” says Hubie Brown in Loose Balls. “All your life, you’ve been trained that a basket is worth two points. That was how you always played the game, how the game was always played … The 3-point play forced coaches to be more creative and to give their players more freedom.”
Most iconic of all is the red, white and blue ball. There is a reason it is still used in the NBA’s three-point shootout — and there is a reason that sinking the “money ball” is worth more points than makes using its bland, orange sister sphere. It’s not just a ball. It’s a symbolic preservation of the flamboyance and rebelliousness of the league from which it was spawned. It is the emblem of a very specific period in time, both for basketball and for a burgeoning social progress of this country.
Like the extended, black-glove-covered fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic podium in Mexico City in 1968 or the defiant, cocky scowl of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, in 1965, the image of the red, white and blue ball represents an African-American-led cultural phenomenon that mainstream America was not ready for. Given its relative obscurity as a professional sports league, there is no doubt that the ABA contributed much more to revolutionizing the game of basketball than to altering the landscape of racial relations in America. Let’s not overstate the league’s significance in that regard. But given the overall standing of African-Americans in this country when the league was formed in 1967 and the general suppression of the expression of black culture throughout the other major sports leagues at the time, there is no doubt that the ABA made significant strides in both realms.
Some of the excitement and individuality was intended and encouraged from the outset. But, like everything related to the ABA, much of this was not planned. Loose Balls clearly shows how the impulsive, ad hoc management of the ABA — both by the top leadership and by the owners of the individual teams — led to a precarious business model, which never allowed for the development a rigid structure like those of the other sports leagues of the 1960s. This, in turn, created the foundation for what truly was a players’ league. The ABA of course had white stars from Rick Barry and Larry Brown to Billy Cunningham and Dan Issel, but the league was a place where the urban style of play and black basketball culture could flourish. As the owners, coaches and general atmosphere further encouraged a game based on high-flying athleticism, wide-open play, individual expression and entertainment-above-all thinking, the league began to portray the ideals of The City Game that the NBA had never embraced.
It is apropos, then, that Loose Balls is far from a traditional book. The most exhaustive account of the ABA is essentially a first-hand oral record from those who played for, coached and ran the teams. Since so few of the games have been preserved on video and so few other accounts of the league exist, this is the perfect format.
How else could we get so many stories in so few pages? How else could we be fed amazing tales such as this one from ABA ref John Vanak about the athletic feats of a no-name like Charlie “Helicopter” Heinz? “The Helicopter went up for a slam and just tore the rim right off … The first time it happened — yes, I said the first time — was late in the first half and they held up the game for an hour, but eventually found another rim and backboard. But in the second half, the same damn thing happened again … Where were we going to find another backboard? It was about 11 at night. [Cougars GM] Carl Scheer wanted to call off the game and then replay it with a big promotion—Broken Backboard Night or some such thing. Jack McMahon was coaching Pittsburgh and he said he didn’t care if we had to wait until 3 A.M., we were going to finish the game. They brought in a wooden backboard from a local high school and we did finish, probably around 3 A.M.”
How else could we hear candid admissions like this one from DC lawyer and Washington Caps owner Earl Foreman? “I had never seen an ABA game before I bought the Caps. We didn’t have a big crowd for our opener and I remember sitting there saying to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”
Where else could you get so many poetic perspectives on exactly how the rebel league impacted the spirit of the sport, including this one from player agent Ron Grinker: “The standard of excellence in the NBA was the Boston Celtics, who were the masters of fundamental basketball. Those guys would pick-and-roll you to death. They played right out of the textbook. The ABA was Julius Erving, it was glitzy, get the ball out and let’s run and jump and play above the rim and we’ll make things up as we go along. The NBA was a symphony, it was scripted; the ABA was jazz. People weren’t sure exactly what they did even after they did it. They felt something and they tried it.”
And nowhere other than Loose Balls can you have the ABA’s largest legend sum up the whole alt-hoops movement better than Dr. J does here: “In some ways we were a maverick league, but so what? What was wrong with the red, white and blue ball? What was wrong with the 3-point shot or creating a faster tempo so that the little man would have an opportunity to play? What’s wrong with a little experimentation and encouraging an individual to excel in a team sport? … Listen, the ABA gave the NBA a wakeup call. We were the first league that really knew how to promote its teams and its stars. What the NBA does now with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the ABA was doing with players such as George McGinnis, George Gervin and myself. In my mind, the NBA has just become a bigger version of the ABA. ”
Even during the league’s heyday, few ever got to see the on-court exploits of the ABA’s most exciting players. The league was not televised and it was sparsely covered in newsprint outside of the cities that had teams. But even though it occurred out of view, it was not out of mind. Its influence on the sport and those who played it was tremendous. Both technically and in terms of the open expression it encouraged, the league helped change the way men played professional basketball.
As we see even in 2011, the NBA is still struggling to balance individual expression with conformity. A few years ago, the NBA implemented a dress code to ensure its players were publicly perceived in a league-approved manner. Back in the day, the ABA let Larry Brown coach in overalls. The NBA implemented a “respect for the game” violation that gives technical fouls for any player who becomes overly emotional after a bad call by a ref, largely so fans will not think the league is full of miscreants. Back in the day, the ABA embraced NBA pariah Connie Hawkins and watched him lead the Pittsburgh Pipers to the league’s first championship.
Still, there is no doubt that professional basketball has progressed monumentally since the ABA was born in 1967. Players now have more power than ever, something best illustrated by the LeBron/Wade/Bosh-conceived Voltron squad now bulldozing the NBA, Carmelo putting the Nuggets in limbo for six months in and effort to join buddy superstar Amar’e Stoudemire in New York.
For some, particularly those who consider themselves “basketball purists,” this may represent a negative path for the league to go down. But today, when you look around the league and see Blake Griffin’s awe-inspiring exploits, John Wall’s Dougie-inspired celebrations and Chris Anderson’s peacock-esque uniqueness, it would seem that the NBA now more closely resembles the ABA than it ever has before.
I suppose the only thing fans should hope for is that the similarity doesn’t extend to the league’s business model as well — but I guess we’ll see about that this summer when they negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.