Time to turn back the clock

June, 3, 2008

After limping in from my rec league game Monday night, I plopped onto my couch and turned on ESPN Classic. I knew they'd be showing some vintage Lakers-Celtics footage. Boy was I happy when I saw Magic pushing the ball up court in Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals.

For the next hour or so, I watched Magic and Bird, Kareem and Robert Parish, James Worthy and Kevin McHale go at it. I saw McHale's famous clothes-line foul on Kurt Rambis, and moments later, Kareem and Bird went nose to nose, shouting in one another's face.

I felt like I was 15 again. (Mentally, that is, not physically. My left knee was killing me!)

But somewhere along the way, something strange -- and completely unforeseen -- happened. My excitement turned into sadness and then anger.

The game I was watching -- won by Boston 129-125 in OT -- was all about the players. Sure, Pat Riley was on the sidelines dressed to the nines. But he and K.C. Jones were mere afterthoughts. They weren't being mentioned and shown every five minutes, as if they were about to make a jumper or block a shot.

And most importantly, they weren't controlling the action.

What I saw last night was an energetic, free-flowing game in which the players went about their business completely unencumbered. Riley and Jones weren't calling a play every time down the floor, and each and every player seemed to enjoy a freedom on the court that honestly, I just don't see today.

Almost every time -- and that's no overstatement -- a player grabbed a defensive rebound, the goal was to push the ball up court as fast as possible for a quick and easy basket. Whether it was Magic, Worthy or Michael Cooper, the Lakers were flying up court, looking for a quick shot.

"We were all about running -- on makes, misses, it didn't matter," Magic said today in a conference call with Bird. "And a lot of times when we ran the break, the ball never touched the ground."

Remember, when Rambis got clothes-lined, he was sprinting full-bore, going in for a fastbreak layup. Rambis!

When's the last time you saw Udonis Haslem, Fabricio Oberto, Anderson Varejao or some other "athletically-challenged" power forward doing such a thing.

The pace was absolutely frenetic. On both sides.

"Whoever got the rebound, except for maybe Parish or McHale, would take two or three dribbles to advance the ball up the court as far as possible," Bird said. "We were always trying to get easy baskets and you get a lot more easy baskets if you get the ball down court quick because you get the defense off balance, you get mismatches."

And even though you had three of the top-10 players of all time (Magic, Bird, Kareem) on the floor, it wasn't just about them. They weren't being iso'd, getting the ball every time down the floor, or dribbling on the perimeter for 10 seconds before making a move. Not a single player, not even Magic, dominated the ball while his teammates "spaced the floor."

Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, Gerald Henderson and Cedric Maxwell (just to name a few) were firing away. They weren't just pawns in the Larry Bird Show.

On the other end, Worthy, Cooper and a past-his-prime Bob McAdoo were just as free. There were plenty of shots to go around.

Honestly, the shot clock wasn't even necessary, as players -- just about any player -- took the first open shot. Today, we have to coin a cute "seven seconds or less" phrase because Phoenix is unique; but back then, that's just how the game was played.

While it looked to me last night like the Lakers and Celtics played ultra-fast, that season they actually ranked seventh and 10th, respectively, in the then 23-team league in shots per game.

The league average that season (1983-84) was 88.3 shots per game. This year, the league average was 81.5. Golden State led the league this year with 90.3 FGAs per game. Second-place Denver (85.8) was far below the league average back in '83-84 and would've ranked 18th in the NBA.

In the midst of all that fast play, Kareem and his sky hook still had a place. Nowadays, we've been deluded into believing that a team can be either a fast, run-and-gun crew or a slow, post-up team.

Well, the Lakers were both. Nearly every time they ran a half-court set, the goal was to pass it into Kareem on the low block. Kareem did damage, scoring 32 before fouling out, but my point is that his presence didn't stop the Lakers from running.

Nor did he hold the ball on the block for 10 seconds, waiting for a double team so he could pass it out to a teammate for a 20-footer. He went right to work, quickly putting up his sky hook, or even dishing to a cutting Magic in the lane.

Even the "European game" that's all the rage right now looks weak compared to what I watched last night, because the NBA's fastbreaking style of the '80s didn't eliminate post-play or put an inordinate (and detrimental) amount of emphasis on the 3-point shot like "Euro-ball" does.

I mean, I almost felt like I was watching a different sport.

I'll be honest, at times it was sloppy, as a few bad shots were taken (Coop shot an air ball) and my man Magic had tons of turnovers. Magic had a man's triple-double (20 points, 17 assists, 11 rebounds), but I saw him commit at least five or six turnovers from the second quarter on.

But they just kept playing. The coaches didn't berate them or yank them out of the game after every ill-advised play. It was awesome.

Comparing that to LeBron James going one-on-five, the Detroit Pistons milking the shot clock, or even Phoenix or Golden State running and shooting to the complete exclusion of post-play, is like comparing Halle Berry to Ellen DeGeneres.

Seriously, there was that much of a distinction.

And that's why I got mad. I was recognizing that today's game is sorely lacking compared to the '80s, that the players and the fans are being robbed of what could be a much better, more enjoyable hoop experience.

Today's players are more athletic, and dare I say, just as good (if not better). However, they're shackled, handcuffed, forced to play some slow, overly-analytical tug-of-war that's often dominated by their coaches, who act like their players can't so much as set a pick without them first screaming at them to do so.

Look, obviously I love the NBA, but I think that over time, me and most others associated with the game, have become numb to how much less appealing it is compared to the '80s.

Let's be honest, a lot of what compels us about today's games and series are either the off-the-court drama/story lines or the individual brilliance of two or three players.

These Finals will be exciting because of Kobe and Pierce's one-on-one greatness, because of KG's quest for a ring, because of Phil Jackson's pursuit of Red Auerbach's record, because of the Kobe comparisons to MJ, because in the fourth quarter the games will likely be close.

But will they be exciting because of the actual 48 minutes of play?

In 1984, the Finals were exciting because of the basketball. Period. The drama and story lines -- and there were many -- followed. But they were a natural outgrowth of the game itself, not the other way around.

Maybe those old Lakers-Celtics games should serve as more than an opportunity for us to reminisce and go back in time. Maybe they should serve as a wake-up call that it's time to change the rules (if necessary), put the coaches in their place, and put the game back in the hands of the players.


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