They were giants of the sporting world: names like Mikan, Pettit, Russell, Wilt the Stilt, Truck, Moses, The Enforcer, the Big O, the Big E and the Big Redhead.
Basketball’s leviathans in the low post.
Fans thrilled at their combination of size, strength and agility. The battles they fought under the boards defined the NBA and made sport headlines for nearly 40 years.
But change is the constant in a consumer democracy.
The Chuck Taylor high-tops and short-shorts are long gone, replaced with hideous foot-wear and a plethora of prison-yard tattoos. Historic but cramped old arenas gave-way to bigger & brighter venues with better seats, paint-happy hardwood and $12.50 nachos.
And no change has been greater than disappearance of the inside game. In particular, the demise of the dominant center and power-forward.
Different from women’s basketball where the tall pivot player still reigns, the menacing man in the middle has become an endangered species.
Since the days of Kareem Abdul Jabbar you could count on two hands the number of big men who’ve dominated down low: Bob Parish, Bird, McHale, Laimbeer, Shaq, Rodman, Magic, Olajuwon, Duncan and Karl Malone nearly fill out a very short list.
The culprit: NBA’s adoption of the three-point shot.
The National was sitting pretty in the late 70s, having absorbed what remained of a monopolized ABA (1976) and negotiated lucrative TV / merchandise deals. But a dramatic rise in player salaries gave some jughead in a Suit reason to get creative.
In 1979 they reached into their former rival’s bag of tricks (the American employed the dunk and the tres in 1968 “as marketing tool(s) to compete with the NBA (Wikipedia)” and pulled out the three-point gimmick to prime the pump.
Basketball’s never been the same.
There had been a balance, a symmetry, a ying & yang in roundball.
Fans were treated to two theaters of play: one inside, where bruisers like Nate Thurmond, Dantley, Unseld, Reed, Walton, Lanier, Cowens, Gilmore and Dan Issel waged war; the other, out on the key where long-rangers Jerry West, Bing, Frazier, Maravich, Gervin, Winters and Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson could Heat it up in a hurry.
As long as both theaters had direction there was a symbiosis and the game flourished.
But by the mid-80s the physical, combative play which for years had made the sport so colorful…vanished. Centers and power forwards regressed into mere supporting players or disappeared all together. Much of the action moved away from the paint and up to the high-post where guards and guard-wannabes directed the flow and became the stars.
The spotlight swung away from bangers and over to finesse guys like Julius Erving and Mike Jordan as the 3-pointer and un-contested dunk became signature plays of the NBA.
If you see a guy in the low-post today chances are he’s only waiting on an alley-oop or mesmerized as an opponent dunks on his head. Post game both will hug & laugh about it.
As most NBA rookies are today on the 5-year maturation plan, they’ll never develop the wide range of skills that even stylers like Dr. J and Jordan would eventually pick-up.
“You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle” (Seinfeld).
They don’t sell the game anymore, they sell celebrity (endorsements), air-time (TV / Twitter / fantasy) and merchandise (cantaloupe-sized driver heads and wicked metal bats in Little League (Outside the Lines; 3/1/11)). If it generates a nice revenue stream, then history, integrity and sometimes safety, it would appear, all get swept under the rug.
When big-shots like Kevin Love (6’10) and Kevin Durant (6’9) spend half their time on the perimeter you know the game’s gone soft. Both should live inside 15 feet. Instead, the past four seasons has seen a steady up-tick in their 3PAs. It's surprising, given the tremendous shooting touch both possess (FG%: .457 / .468) when not launching 3s.
So much for pumping-up the offense.
In comparison, the newly-crowned MVP LeBron James has seen his 3PA% decrease each of the past three seasons: 25% (‘09-10); 19% (‘11); 13% (abridged ‘12). That’s growth.
Prime example of the tamer NBA: With 6 ticks left on the clock and down by only one vs OKC (PS G2 '12), rather than design a drive to the hoop for two, likely draw the foul, and even with a miss and no whistle, ball’s in play for a rebounded score (Gasol / Bynum), Lakers Coach Mike Brown opts for the thrilling, unnecessary, low-percentage 3-pointer that Steve Blake rims out. Blake & Brown are lambasted but what the Lakers did was SOP in today’s b-ball.
There are men who keep the spirit alive with dynamic play in the paint. A few of the standouts: centers Tim Duncan, Howard, Pau Gasol, Bynum and Joakim Noah; forwards Blake Griffin, Garnett, Cousins, Humphries and Atlanta’s Josh Smith.
It’s time to bounce the 3-pointer outta’ the gym. Send it, along with the dunk contest and home run derby over to where they all belong: Saturday morning TV.
Then watch the roundball renaissance begin.