By Bob Meadows
I saw an interview with Larry Bird the other day. I hated Bird when he was playing (Go Lakers) but I certainly respect him now and he was one bad dude back in the day. But he repeated a line that I am sick of hearing from old basketball players, that “in their day,” everyone snarled at each other and there was no waving hello and being nice on the court like there is now.
I guess memory is the second thing to go, after hops. How can Bird or anyone who played in the 80s forget how Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas regularly kissed each other on the cheek before games? Magic, Isiah and Mark Aguirre were buddies who hung out all the time. Rose-colored glass-wearing players (and fans!) imagine everyone was the Bad Boys, shoving helpless opponents from behind into the second row, as Dennis Rodman did to Scottie Pippen. They think anytime anyone went for a layup they got clotheslined, as Kevin McHale did to Kurt Rambis. They think they were tough guys, since Robert Parish rained a flurry of punches on Bill Laimbeer and didn’t even get called for a foul.
Baloney. Go to Youtube and pull up some game footage. Until the 90s, no one, not even the Bad Boys, played what we would today call defense. And that was an era where you could push and shove away from the basket. You could. But no one did it. The lanes were wide open, which is why everyone scored over 100 points and shooting percentages were higher. How can you tell teams were not better shooters back then? Free throw and three-point shot percentages are not higher.
These old guys make all sorts of claims. Michael Jordan says Lebron James wouldn’t be as good “in his era.” I laugh. Michael better hope there’s no technology ever developed that would pluck LBJ from today and put him in 1988. Lebron has skills of a Michael/Magic combo in the body of Karl Malone. He would dominate the league more than both of those players. Michael would not know what hit him.
They think their era was so pure. They jumped on Lebron’s move to Miami, saying stars in their era would never join the enemy. Am I the only one who recalls free agent Moses Malone leaving Houston for Dr. J’s 76ers? Magic never recalls that he joined a team that already had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and…well, if you have Kareem it doesn’t really matter who else is there. Why would he go anywhere? Bird’s first year teammates included Tiny Archibald, Dave Cowens and Pistol Pete Maravich. What would he be complaining about? Still, as competitive as Bird and Magic were, do you think they would’ve quietly stayed put had they not won a title by their seventh years? Magic complained so much about his coach in 1981 that the guy got fired, and this was after already winning one title under the guy. Maybe after becoming friends during that 1984 Converse shoot, the superstars would’ve gone to play alongside each other. Charles Barkley, who joined a 76ers squad that had Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks and Moses Malone, got out of town as soon as he could once those guys were gone.
Fans are just as bad. They say the Golden Age of Basketball ended in 1998, when Michael left the Bulls. No. It ended in 1991, after Magic retired, maybe earlier. Basketball was pretty awful to watch by then, thanks to the style the Pistons made popular and the Knicks took to repulsive extremes. I offer you these as proof: the 1993-94 season and the 1994-95 season. When you think of great basketball, you don’t think of those years. What was different? Michael was gone. One player made the NBA watchable. Without him, the league could no longer hide that it was putting out a flawed, inelegant product.
Basketball is better now. Players have better fundamentals than in the 50s and 60s, when the best point guards (I’m looking at you, Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson) didn’t seem to be able to dribble with their left hands. It’s better than the late 60s and 70s, when the birth of the ABA watered down the league. And it’s certainly better than the Thug Life 90s. Basketball is like a former beauty queen who got strung out on cocaine then got clean. No, the league is not as radiant as in the 80s, but it’s overcome its Jordan addiction, survived the withdrawal, and is now producing a pretty solid product again. I credit the arrival of Lebron, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. That draft, much like the 1984 one that brought us M.J., Barkley, Dream and others, infused such a high level of young talent into a league that already had bankable stars; this time it was Shaq, Kobe, Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan rather than Doc, Kareem, Magic and Bird. With the glut of new talent from one draft, the league could survive other years when only a handful of stars, with lesser appeal, came in. (I love Kevin Durant’s game, but for all his talent, he’s not as captivating as Lebron).
But basketball better be careful. Lebron and his co-horts are in their 10th seasons. They are getting long in the tooth. Shaq and Iverson are gone; Kobe and Tim and Kevin Garnett are almost done. If younger players like Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and KD can’t keep the appeal going, the NBA is headed for another post-Jordan-like drought when Lebron waves goodbye.
© 2013 The Peoples News