The last two months of the National Basketball Association's regular season were practically a waste of time. The season—and the incentive that goes with it—was already as good as done. We were dragging along playing out the schedule, calling on synthetic incentives, pride and tired legs to pull us through. Personally I was worn out; at that familiar point (this is not a new sensation) I think the whole league was tired and crippled and maybe a little bored. I rested alone in a New York hotel room before a night game with the Knicks, a game that would have few customers and prove nothing, and I thought, "If it were in my power, we would settle every game between now and the playoffs by flipping a coin."
Ours is not just The Long Season; ours is The Too Long Season. Ours is 17 exhibitions, then 80 regular-season games that serve only to eliminate three of nine teams for the hodgepodge of playoffs. And those can add up to as many as 19 more games. That's 116 in six months. I'm told it figures out to 4½ games a week and 60,000 miles of travel, an endless procession of hotel rooms and one-night stands. That's not basketball. That's vaudeville.
The consequences I believe to be evident: tired players susceptible to injury; inferior entertainment; overexposure to the public resulting in a falloff in attendance everywhere but the cities whose teams are on top or have had new success—like Cincinnati and Los Angeles. The others had a pretty good idea where they were heading many games ago—and it showed in the empty seats of Madison Square Garden and other arenas.
I don't believe anyone—owner, player or fan—will argue that the caliber of play in the NBA in March is equal to that of November or December. It is a physical impossibility to maintain an edge over so long and so tough a grind. At the finish there's not much more to the game than running up and down the court and shooting. Defenses are out of gas. The fan who pays $2.50 in March isn't, by comparison, getting his money's worth. In a sense he is being cheated. I feel this is unnecessary.
Before I go further, I ask you not to mistake my motives. In playing 12 years in this league, six as player representative, I have seldom spoken my mind unless I was sure I could build up and not tear down. I disagree with Syracuse's Dolph Schayes, who said last week that players should not criticize their league. In any good corporation you don't try to hide mistakes, you try to correct them. This is especially important in a business which is, in effect, a public concession. The result of any legitimate criticism should be an improved product. That is my only purpose in writing this. The game is a good game and the league a good league, and I am indebted to both. I have no ax to grind.
It would be naive, first of all, to think that the club owners are deliberately trying to ruin the sport. They make money only when the league prospers. They are the ones who must decide how often we should play in order to keep the budgets balanced. They say that fewer games would mean a cut in revenue. When we discuss shortening the schedule they say they are willing only if the players accept comparable cuts in salary. Thus, a stalemate.
I do not share their philosophy because I do not believe that, say, 60 games with good promotion and balance would gross much less than 80 games jammed together and weakly promoted. In February we played 20 games in 28 days. This may be impressive mathematically, but physically it was a drain.
Let's be realistic. Both the Celtics and the Los Angeles team were off to good starts this year, and inside of two months there was really not much doubt of the outcome. As the season wore on, we continually faced games that didn't mean anything. As a fan, I certainly would have found my interest diminished. I much prefer to watch a spectacle where there's something at stake, not a no-matter contest of tired men.
How do you get up for a game when you're tired and there's no incentive? You don't, unless you're a fellow like Bill Russell or Bob Pettit who somehow sustains that proper combination of mental and physical fitness that separates the great from the good. Otherwise you are always looking for a spark—a bump from an opposing player, anything at all to keep you interested.
The playoffs that follow are practically a replay of the season. The owners say they need all these extra games to get some of the clubs out of the red, and maybe they are right. My belief is that a World Series between the divisional champions would be more meaningful, better accepted and equally as profitable. So it comes down to a difference of opinion, and mine may be foul all the way. If we played just 60 games and lost our shirts then we'd all be out of a job, and I'd be wrong the hard way. But if it is somehow proved that the owners are ruining the game for the sake of a few extra dollars, then the blame is theirs alone.
Consider what the drawn-out season does to the player. By conservative estimate, 30% of the playing personnel is now injured. Some are playing with injuries. The last time I noticed, Syracuse was dressing seven men. Seven out of 11. For three weeks prior to that, they had only eight. That is not unusual in our sport. When you play tired, you leave yourself open to injury. The knockout punch often comes to the fighter who is too weary to keep his guard up.
This has been my most vexing season—a pulled ligament in the knee, a spur on the elbow, a Charley horse, pulled stomach muscles, a wrenching of the other knee and now a bruised hand. I've been shaking hands left-handed for a month. Fortunately, only the knee kept me out of any games. I've missed five. But my playing time was cut considerably—from about 38 to 40 minutes per game last year to 32 or 33.
Critics say there are many things wrong with professional basketball. Most often heard is that the scores are too high, that the ease with which teams make baskets is ridiculous. The contention is that the big men who can reach the basket standing flat-footed are squeezing the little men out (which they are) and taking the premium off the field goal (also true), and the fan is sick of huge scores and the indefensible dunk shot.
Well, first of all, you can't legislate against the 7-footer. It is bad enough he has to go through life with everybody staring at him. He should not be discriminated against in his chosen field, too. If you raise the baskets he still will be 12 inches closer than the 6-footer. Frankly, they've been talking about the high scores since before I came into the NBA in 1950, and I'm inclined to think it a less serious problem than it is made out to be. I watched a hockey game go 20 or 30 minutes without a score the other night and was so frustrated I almost left the rink.
There are no goons, as such, in pro basketball. Wilt Chamberlain is a fine all-round athlete. Bill Russell was good enough in track to be considered for the Olympics. The Lovellettes and the Pettits are just as agile and coordinated as the smaller man was a decade or so ago. When you've got Oscar Robertson or Jerry West or Richie Guerin doing the same things better, who needs the 6-footer? Maybe we all mourn the passing of the exciting little player, but he has lost out to some unshakable logic: teams with good big men beat teams with good little men.
So you don't raise the basket. And you can't change the value of the field goal because that would foul up every existing statistic, and statistics are the lifeblood of sports publicity. What do you do in addition to trimming the schedule? I do not have a spectacular solution, but I feel there is one plausible answer: a re-emphasis on defense. The good defensive player is lost today under the deluge of points, points, points. He gets little credit.
This concept has to change, and it must be changed from the very grass roots of the game—from sandlot on up. You don't realize the importance of defense until you see a guy like Russell, who plays it so well. Officials can do much to help the situation. Today the advantage is strictly with the offensive man. On the charge-block call, it is the defensive player who is most often penalized. I would rather see a closer watch put on the offensive player—for palming, for walking, for extra steps on jump shots. Cut down his advantage. The defensive player today is a vastly discouraged man, often afraid to perform routine duties for fear of being charged with a foul.
For myself I have thought about retirement every year for the past four. Right now I would say this was my last. Traveling has lost its glamour. I have several good opportunities open in public relations, which I enjoy, and there is the possibility of coaching—in college, where there's less travel and more gratification in seeing what you produce.
But, of course, the spring will come and then the fall and there will be time to talk to my legs and then I'll have to fight the urge to play again. If I could, I'd probably play the rest of my life. It's the timing that counts now. Knowing when to quit and still enjoy the prestige, like a DiMaggio or a Marciano. You can ruin it with one bad year.
We complain, of course, no matter what we do. Whether it's writing books or washing dishes. At the risk of sounding trite, I must say that basketball has given me everything, including a college education. And the NBA is a long way from going out of business—the pay is better than ever. But my kids are growing up and they are at the age—Marie is 11 and Mary is 9—when they're becoming aware their father is a bit of a freak. They enjoy it, but they'd like to have me home more. I can make it up to my wife in later years, but you can't do that with kids. They pass you by too quickly. They are like the big tall men who keep coming on and on.