Shh! This has to be kept secret. If it gets out to any of the men who own teams in the National Basketball Association it will be murder. Come closer. Here's the word, Mac. For the first time in 18 years the NBA is starting a season with more pluses than minuses. No fooling. Out of the woods yet? Of course the NBA is not out of the woods yet, but at least it is out of the jungle, and that says an awful lot. Remember now, keep quiet about it. Just sit back and see how far this thing can go.
It may go a long way. Within the next six months the National Basketball Association, considered by many to be merely a delinquent on the American sporting scene, will enjoy its most important, prosperous and happy season. For the very first time the NBA has all of its franchises in major league cities; for the very first time its image has been buffed instead of tarnished; for the very first time it should draw three million people; for the very first time it is making its own leads instead of following someone else's.
The familiar superstars of professional basketball—Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Bob Pettit, Wilt Chamberlain—have all returned. The only exception is Bob Cousy, who turned in his sneakers and his air travel card last spring. Supporting these are two of last season's newcomers whose play was excellent and whose potential in both technique and crowd appeal is exceptional: John Havlicek and Terry Dischinger. To this cast are now added Jerry Lucas of the Cincinnati Royals and Art Heyman of the New York Knickerbockers (see left), as important a pair of rookies as ever entered the NBA. Their effect on the league, both artistic and financial, will be tremendous. Not since Oscar Robertson flashed onto the scene four years ago has the arrival of a player been so eagerly awaited as that of Heyman by his New York fans. Hardly ever before has any professional league yearned for and mooned over a rookie the way the NBA has yearned for and mooned over Lucas. The league needed Heyman badly because he could help pull customers into the prestige arena that has to get them—Madison Square Garden. It needed Lucas because he was the college basketball hero of the decade, a 6-foot-8 Jack Armstrong, a public image on the hoof.
But Lucas and Heyman are far from all of the NBA's newness. For the first time, every NBA team is in a metropolitan area of one million or more. The years of franchises in the Sheboygans, Waterloos and even Syracuses are over. The smallest regular NBA arena will now seat 10,000. There is a new team in Baltimore that calls itself the Bullets and has as a home a gleaming $14 million Civic Center only a year old. Last season the Bullets were the Chicago Zephyrs, an unloved crew trying to get crowds into a tiny, ancient arena called the Coliseum. Once again there is a team in Philadelphia. This time it is the transferred Syracuse Nationals. It will be called the 76ers. A contest was conducted to find the name. One of 4,000 entries, it was submitted by a quality-control statistician. His reasoning for 76ers was properly Philadelphian: "No athletic team has ever paid tribute to the gallant men who forged this country's independence, and certainly Philadelphia, Shrine of Liberty, should do so." Philadelphia has done so.
This is the year too that the NBA, more out of necessity than invention, has made a move that will be watched studiously by the promoters of every sport. Beginning on Thursday, Jan. 2, it becomes the first sports association to march into the so-called "prime evening time" of American television on a national level. For 11 weeks on 60 stations the NBA will be displaying its product, hopefully trying to prove that audiences will get more thrills watching the operations of K.C. (Jones) than Casey (Ben).
Throughout the league itself there is a growing awareness—some say fear—of the new image to be found in the NBA's own headquarters. That image and the determination to further it are embodied in the league president. In September, 49-year-old J. Walter Kennedy—a dandy name for a president—took office. He is a onetime NBA publicity man and a proved politician who retired as mayor of Stamford, Conn, to take the NBA post. He replaced 73-year-old Maurice Podoloff, a conciliator who had served since the league's harried beginning in 1946. The trouble with Podoloff was that he tried to please everyone, and everyone knew it. Exactly one month after taking office, Kennedy showed the mood and manner of his new administration. He took on Big Steel.
The situation arose during an exhibition game at Ocean-side High School in Oceanside, New York between the Boston Celtics and the Knickerbockers. It was Heyman's old school, and a standing-room crowd of 1,300 had paid $3 each to see him play as a pro. The Roger Blough of the case was Red Auerbach, the Celtic coach, who became so furious at a referee that he ordered his team off the floor. The action reflected the worst things that people had heard about the NBA and the attitude of its coaches toward officials. Although Auerbach quickly brought the Celtics back, the insubordination showed and the damage was done.
Two days later Kennedy ruled that Auerbach had been guilty of a type of behavior that the NBA no longer cared to condone. Auerbach was fined $500, an amount $400 higher than any fine against a coach in recent league history. When the announcement was made it had a beautiful ring to it—like "Swack!" The ruling indicated that referees could expect to get backing, something that was in pretty short supply before, and it intimated strongly that coaches better mend their minor league manners.
In one sense, what Kennedy's position implied is that the NBA has reached the point where it does not need sideshows by coaches, where the abilities of the players provide excitement enough. And that is why, in a year of changes, the one that matters most is the arrival of the big new names, Lucas and Heyman. Because of Lucas, the Cincinnati Royals have become the first team in four years capable of throwing a real challenge at the Boston Celtics for the Eastern Division championship. The Royals closed strong and fought the Celts to seven games in the semifinal playoffs last spring. They only needed one more man, and now they have him. Lucas, a three-time All-America from Ohio State who sat out last season after signing with the defunct American Basketball League, has aroused more genuine interest among basketball fans than any first-year player in history. Although he never was the country's top scorer, he constantly held the nation's interest as a collegian because he was a vivid example of a team player. Troubled from time to time by sore knees, he still led every college player in rebounds two of three years and averaged 24.3 points per game. His shooting percentages for three years were 63.7, 62.3 and 61.1, a career figure never approached before.
When Lucas joined the Royals this fall it was feared that his year away from the game might have dulled his timing and accuracy. In his first exhibition game he scored only 13 points. "I was nervous," he admits. "I was playing against Bob Pettit of the St. Louis Hawks, and you just can't stay nervous too long or he'll eat you up."
Bothered during the exhibition schedule by a throat infection and bothered too by the jostling he received underneath the baskets, Lucas suffered through some frustrating evenings. But nobody is going to "eat him up." It was soon apparent that the year's layoff had done him good. Months of intense exercises had strengthened some small muscles in his ailing knees, muscles that never developed properly because of his peculiar habit of not completely straightening his legs when he jumps. His very presence should mean that the NBA will have a race in the East at last.
While Lucas comes into the NBA with the best shooting team in the league, one that has an opportunity to win a championship, his fellow rookie, Art Heyman, joins the poorest shooting team in the league, one with a chance to go nowhere at all. It is awful to have your worst team in your most important city, but the NBA does. That is why Heyman is so important. An aggressive showman with a basketball, he will offer something to look at while the team keeps losing. It is a tough role for a rookie, and not one calculated to win friends among teammates. As with all athletes, NBA players prefer that rookies be seen little and heard less. Still, the league needs something to arouse basketball talk in New York, and Heyman will have to be it. He has been drilled in the "Yes sir! No sir!" demeanor of Duke University, but he learned his basketball in the "Out of my way, you bum!" tradition of New York's playgrounds. He'll manage. He was reminded last week that no recent Knick top draft choice has ever been successful. As a No. 1 choice he says, "I know how it is, and I know what has gone on in the past. Every time I walk down a flight of stairs I look twice to make sure I'm not going to trip."
Nobody tripped him up in the exhibition season. He led the Knicks in scoring, and people were talking.
Lucas and Heyman have come along at an excellent time. Remember, though, don't tell anybody. It seems too good to last. Shh!