Five very large men—and one little guy—were approached gingerly recently and asked this question: "Do you consider yourself an NBA enforcer?"
Without exception, the six initially replied, in as many words, "No, I wouldn't call myself an enforcer."
"Well, um, how do you think the rumors got started?"
"Yeah, well, we all know where the words come from," says 6'9", 215-pound Maurice Lucas, the quintessential power forward and enforcer of the Portland Trail Blazers. In Lucas' case, the word got out and around three years ago when, as an ABA rookie, he decked 7'2" Artis Gilmore and dared to duke it with Julius Erving, which is roughly akin to spitting on the flag. "A lot of people think I'm just one of these mean guys," he says indignantly. "Well, I just play rough. That's the way you play when you're in my game."
October 31, 1977
The other members of this oft-misunderstood elite:
•Kermit Washington, the 6'8", 230-pound Laker strong man, is a nice quiet person who lifts weights and sometimes separates people's heads from their shoulders. In one memorable game last November in Buffalo, Washington ended an elbow skirmish with John Shumate by dropping the 6'9" forward with a flurry of hooks and haymakers. "Shumate came apart in sections," an eyewitness said.
•Calvin Murphy, 5'9", 165 pounds, of Houston, is the littlest man in the NBA. equally adept at twirling batons and demolishing men a foot or more taller than himself. Last November he got angry at Boston's 6'9" Sidney Wicks, leaped to grab a piece of Wicks' Afro with his left hand, and with his right howitzered Sidney's face into a bloody pulp.
•Dennis Awtrey, 6'10", 240, of Phoenix, qualifies either for the Enforcers Hall of Fame or a padded cell. He has thrown punches into the faces of Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Awtrey has the off-court demeanor of a puppy, and his blue eyes twinkle innocently when he says. "Why would I hit a guy for no reason?"
•Bob Lanier, 6'11", 250, of the Detroit Pistons, has had to do little in seven years to establish his reputation; his size is enough. In his second year he kayoed Atlanta 7-footer Bob Christian with one punch. "Most guys in the league have at least a little sense," Lanier says.
•Darryl Dawkins, the Philadelphia 76ers' 6'11" 250-pounder, is the baby of the group. He is only 20, and not even he can predict what sort of havoc he will wreak in the next 10 years. But his potential was made manifest in one fearsome frozen moment in Game Two of last year's championship series. Fighting for a rebound, Dawkins flipped Portland's 6'6" Bob Gross over his back like a child, dribbled Gross' arm and head on the floor, then took a wild swing at Gross that nailed 76er Doug Collins. On came Lucas, who delivered a forearm to the back of Dawkins' neck. The two squared off while 40 million television viewers held their breath. But Dawkins never threw another punch, much to the relief of Lucas, who therefore did not have to hit him back. "I wouldn't have wanted to mess up my hand," Lucas said. Dawkins, banished to the dressing room, turned over two floor-to-ceiling lockers, then smashed a huge wall fan and caved in a toilet stall.
Events such as these, as any of the principals involved will tell you, are not commonplace in the NBA. In the 41 fights that occurred last season, only eight involved the six premier enforcers. At least partly responsible for keeping the relative peace is the threat of a $10,000 fine for flagrant fighting. "I guess at times I've felt obligated to fight," says Awtrey. "But ever since they put in the $10,000 fine I don't know how obligated I am."
The fact is that a top-rank enforcer rarely has to fight. Once he has earned his rank, further demonstrations are usually unnecessary. An enforcer's job is to keep things in order on the court, in whatever way works best for his team. If an opponent is taking liberties with a teammate, the enforcer sends him a message. Sometimes a glance is all it takes, sometimes a word or two, sometimes an elbow or an extra-hard pick. But if the opponent sends back a message of his own—"Are you talkin' to me?"—sterner means may be called for.
Until the Lucas-Dawkins confrontation in the playoffs, Philadelphia had been in complete charge, winning the first two games with ease. Lucas had been playing poorly. But his chilling intimidation of Dawkins changed everything. Lucas went on to cow George McGinnis into the worst shooting slump of his career, Dawkins was barely heard from, and the Trail Blazers went on to win the next four games and the championship.
"You need a rugged, we're-not-going-to-take-any-nonsense personality on a team," says Jack Ramsay, Lucas' coach. "It's important for your team to let it be known that you will not be pushed around, will not be intimidated."
"Enforcers are vital," says Pete Newell, former Laker general manager, now a scout for Golden State. "They are part of the game by whatever name you call them. Basketball is not a non-contact sport. You have to have someone out there who loves contact and is willing to keep order."
Because the game has been so refined in the past 10 years, most of today's enforcers are also highly skilled finesse players. That was not so true in the NBA's earlier days when eight teams played each other 10 or 11 times, or in the ABA where many players of unseemly reputation were exiled. In those days, enforcers were more crudely known as "hatchet men"; their job was to protect their teams' stars. Red Auerbach's Celtics had the first such specialist, 6'5" Bob Brannum (1951-55). "Red never said 'Go get that guy,' " Brannum recalls. "He'd say, 'Look, don't be intimidated out there.' So if I saw a guy pushing Cousy around I'd say, 'Hey, Cooz, bring him down here,' and I'd give him some of the same thing."
Brannum's successor was the legendary Jungle Jim Loscutoff (1956-64), who also inherited Brannum's number 18 (later to be worn by notable Celtic scrappers Bailey Howell and Dave Cowens). "Nobody had to ask me to do anything," says Loscutoff. "In fact, Red used to have fun with me in a special drill to build my confidence after I'd had a knee operation. He'd throw a ball out on the court and say 'Go get it,' and I'd have to go diving and rolling on the floor. This was during exhibition season. Red would get the guys from the other team and say, 'Watch this,' roll out the balls for me, and I'd go diving."
There were always plenty of fights started or finished by the likes of Loscutoff, Walter Dukes, Andy Johnson, Tom Hoover, Al Attles, Gus Johnson, Luke Jackson, Wayne Embry, Johnny Green, Sweetwater Clifton. The classic ABA matchup was John Brisker and Wendell Ladner. But of the three greatest alltime enforcers—Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Willis Reed—two, Russell and Chamberlain, never really had a fight. "Russell simply intimidated with his skills," says Auerbach. As for Chamberlain, Lenny Wilkens says, "There are a lot of guys walking around today only because he didn't lose his temper."
Most basketball people will tell you that the single greatest basketball fight was "the night Willis Reed cleared out the whole Laker team." The Knicks have a film of the affray that has probably had more runs than King Kong. It was Oct. 18, 1966, the Knicks' home opener at the old Madison Square Garden. Reed, 6'8", 235, then in his third year, had been exchanging elbows all night with Rudy LaRusso. After a third-quarter free throw. Reed tripped LaRusso, who tagged Reed with a right while Darrall Imhoff held Willis from behind. That sent Reed into a frenzy. He slugged Imhoff and chased LaRusso to the bench. Then he hit John Block with an enormous left hook, spreading his nose all over his face, turned and again belted Imhoff, who fell and knocked five Lakers off the bench like dominoes. Reed planted two more shots on LaRusso and one more on Imhoff, who, bleeding from above the left eye, dived under the bench, to find Block already hiding there with a broken nose.
Recently, Reed chuckled about the incident. "They said I should be banned. All I got was an ejection and a small fine, nothing like what they give out now. You know what would happen if someone did all that today?" Would a full $10,000 be a good guess?
"My fights come because I play so physical," says Lucas. "Guys don't like it and become highly upset. But I play clean physical. Never hit anybody in the face. I keep my blows between the neck and the belly button. My idea of 'enforcement'—if you have to call it that—is to establish an advantage over a guy that you'll have forever. Take Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. It took three monster sessions, but finally Frazier just gave up.
"I never try to hurt a guy. Just maybe wake him up. It usually comes from dirty stuff, like a guy will run by you and shoot you in the back, or he'll take an unnecessary swing while going for a rebound. I don't like to be the policeman. I'm a firm believer in 'you gotta fight your own battles.' Of course, I have to protect Bill [Walton] sometimes because guys are always taking shots at him. We won't fight, we'll just set a guy up and make a little sandwich out of him—POW!—wake him up. We've woken up Tommy Burleson a few times. Sam Lacey, Jim Eakins. We try to take care of it right away and not hold it in too long. That's not good for your mental health. To tell you the truth, I don't really know which players are dirty, because a lot of cats don't do to me what they do to everybody else...which I like."
Washington's knee injury midway through last season may have cost the Lakers a shot at the championship. But after eight months with his weights, he is stronger than ever. "I'm not a policeman," he says. "I'm not a fighter. I'm just trying to make a living for myself and my family. If I think someone is going to be taking food off my table, away from my family, I get mean. You have to establish yourself in this league. They will push you around if you can be pushed around. Some of us don't have the talent of the Dr. J's and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, so we have to do our jobs the best way we can. I'm just an aggressive guy trying to survive. Really."
Murphy, more than any of the enforcers, detests being known as a fighter. "One hundred percent of my victims attacked me," he says. Those victims, all thoroughly battered, included Wicks, Dale Schlueter (6'10"), Larry McNeill (6'9") and John Brown (6'7"). "I'm just an individual who believes in his rights and the rights of his team," Murphy says. "Nobody tries to poke you in the eye, but I'm right down there on the level where everybody is reaching for the ball. The first thing those big fellows do when they get the ball is swing. I know what's deliberate and what's accidental. As a little guard I have to be fiery. I have to make up for things I don't have. When I clench my fist to hit somebody I'm not making believe."
Fortunately, Murphy has seriously picked on only one man his own size, Seattle's bald-headed sprite. Slick Watts, who Murphy says is "a hypocrite" and "on an ego trip." "Ah, I like old Calvin," says Watts. "He's a genius at messin' with you. I always got to make sure he don't make me accidentally trip myself."
Awtrey goes at his role somewhat the way Loscutoff did, because Phoenix Coach John MacLeod is likely to send him in off the bench specifically to "put things in order." "I'm physical, so I expect to get some abuse back," Awtrey says. "But no one ever challenged me until I got into the pros. Not in college, not in a bar. Nothing. I thought I was a peaceful person. I see good and bad in terms of black and white. When I started getting pushed around, I decided not to take it. I guess I got my reputation when I punched Kareem in the face four years ago on national TV. Lanier? I don't know. I don't think he's that tough. Two years ago I threw Burleson into the stands in Seattle. Pat Riley and Fred Brown—just a couple of little guys—were tussling around on the floor. I was just watching. Then Burleson attacked Riley. I threw Tommy into the seats, on top of a lady. She almost had a heart attack. Dawkins really scares me because I don't know what's going through his mind. Cowens loses all sight of himself—and everything else. A guy like him is not so unusual in the NFL, but in the NBA he is an oddity."
The massive Lanier vividly recalls his first—and, wisely, last—run-in with Chamberlain. "When he picked me up here and put me down over there, I thought he was the baddest," Lanier says. "We were playing at L.A. and they had the ball on an inbounds play. Wilt and I were jockeying for position. The ref stepped in and told us if we didn't cut it out he'd call a double foul. Well, I stepped in on Wilt again and he just picked me up and moved me out of the way. And that was it."
Lanier made quick work of Eakins and Bill Robinzine—an entry from Kansas City—one night last season, and flattened an Oakland fan during the playoffs, but few others have been intrepid enough to challenge him. "If I found myself looking face-to-face with Lanier," says Lucas, "I'd invite him for drinks after the game."
The man everyone worries about is Dawkins. Embarrassed by the Lucas confrontation in the playoffs, the Dawk is looking meaner than ever with his shaved head and small gold earring. "Like about 30 million other people, I admire Muhammad Ali," he says. "That is the way I'm going to be this year. If I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it. Being an enforcer comes with being my size. Nobody, but nobody, is going to hurt my teammates. If a guy is playing well, they might want to hurt him. You want to keep him healthy because he'll make you some money."
Dawkins says he wishes he had hit Lucas when he had the chance. "From the fine I paid [they were fined $2,500 each], I should've hit him. This year, if I get into a fight, I want to throw the first punch." Says Philadelphia Assistant Coach Jack McMahon, "With a guy like Darryl, you steer clear. Maybe he can't fight, but if you get into it with him, you better hope to God he can't."
The legends grow and the debates continue: Who is the main enforcer of the day? Leave it to the NBA's preeminent creative genius, Pistol Pete Maravich, to come up with a way to find out. "There's a lot of woofing going on in the league," says the Pistol. "Guys do a lot of talking. What I would like to see, since television seems to be promoting everything, is an off-season boxing tournament for NBA players. Let them put on 16-ounce gloves and fight three two-minute rounds. One thing it would do...it would stop a lot of the woofing going on."