If it is true that we have just two real homes in our lifetime, the first being "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in," as Robert Frost put it, then surely the second is school; no other place was ever more a haven for our growing up, no other time in our lives more certainly our own. And, for many of us, it is college, of all schools, that evokes the strongest sense of place, the most intense sense of loss when we leave it.
It is little wonder then that professional basketball, after years of taking the college game's best players, has gotten homesick for the campus. "I had the most fun of my life while I was in college," says New Jersey Nets Coach Larry Brown (North Carolina '63), "and if you ask anyone in the pros, they'll say the same thing." With more former college coaches in the NBA than ever before and with fresh, college-like emphasis on teaching and the execution of fundamentals, pro basketball seems about to graduate to new levels of excellence. "No question," says the Houston Rockets' Del Harris, who coached at Indiana's Earl-ham College and was an assistant at the University of Utah before coaxing the Rockets to the NBA finals last season. "My definition of pro basketball the last five years: It's the college game with better players and no four corners."
After nearly a decade of declining fan interest—a decade in which the NCAA championship game has become the centerpiece of CBS's three-year, $48-million college package—the NBA seems intent upon revitalizing its image and its game and, to a surprising extent, it has turned to the campuses for new ideas. "All you have to do is look at the job Cotton Fitz-simmons did in the playoffs last year," says San Diego Coach Paul Silas, referring to Kansas City's surprising victory over Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals. "He's a former college coach, and there were a lot of college-type ideas in his approach to playing the Suns. It was a great job."
Fitzsimmons, who's looking extremely collegiate these days with his new wavy hair, was on the leading edge of an influx of teacher-coaches when he came to the NBA from Kansas State in 1970, but he has been around so long now that he seems to have forgotten his roots. "The college coaches have had some influence in areas like organization, scouting and use of assistants." he says, "but the NBA has also followed the lead of the NFL in many of the same respects. I don't think anybody in our league is trying to be like North Carolina's Dean Smith. I don't have a blue team."
November 9, 1981
But that's not the point. Sure—and thank goodness—the college-coaches-turned-pro haven't carried with them every gimmick they used at State U. What they have brought to the NBA are multiple, pressing defenses and playbooks that actually get used. The trend toward such coaches and the style they favor has gathered so much momentum over the past decade or so that they now hold sway just at a time when the league needs a shot of innovative thinking.
At the start of the the 1967-68 NBA season, only two of the league's 12 head coaches had college experience (Cincinnati's Ed Jucker and Los Angeles' Butch Van Breda Kolff); within a year the two had become five, with the addition of Chicago's Dick Motta, Philadelphia's Jack Ramsay and Cincinnati's Bob Cousy. Motta, who came from Weber State to take over the Bulls, had never even seen an NBA game before he coached in one. When the league opened its season last Friday, 13 of its 23 coaches and 24 of its 43 assistants had coached in college. Only two teams, Milwaukee and New York, have coaching staffs with no college experience. The impact of such men has so altered the NBA game that there are times when it almost resembles basketball.
"There has been such a large influx of college ideas into the game that it has revolutionized pro basketball," says Silas. "There's a lot more coaching being done today than just throwing the ball out on the floor." Silas, who became a head coach as soon as his 16-year playing career was over, believes that the NBA's original "college" coach was the Celtics' Red Auerbach, who never worked on a campus in his life. "I don't think these coaches are doing anything that Red wasn't thinking about 20 years ago," Silas says. "In a sense, Red was always a college-type coach. Red thought the whole thing out." No wonder Auerbach teams won nine titles in the NBA's first 20 years, before other franchises took to hiring college men. The present Boston coach, Bill Fitch, prepped for the job at Coe College, North Dakota, Bowling Green and Minnesota before taking over the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1970.
"It used to be that you'd see the same offense everywhere," says Golden State talent consultant Pete Newell, who won an NCAA title while coaching at Cat in 1959. "All these new college coaches represent different thinking." And that has produced a variety of new approaches to the game. Don Nelson, who came to coaching directly from the Celtics' lineup, has given the Milwaukee Bucks a playbook that involves about 80 pages on team defense and another 20 on offense, while Motta—now with the Dallas Mavericks after a four-year term in Washington—says, "We use the same basic offense I've used since I coached junior high school teams. It's proven at every level." Whatever the method, the pros are spending more time looking at videotapes and chalk boards than at any time in the league's 35-year history. "There's definitely more teaching today than ever before," says Utah Jazz assistant Bill Bertka, once the coach at Kent State. "The offenses are much more sophisticated than in the past when it was more a clear-out and one-on-one game."
Phoenix Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo, who was an early proponent of bringing college coaches into the NBA, says, "When I came into the league 15 years ago, I was appalled at the lack of sophistication at the coaching level. Even former players who are now coaching learned from college coaches, and it has resulted in improved coaching principals."
To most NBA fans the name Doctor means Julius Erving, but to many insiders, the "doctor" is Jack Ramsay, who, most observers agree, started the college-coach trend in Philadelphia 13 years ago. After having been general manager of the 76ers for two years (when the 76ers won 68 games and the title in 1966-67, and the next year, when they won 62 games), Ramsay took over as coach of a team that had traded Wilt Chamberlain, and then lost Center Lucious Jackson early in the season. So Ramsay, who had earned his reputation with short, quick teams at St. Joseph's College in the late '50s and early '60s, reverted to the pressing and trapping defenses that had helped him make his name. The 76ers won 55 games that year. Ramsay, who has a doctorate in education from Penn, thinks Dean Smith of North Carolina and Bobby Knight of Indiana are the college coaches who have most influenced the pro game: "Players from Dean's program know the running game and trapping defenses. Bobby's players are always sound defensively."
But, with former St. Joe's players Paul Westhead and Jack McKinney running NBA teams—L.A. and Indiana, respectively—and with another, Jimmy Lyn-am, working as Ramsay's assistant in Portland—Dr. J, as in Doctor Jack, may be the greatest influence.
The assumption here, obviously, is that the college game is—or, at least, has been—esthetically superior to the NBA's. The validity of that notion was brought sharply into focus two years ago when NBC began programming top college games on Sunday afternoons, directly opposite the NBA game of the weak—sorry, week—on CBS and blew the pros out in the ratings. Indiana's Knight may have best captured the indifference—and occasional outright contempt—that many viewers had come to feel for the basketball played in the NBA: "If I had the choice of watching a pro basketball game or two mice making love on television, I'd watch the mice. Even if the screen was fuzzy."
Last season, on Sunday afternoons, the league had an average Nielsen rating of 6.4, compared with an 8.2 average for college games on NBC and 7.4 for The Superstars on ABC. Things reached such a sorry point that the weeknight games of the league's championship series were shown, on tape, at 11:30 p.m. in most places.
The outcry about the television schedule was so great that the league and CBS compromised. In 1981-82, the NBA would start its season three weeks later than usual and CBS would guarantee to televise all of its championship games live. With the late start, that series will not begin until June, when the May sweeps—the important ratings period on which future advertising rates are based—are over. A less important, but significant, advantage to the later start is avoiding opening the NBA season during the World Series.
In a way, CBS's plans for pro basketball this season are an indication of the league's problems. Because CBS now has a big chunk of the college basketball package and raided NBC for analyst Billy Packer (after serious negotiations with Knight), it has plugged its college games into later and more lucrative Sunday afternoon time slots than those of the NBA, which is in the last year of its contract with CBS. If CBS doesn't choose to negotiate a new contract with the league after this season, the NBA will be in danger of losing network TV coverage, as the NHL did in 1975. NBC, however, which lost the NCAA basketball package to CBS, may be in the market.
CBS hasn't been entirely blameless in the decline of the NBA's fortunes. While college fans were getting the eccentric and sometimes delightful coverage of Packer, Dick Enberg and Al McGuire, CBS was giving us Brent Musburger and Sonny Hill, one-on-one halftime shows. Brent Musburger and Billy Cunningham, three-on-three celebrity shoot-outs, Brent Musburger and Mendy Rudolph, updates on shattered backboards from Brent in the studio. Brent cutting to courtside for slam-dunk contests, Brent talking to various "mountain men" and "big guys," Red on Roundball, Brent, Brent and, whenever possible, more Brent. This year, solid yet emotionally involved Dick Stockton will be paired with Bill Russell, while Packer will work with Gary Bender, last year's NBA play-by-play man.
And while the NBA was painting its face with all manner of three-point baskets and loose-ball fouls, the college game remained rooted in pure basketball and honest enthusiasm. And it may be that enthusiasm that is the colleges' greatest weapon against the NBA. "Strip away all the bands, the cheerleaders and the alumni [from the colleges]," says Washington Bullets Coach Gene Shue, one of the last of the old-fashioned "pro" coaches, "and everyone would realize how great the pro game is. We have the best talent, the best rules and the best officials. All that cheering and spirit looks great on television, but there's too much foul shooting and holding the ball in college."
Many former college coaches now in the league once looked down on the NBA for most of the same reasons laymen do. Westhead coached at LaSalle College for nine years before becoming a Laker assistant in 1979, and when Jack McKinney suffered a serious head injury early that season, Westhead took charge of what turned out to be a world championship team. "While I was at LaSalle, I was like a lot of people." Westhead says. "I thought the pro game was all run and gun. That's a misconception. I think it's a mistake to assume that all the team players are at the local colleges and that all the selfish stars are in the NBA. For every Lloyd Free in the NBA, there are 200 in the college game doing exactly the same thing. But I don't know how to change that image."
One way to do it may be through a technique that the pros are starting to borrow from the college game: recruiting—though in its NBA form the process has none of the excesses that have scandalized the colleges. It's not uncommon for an NBA team to set up interviews with college players it's interested in drafting, to get a feel for the players' personalities and enthusiasm. Before the NBA draft in June, the Lakers invited six potential draft picks to L.A. to meet the coaches and owner Jerry Buss. Westhead saw to it that all the arrangements for the visiting players' flights and hotel rooms were taken care of—just as he had when he was at LaSalle—and he even picked restaurants that he hoped would leave the players with a favorable impression of the Lakers' organization. "It wasn't until after I had had dinner with a couple of them that I realized I was recruiting again," Westhead says. "Except this time there was one important difference. Four years ago I would have had to worry whether the kid would go home and say he didn't like the restaurant, didn't like the hotel we put him in or thought I was a jerk. I told one of our guys last spring. 'I'm not recruiting you—you're recruiting me.' If I draft a kid to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, I know he's going to come."
The league has taken another step toward rehabilitating its image by changing some of its more puzzling rules. This year, for instance, the NBA will no longer award a free-throw shooter three chances to make two, or two to make one. Fouling in the backcourt will now be treated as a common foul, which should encourage that old college stratagem, the full-court press. In the eyes of many fans, a team that presses frequently seems more enthusiastic, more fun to watch.
And this is the season that the NBA will also find out how it truly feels about another college favorite, the zone defense. For the past two years the refs kept pretending they didn't know what a zone was, which got pretty embarrassing when, contrary to the rules, just about every NBA team played one. Now, in the manner of all great institutions, the NBA has simply removed the word "zone" from its vocabulary, as if it never existed. With a chance to create a distinctive term of its own for the zone—"Hold everything, lads, we've got a sticky wickedly wandering defense by the red team. Two shots!"—the NBA instead has given us the corporate-sounding "illegal defense." This rule will prevent defenses from zoning in the area of the free-throw lane—that will constitute the dreaded illegal defense, which can lead to even more dreaded technical foul shots—while allowing them to do it almost everywhere else. "A lot of what college fans are used to—that is, zones—are now legal in the NBA." says Referee Ed Rush. "We were becoming a jump-shot league, so we went to the coaches and said, 'You've screwed the game up with all your great defenses. Now fix it.' And they did. The new rule will open up the middle and give the great players room to move. People like Julius Erving and David Thompson, who used to beat their own defensive man and then still have to pull up for a jump shot because they were being double-teamed, should have an extra four or five feet to move around in. And that's all those guys need." No one knows if this will lead the league back to the old days when teams cleared one side of the floor and let their virtuosos work one-on-one, or created an open area in the middle to be used for snappy passing, pick and roll, give and go—all those things college coaches love.
The NBA is hoping for the latter, because the very concept of one-on-one has become anathema as the league tries to stress the team aspects of its game. "There are more people who are knowledgeable about the game now than ever before," Golden State's Newell says. "And as people learn more, they become interested in the subtleties of tactics and less interested in one-on-one." Newell is probably right, and yet, like it or not, the great freelance offensive artist will always be a part of pro basketball.
"People look on one-on-one as a derogatory term." says Warrior Coach Al Attles, who never coached in college. "But in football, if you have a great wide receiver like John Jefferson, you try to get him isolated in one-on-one coverage, and nobody seems to think that's especially bad."
If there is one area of the pro game on which the college coaches have had little significant impact, it is tempo. The NBA has the heartbeat of a hummingbird, its pace dictated by the 24-second clock. "In the colleges, you've got the shuffle-cut continuity offenses in which you pass the ball around 17 times before you get the layup," says Westhead. "That's great if you've got the time. In the NBA, we haven't."
The 24-second clock doesn't eliminate the need for offensive patterns, as some of its critics insist; it merely makes the plays the pros run more complex to execute and more difficult to watch. "College teams create shots away from the ball with a lot of motion offenses," Newell says. "In the NBA you see much more screening on the ball."
Newell thinks the shot clock makes the zone defense an acceptable strategic part of the pro game. "The NBA outlawed the zone to eliminate slowdowns." he says. "But that was before the 24-second clock. I think in time we'll see the NBA play a full game of basketball, and that means zones should be allowed." Ramsay goes one step further and says that the colleges should adopt the shot clock: "The college game in the United States is the only high-level basketball played in the world without a time clock."
The NBA will no doubt keep its shot clock for the time being, and it should. But if the league is really interested in increasing the importance of passing, a 30-second clock might not be such a bad idea.
All of the ideas the pros have borrowed from the college game will be of little consequence, however, if the NBA doesn't really go collegiate and shorten its unduly long schedule. This year, because of the late start, the NBA season could conceivably run through all or part of autumn, winter and spring and up to within 11 days of summer. A growing number of league officials finally seem to be awakening to what everyone else has known for a long time: The long season—more than eight months, counting exhibition games and the playoffs—has created an emotional vacuum for both the players and the fans.
"For it to get better." says L.A.'s Magic Johnson, an authority on enthusiasm, "they're going to have to shorten it to about 60 games. Make it so you can drive all the time. It's those 82 games that are the killer." Even Westhead, who is technically management, agrees that the bloated schedule has robbed the game of some of its potential for surprise and delight: "I think the long season wears the fan down before it wears the players down. A theatergoer sees Evita just so many times, and then even though it's a great production, he doesn't want to see it anymore." The league's owners will never permit the season to be shortened, of course, as long as it is profitable to do otherwise, and this year the Celtics expect to sell out the Boston Garden for all of their 41 home games. So much for giving it the old college try when dollars are involved.
Class dismissed, but that's better than having no class at all. If nothing else, the NBA learned that much in school.