Blood, Sweat And Cheers

Slam dunks and fancy moves add glitter to the NBA scene, but it's hard work that wins the championships
October 31, 1983

It's there whenever the Philadelphia 76ers' Moses Malone claws and bullies his way through opponents for another offensive rebound. It's there when Portland Trail Blazer Jim Paxson, working without the ball, zigzags from one side of the court to the other, tiring his defender, before cutting to the basket and taking a pass for an easy shot. And, despite what you might think, it's there when Philly's Julius Erving or Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins gracefully soars for a dunk. It is old-fashioned work, NBA-style. "You naturally think that gifted players do things easily," says Portland Coach Jack Ramsay, "but behind every dunk are hours of practice. There's no way to measure how many hours Julius spent on a playground as a kid, but that has to be counted as hard work."

Fans, though, see only the result—the apparently effortless game played by so many NBA stars—and not the preparation. As a result, many ticket-holders have tended to believe that hard work is an alien concept in pro basketball. Forward Dan Roundfield of the Atlanta Hawks can't understand why. "The more we do," he says, "the less they seem to like it."

Another perception of the public—unfair but still widespread—is that only the last two minutes of an NBA game are worth watching and that players fully exert themselves only late in a game. While that two-minute theory may well be a backhanded tribute to the drama inherent in pro basketball, Roundfield feels that dismissing the first 46 or so minutes is not only demeaning to players but also ludicrous. "If a player isn't working at the start, he'll never have to worry about the last two minutes," says Roundfield. "His team will be down by 27 points or he'll be on the bench."

Fortunately for the image-poor NBA, the time when the mention of the words "work ethic" and pro hoops in the same sentence would elicit snickers may fast be coming to an end. Of course, it's silly to posit that every player in the NBA has suddenly become a disciple of John Calvin's, or even that sweat will supplant talent as the prime reason for a team's success. It is true, however, that the league has begun to move away from the vision it presented of itself in the '70s: slam dunks, one-on-one showboating and halftime H-O-R-S-E contests on CBS. Mind you, the NBA front offices have had precious little to do with this change; rather, it has been the players, most notably that blue-collar, three-time MVP Malone, who have changed the public's view with the high level of energy they're now expending.

Center Jack Sikma of the Seattle SuperSonics, himself no slouch in the effort department, says, "Working hard is the quickest way to a fan's heart. You can do a 360 [degree dunk] and so forth, and that's instant gratification, but over the years you'll see the Philly fans more enamored of Moses for how hard he plays than for how pretty he is."

Malone's coach, Billy Cunningham, agrees. "Not only was I very proud of the way my team worked last season," he says of his champions, "but I also felt the league in general worked as hard as I've ever seen over an 82-game schedule."

It's in recognition of this new spit-on-your-hands-and-roll-up-your-sleeves spirit that we present the All-NBA Work-Ethic Team. But before naming our selectees, we should tell you that the coaches, players and management types interviewed on this subject disagreed markedly on what criteria should be applied in choosing our team.

"Guys who aren't supposed to make the NBA—and do—should be included," said K.C. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "Players like Ed Nealy, Kurt Rambis, Darwin Cook and Rory Sparrow."

On the other hand, Darrell Griffith of the Utah Jazz would not omit "the smooth player who is a superstar—a finesse-type player. He doesn't get noticed, but he works just as hard." In other words, a Dr. J—or a Griffith.

So, our team falls somewhere between "shouldn't be in the NBA" and "couldn't help but be there." For example, Round-field was selected at forward over Buck Williams of New Jersey because, although Williams is a very willing worker, he's blessed with more natural ability than Roundfield. Indeed, Roundfield's coach at Chadsey High in Detroit advised him to give up basketball because he "would never amount to much."

The rest of our work gang: Malone at center, Larry Bird of the Celtics at the other forward, and Paxson and Sidney Moncrief of Milwaukee at guard. "The thing all these guys have in common is that nothing has come easily for them," says Ramsay. "They've excelled through hard work, and they keep working hard because of a desire to stay on top."

"I expect the superhustle thing—diving for loose balls, whatever—from marginal players like Paul Mokeski or Charlie Criss," says Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson. "Those are the things they have to do to keep a job. I also expect it from any one of my players in a big game. But whatever the situation, Sidney is likely to dive for a loose ball. Each time he does, I shudder. What good would it do for him to get hurt and be lost for the season...in a game against Cleveland? But that's Sidney. The thing I try to impress upon him is to make good decisions. I don't say don't dive for loose balls or don't hustle. He'd look at me like I was crazy."

"I think hard work is something that can set you apart from other players," says Moncrief. "Knowing you paid the price makes you feel better prepared than the next guy. It makes you feel better, period. My mother—in fact, my entire family—emphasized it when I was a little boy. If you take out the garbage, take it all out. If you mop the floor, don't miss any spots. You go through years of that and it becomes ingrained in your personality. Some players have never really had to do anything in their lives, or they coasted. I can't stand doing anything halfway."

Neither can Bird, who despite recently signing a seven-year, $15 million contract, still plays like the hick from French Lick, Ind. "When I was growing up everyone I played with was bigger than me or knew the game better than me," Bird says. "But I realized that I could stay with them because of the extra hour or hour and a half of work that I was putting in when they weren't around. I lack the jumping ability, speed and other natural abilities of a lot of guys."

The Celtics took a cue from the 76ers in training camp by hiring an exercise instructor to help their players better prepare their bodies for the season. Some Celtics were less than enthusiastic, but Bird dutifully kept going. "That's the weird part of Larry," says Boston Coach K.C. Jones. "He rebounds and passes and shoots as well as anybody around, but he also dives for loose balls, and he's the guy patting teammates on the butt—or giving them the business if they don't hustle."

Fortunately for the NBA, Bird's outlook is becoming more and more prevalent, for several reasons. First, the players. "The quality of kids coming into the league right now is better than it's been in a long time as far as attitude about the game and cooperation with the coach goes," says Cunningham.

Then, the coaches. "I think the trend toward the work ethic comes from the bench," says Washington Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "They're setting the example. The majority of players won't do the work unless you stand over them. That's why you have coaches."

The coaches drive themselves, too. "There are times when we'll look at three hours of films of an opponent just to pick 10 minutes of tendencies to show our team," says Ramsay. Two seasons ago, before a Hawks-76ers playoff, Mike Fratello, then an assistant coach under Kevin Loughery with Atlanta, put together a 1½-inch-thick manual diagraming all of Philadelphia's plays, options and tendencies. That wasn't enough to beat Philly's superior talent, but Fratello believes in the work ethic. Named the Hawks' head coach in June, Fratello squirreled his staff away for three days in a suburban Atlanta hotel before the opening of training camp to prepare for the new season.

Another incentive is money. "Today's kid is a corporation; he's touching millions of dollars," says Dallas Coach Dick Motta. "He has to treat his body differently. In the old days there were a lot more beer drinkers."

Then there's the law of supply and demand. With the folding of the American Basketball Association and the subsequent merging of four of the six ABA teams into the NBA before the 1976-77 season, the number of jobs in major league basketball fell from a high of 360 in 1970-71 to 276 today. At the same time the number of pro-minded players coming out of colleges did anything but decline. As a result, players have had to work harder merely to get work.

"There's so much competition that you can't coast," says Paxson. "Especially someone like me. I was never a great player, never the focal point of even my college team [Dayton]. If I didn't work hard, I'd be out, and it would be my own fault. I don't want that to happen."

There even was a time early in Paxson's career with the Trail Blazers when it seemed he might not make the grade. Portland's first-round draft pick in 1979, Paxson averaged a mere 6.2 points per game his rookie year, shooting only 41%. The next season he blended a better understanding of Ramsay's precision offense with his tricky and tireless movement without the ball—a facet of the game at which he now has no peer in the NBA—and led the Blazers in scoring with 17.1 points per game. Last season he increased that to 21.7 and was named to the All-Star team for the first time.

The idea of having to "work" for a living hasn't been lost on the "natural" talents, either. "Guys like Mark Aguirre getting into weightlifting and aerobics classes—that's something you never saw in my day," says Dallas Assistant Coach Bob Weiss, who survived for 12 seasons as a player in the NBA because of his work habits—not his ability. "Ten years ago the trend was to come out of school and play every day in the summer for the first three years. Then you got a little bored and started playing golf and tennis in the summer. In those days the young guys were in better shape in training camp. Last year our veterans were in much better shape than our rookies."

With his lumbering gait and 255-pound body, the 6'11" Malone will never be confused with a Lou Ferrigno or a flashdancer, but that's not to say he wouldn't be in the NBA even if he didn't work so hard. Malone's skills are substantial, so in his case, hard work is mostly a matter of pride. "When Moses accepted the MVP trophy two years ago he said that he didn't consider himself to be the most talented player in the league...that he liked to think of himself as being one of the hardest-working," says San Diego Coach Jim Lynam. But it wasn't until he arrived in Philly last season and turned a perennial bridesmaid into a champion that skeptics were convinced that Malone's emphasis on hard work could reap such grand results.

In the 1977 finals, the 76ers' galaxy of stars lost to Ramsay's industrious Trail Blazers four games to two. Having watched that series and then having lost in a playoff series to a hard-working Washington team the next season, his first as the Philly coach, Cunningham realized the Sixers needed more work and less play. "Instead of thinking about the game, I was worrying about the people who had to resolve their various problems," says Cunningham. "I just don't have the personality to deal with that."

He decided that a few talented hard workers were superior to almost any number of super-talented underachievers, and the 76ers made major roster changes, acquiring or drafting such players as Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks and Clint Richardson. But Cunningham continued to take a beating as the Sixers lost to Los Angeles in the 1979-80 league finals, blew a 3-1 lead in losing to the Boston Celtics in the 1980-81 Eastern championship series and lost to the Lakers in the finals again in 1982.

That last defeat almost caused Cunningham to retire from coaching, but he decided to stay on shortly before Malone showed up. There were doubts about how well Malone, a consummate rebounder who was not noted for his all-court game, would mesh with his new teammates. "I always felt that if I was the best at doing what I do—getting things happening inside—the team would win," says Malone. "That was enough for me. The more contact I get, the better I get to feeling about the game."

Everyone in Philly shared in that good feeling as the 76ers tore through the league, finishing with a 65-17 record. In the playoffs they won 12 of 13 games, sweeping L.A. in the finals. Malone was, as usual, the NBA's leading rebounder, MVP—and most diligent laborer.

Can Moses & Co. win another title? No team has repeated as NBA champion since the 1968-69 Celtics, and Malone's off-season was not all he wanted it to be. "Last summer has got to be the most I ever laid off without playin' ball," Malone says. "Seems like every time I looked, someone wanted me to do something. I was flying here and flying there."

Now, Moses says, those distractions are behind him. "I plan on working even harder this year," he says. "That's not a problem. You can't just play the game. In your mind you have to be stronger than the pain and everything else. Some guys may be great ballplayers but there are times when they say, 'I got it made, I don't have to work tonight.' I'm not like that. Even if I'm hurt, every night I try to give 110 percent."

If it's true that effort begets effort, then there's no reason to pick against Moses and the 76ers in their drive for back-to-back titles. After all, when you've got the ultimate practitioner of the work ethic on your side, there's no reason to expect, as Mo himself would say, anything less than "mo."

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSARNOLD ROTHWhile some players (left) like to take a break from time to time, the workaholics are out there busting a gut. ILLUSTRATIONARNOLD ROTHThough he recently signed for $15 million. Bird loves to give his all for a loose ball. ILLUSTRATIONARNOLD ROTHPaxson has parlayed moving with and without the ball into an All-Star career. ILLUSTRATIONARNOLD ROTHIn striving for his goals, the balletic Moncrief does nothing halfway. ILLUSTRATIONARNOLD ROTHThree-time MVP Malone has raised hard work to an art form.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)