THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING COURT

In an era when the big man is ever more dominant—when seven-foot forwards and six-seven guards are not uncommon—some astute students of NBA basketball believe that the players have outgrown the game
November 03, 1986

Down through the years, the cosmic geometry of sports has held up pretty well. Ninety feet from base to base, 100 yards from goal line to goal line—one may as well declare that 99 pennies equal a dollar as tamper with those basic truths. Is there anything so perfect as nine men on a baseball side? Anything so necessary as 22 men to cover a football field?

But the elemental geometry of professional basketball—a goal 10 feet off the floor, a rectangular court measuring 94' X 50'—doesn't seem quite so perfect anymore. It is imperiled by the increasing size, strength and swiftness of the gladiators. A 7-foot player is no longer an oddity—what is odd is a team without a 7-footer. Last year there were 32 7-footers in the league. Power forwards 6'10" and guards 6'7" and taller are increasingly commonplace. "The game was designed for players five-feet-seven-inches tall, a hundred and twenty-five pounds," says Washington coach Kevin Loughery. "Now, we have frontlines that average seven feet tall. Something's got to give."

And what has given is this: the wide-open, free-flowing rhythm of the game. Huge bodies collide in every half-court situation. "Sometimes it's like football without the pads," says Jerry Sichting, a Celtic guard who at 6'1" would've been one of the bigger guys on the floor 50 years ago when the court was the same size as it is now. True, a rule against hand checking has cut down on open-court combat. But down low—down where a 7'7", 230-pound Manute Bol meets up with a 7'3", 297-pound Mark Eaton—hulking centers and muscular power forwards grapple for territory like animals in the wild. "At times in the paint it resembles sumo wrestling because we have so many big guys," says Detroit coach Chuck Daly.

The referees allow the battle to continue unabated one night, blow a whistle at it the next. Consistency is next to impossible because even the best-trained zebras cannot referee a basketball game and a rugby match at the same time.

In short, there is a danger, as Portland Trail Blazer player personnel director Bucky Buckwalter puts it, "that to a certain extent the players have outgrown the court." Or, as 6'2" Seattle guard Gerald Henderson says, "The court has to grow with the players."

Such opinions, however, are not held by the majority of NBA players, coaches and general managers—not yet, anyway. In fact, because so many things are going so well, this seems to be an illogical time even to discuss changes in the pro game. After a slump that began around 1978 and raised serious questions about the economics and aesthetics of the NBA, the league has experienced a spirited resurgence in recent years. Attendance is up (the league set records in '85-86 for the third consecutive season). TV ratings are up. Franchise requests are up. Sales of Michael Jordan accessories are up. "We're no longer the Rodney Danger-field of professional sports," NBA commissioner David Stern said during the upbeat league meetings in Orlando in September.

And these upward trends and this new respect have, in turn, given rise to a new complacency. Casting a vote for the status quo, Phoenix general manager Jerry Colangelo dismissed the idea of change this way: "Radicals are out. Conservatism is in."

But not completely. There are those who have come to believe that the NBA must confront the problems caused by the increasing size and physical abilities of the players (see diagrams), and confront them now. There are 23 NBA teams, each with only 12 spots on the roster. With such a rigorous filtration system, only the biggest, the strongest and the swiftest find their way into the league—especially the biggest. Second-round draft picks are often throwaways, and some of the players who should be throwaways win roster spots simply because of their size. "Right now, the Manute Bols of the game are successful just because they are huge," says Golden State coach George Karl. "Now, is that the purity of our game that the fan wants to see? I say no. I say the fan wants to see the Michael Jordans and the Julius Ervings and the Magics, the great athletes who can play basketball." Surely it is not absurd to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the NBA's rarefied gene pool has altered the basic symmetry of the game.

Here are some of the ideas being kicked around these days in circles where "radicals" congregate to debate the relative dimensions of the players and the court:

PROPOSAL—RAISE THE BASKET.

Premise: Dunking is too commonplace, as are big men shooting gimmes inside. Raising the basket would force the big man to do something besides dunk and would help put the smaller, multiskilled player back into the game.

Notable quotable: Cleveland Cavaliers coach Lenny Wilkens says, "What was one of the really fun stories last year? Spud Webb winning the slam-dunk contest. With a 12-foot basket, you take that away."

The message that the basket should be 10 feet high did not arrive on Dr. James Naismith's doorstep via a burning bush. The balcony that ran around the gym at the YMCA College in Springfield, Mass., happened to be 10 feet high, and it was to that balcony that Naismith had two peach baskets attached on that fateful day in 1891. So the ordained height of a basketball hoop was neither miraculous nor scientific, but it has nonetheless stayed at 10 feet ever since.

Is that too low?

Way back in 1932, Forrest (Phog) Allen, the legendary University of Kansas coach, thought so. And since Phog's horn was a loud one, there was extensive experimentation with the goal at 11 and 12 feet during the next two years. The end result was that almost no one agreed with Allen. Field goal percentage went down when the basket went up, and shooters complained of added fatigue. (With the basket at 10 feet, shooting percentages have steadily improved, thanks in no small part to the dunk.) On a more pragmatic level, many gymnasium caretakers refused to raise the bucket. The argument continued into the '60s, when this magazine even staged a game with a 12-foot hoop and ran an article supporting the higher basket (SI, Dec. 4, 1967). But there was never enough support for permanent change nor substantial proof that a higher basket would help the little man. In fact, gurus like John Wooden, Red Auerbach and Pete Newell felt—and still feel—that a 12-foot basket simply makes the big man more important.

"Let's say shooting percentage goes down 20 percent with a higher basket," says Auerbach. "That's 20 percent more rebounds in a game, and most of them will belong to the big man. It is simply ridiculous to think that a higher basket would make the big man less important."

One of the few NBA people who will argue with Auerbach is Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey, who several years ago recommended that the NBA Rules Committee raise the basket to 11½ feet. In 1964, McCloskey had played in an intrasquad college game with the goal at that height and liked it. He liked it so much, in fact, that he kept an 8mm film of the game, which he still reviews from time to time. "The thing the higher basket does is make the big man shoot the ball," he says. But the idea was snuffed, rejected, Spalding-ed into the cheap seats, and chances are the same thing would happen today.

Why? Well, while the dunk would decrease in frequency, if not disappear altogether, there is no proof that a higher basket would enhance the athleticism of the game. As things now stand, big men with shooting skills earn everything they get from the outside—McCloskey himself has such a player in Bill Laimbeer. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's offensive preeminence over the last decade results as much from his uncanny sky hook, delivered from up to 18 feet away, as from his ability to dunk. With a 12-foot basket, big men who don't have shooting skills would simply attempt awkward-looking jumpers instead of awkward-looking short shots and dunks.

And what about the little man? "For outside shooters," says McCloskey, "it would just be a matter of putting more are on the ball." There is, however, no indication that NBA shooters would gladly learn their skills over again on a 12-foot basket. "I just figured out how to shoot it at 10 feet," says the Celtics' Sichting.

Furthermore, the dunk, though devalued over the years, remains enormously popular—it has that in common with the dollar. The dunk is the game's exclamation point, an in-your-face affirmation that basketball is fun. Conclusion: Don't raise the basket.

PROPOSAL—INCREASE THE SIZE OF THE COURT.

Premise: A bigger court would open up the game and make the quick, smaller man more valuable.

Notable quotable: Warrior coach George Karl says, "When you make the court longer, you give the guard and ball handler a little bit more time to have an open court and create a two-on-two or a three-on-two. Fans like that."

In a recent letter to Rod Thorn, the NBA's vice-president of operations, Milwaukee coach Don Nelson—well-respected as a lucid thinker around the league—proposed that the court be expanded from 94' X 50' to 100' X 52'. "Adding length would give fast-break opportunities a better advantage," says Nelson. "The emphasis on speed as opposed to bulk would be enhanced." And this from a man who likes to post up his big guards and who for the last two seasons alternated the hulking trio of 7-foot Alton Lister, 7'3" Randy Breuer and 7-foot Paul Mokeski in the pivot. Bravo, Don.

Loughery agrees with Nelson and Karl. "In my opinion, fans of the NBA game respond to four things: dunks, great passes, blocked shots and acrobatic moves. We're doing just fine on the first three, but I think we could use more room for the acrobatic moves." Portland's Buckwalter goes along with that, too. "A longer court would spread the game out, and it would take the big men longer to reach the other end of the floor." New Jersey coach Dave Wohl, while not advocating change, has evidence that Buckwalter's theory is correct. "We practiced on a floor in Cleveland that was about 10 feet longer than normal, and it took the play out of the big men a little," said Wohl. "Quickness and speed did better than size." And isn't that the way you always heard it should be?

Not necessarily, says Celtic assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers. "Big bodies in a contained space are part of the beauty of the game—how they operate, how they get themselves open." Houston general manager Ray Patterson agrees. "Even if we see a whole league of six-foot, eight-inch point guards like Magic Johnson," says Patterson, "there will always be enough room to accommodate them." The common thread connecting these two gentlemen, of course, is that they represent last year's finalists, teams with skilled collections of big men. It's hardly surprising that they like things the way they are. So does Net power forward Buck Williams, who earns his all-star salary in blue-collar fashion. "People like to see contact," says Williams. "The fans relish the fact that players mix it up."

Change is also anathema to Red Auerbach, the man who coached nine NBA championship teams on a 94' x 50' court. "Let me tell you why guys propose stuff like that," says Auerbach, puffing on a cigar at a dangerous rate. "Because they're showing off. They just want to get remembered for something."

Nelson's motives seem pure, though—a bigger court would increase fast-break opportunities, the NBA's lifeblood. Almost imperceptibly, the pro game has slowed over the last few years because the successful teams pound the ball inside. The NBA's top clubs may or may not be good running teams (as the Lakers have been with Magic Johnson), but they absolutely must be teams with a half-court offense revolving around a dominant center. Witness Robert Parish-Kevin McHale, Akeem Olajuwon, Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone. That type of offense can get awfully boring. Quickly.

The biggest argument against larger court dimensions, however, might be described as the Jack Nicholson Dilemma. Nearly every team in the league has courtside seating from which it extracts "significant revenue," and those two words mean much more to an owner than, say, "fast" and "break." Says Houston coach Bill Fitch of the courtside seating, "It means we'll have to stick with what we've got."

Not good enough, Bill. In most arenas, accommodating a change in the length of the court wouldn't be a problem. And surely management could figure out some way to push the celebs back a few feet at courtside. Increasing the dimensions of the court would not alter the basic geometry of the game. The big men who can run—Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, Parish, Patrick Ewing, et al.—would still be rewarded for their athleticism, but there would also be a higher premium on transition and open-floor basketball.

Conclusion: Institute the Nelson proposal as soon as possible.

PROPOSAL—WIDEN THE THREE-SECOND LANE OR ADOPT THE INTERNATIONAL LANE.

Premise: Most infighting goes on in the paint area as players try to post up close to the basket. A wider lane would push them farther out and ease the congestion.

Notable quotable: New Jersey's Darryl Dawkins says, "Leave the lane alone. If you widen it, that just means I'd have to jump further to get in and get out."

Double D's complaint notwithstanding, widening the lane is a suggestion entirely palatable to many NBA people, mainly because it has been done before. To varying degrees Nelson, Loughery, Daly, Indiana's Jack Ramsay, Buckwalter, Cavalier coach Wilkens and his general manager, Wayne Embry, and Karl and his assistant, Jack McMahon, among others, like the idea. Many players feel it's necessary, too, and not just the guards. "Let's give the offensive players a little more room to make some moves," says 6'9" Cavalier Ben Poquette. "That's what the fans want to see. Right now, everyone fights for post position, and that jams up the lane." Adds the 7-foot Lister, recently swapped to Seattle: "Even big guys get frustrated in there now because you can't maneuver at all." And so do skinny guys. "I'm an inside player and I'm skinny," says Phoenix's rail-thin Larry Nance. "A wide lane would allow me to go one-on-one with anybody, and I like that idea."

The league was only 10 years old in 1956 when it changed from a lane that was six feet wide (which had been fairly standard since the Naismith era) to a 12-foot lane. In 1964 the lane was widened to its current 16 feet. Now it may be time to change again.

"It would make the big men develop skills such as putting the ball on the floor," says McMahon. "Now, they have a one-dribble game." McMahon has more than a passing familiarity with radical changes in the rules and how they can work: As a member of the Rochester Royals in 1954, he played against Boston in one of the first NBA games in which the 24-second clock was used.

Several NBA people like the conically shaped international lane, which is wider—19'8"—at the baseline. But at the area where most big players post up, about halfway between the basket and the foul line, it's not much different from the current 16-foot lane. "I figure three inches," says Atlanta coach Mike Fratello, "and I don't want to change the game for three inches." Neither does Karl. "The big difference in the two lanes is below the box," says the Warriors' coach, "and coaches don't really want players to play down there very often."

The other problem with the international lane is aesthetic. It looks, well, international. It conjures up images of 40-year-old forwards named Yuri and dreary games between Romania and Uruguay. It's not the way to go.

Conclusion: Widen the lane by at least two and perhaps four feet. Also widen the court so that the playing space outside the paint isn't reduced.

PROPOSAL—PLAY WITH FOUR-MAN TEAMS.

Premise: Taking two men off the floor would speed up the game and make the centers less dominant.

Notable quotable: San Antonio forward Mike Mitchell says, "I don't think you'll ever see four men out there, but I wouldn't be against having six."

Sorry, Mike—it's a virtual certainty that the NBA will never go the route of girls' basketball in Iowa. But the concept of a four-man game is not absurd, though it is now discussed only late at night behind closed doors with the stereo turned up real loud. You can imagine what Phoenix's Colangelo thinks of it. "Four-man game?" he says. "Whoever wrote that, or thought about it—he died."

One of the people thinking about it is CBS commentator Billy Packer, who is very much alive and more than willing to expound on his theories about the necessity of four-man NBA teams. Packer believes that the pivot position is entirely too pivotal in the NBA; the very history of the league was shaped by big centers: There was a Mikan era, followed by a Russell-Chamberlain era, followed by an Abdul-Jabbar era. Without a dominant center, even great players rarely win an NBA title. Oscar Robertson needed Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West needed Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving needed Moses Malone. The incomparable Elgin Baylor, who played the first seven years of his career with centers whom he out-rebounded, never won a championship. Could Larry Bird win a title without a dominant center? We don't know; he's always had a Dave Cowens or a Parish and a McHale—and now he has a Bill Walton, too. Magic without Abdul-Jabbar? Perhaps. We'll see in the coming years. Will Isiah Thomas ever get the chance? Dominique Wilkins?

Still, the four-man game, even for those who acknowledge that it would put a premium on skill and speed, is an alien concept. "It's tampering with the fabric of the game," says Houston's Patterson. Loughery likes the idea but doesn't give it much thought "because it will never, ever happen." Bird sees too much of the natural order of things in the five-man game, things like grappling for position and defensive switches that make for creative passing. "Besides," he adds, "with two less people on the court, you couldn't get away with nearly as much."

But hold on. Support for Packer's idea comes from a surprising source. Abdul-Jabbar, one of the primary examples of the over-dominant center, has this to say about the four-man game: "You'd still get the dynamics of the interplay between all the positions, but it would be less crowded, and it probably would be easier to officiate. With four guys it would make for a different game, insofar as you wouldn't have all the interplay, but you'd have most of it there. I think it's the only change in the game that makes sense."

And don't even consider that four-man basketball is a plot by stingy NBA management to save money on players' salaries by reducing roster size. The stepped-up pace of the game would demand more frequent substitutions.

Let's face it. There's not as much magic to the number five in basketball as there is to, say, nine in baseball. Kids grow up playing two-on-two and three-on-three more frequently than they play five-on-five. Most NBA teams do daily four-on-four drills, either to work on conditioning or to formulate defensive game plans. Game situations are almost always three-on-two or two-on-one, rather than five-on-five. Precious few offensive sets involve all five players.

Naismith had 18 kids in that first gym class, so he put nine-man teams on the court. The number was soon reduced to five and made official in 1893. Almost a century has gone by since then. Might it be time for a change?

"Maybe by the year 2000 we'll have a four-man game," says Phoenix veteran Alvan Adams. "That sounds far away, but it really isn't."

Conclusion: The idea is intriguing, even if it is radical. But why not try it in the summer leagues or in the CBA? The world will keep on spinning while the experiment goes on.

Pro basketball thrives on an amalgam of size and skill. Rarely does a team with one and not the other win a title. But size is pulling ahead in importance. For every 6'6" bundle of talent like Michael Jordan, there are two 7'2" centers, three 6'11" power forwards and four 6'8" shooting guards. There are no doubt a few more Manute Bols scattered hither and yon, waiting to be found, fattened up and freed to play havoc with offensive basketball. "It may sound ridiculous now," says Clipper coach Don Chaney, "but I can conceive of a day when a team has five seven-foot starters."

It's getting crowded out there. Listen to the radicals. They're saying, "Open up the court, and let the game breathe."

PHOTOMANNY MILLANJordan may be the game's brightest star, but without a big man he has no shot at a title.

NBA AVERAGE SIZE

HT

WT

1947-48

6'3"

186

1957-58

6'4"

206

1965-66

6'6"

208

1975-76

6'6.1"

206

1985-86

6'7.2"

214

NBA SHOOTING PERCENTAGE

1947-48

.2836

1957-58

.3831

1965-66

.4326

1975-76

.4584

1985-86

.4873

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)