LET'S GET PHYSICAL

Finesse is taking a backseat as teams vie with each other to get the big bangers who can tough it out under the basket
November 09, 1987

Karl Malone looks nice. He looks very, very nice. And Malone likes the way he looks. It's important. Very, very important. Look good, feel good. In 10 or 12 years he wants to quit his present job with the Utah Jazz so he can train year-round and become Mr. Olympia. That would be nicest of all. Why does Malone work so hard at lifting weights—up to four hours a day at a health club in Dallas last summer—sculpting his body like an artist? "It's always nice to look in the mirror and see yourself," he says. Nice, very nice. But not the real reason.

As the starting power forward for the Jazz, Malone is not so nice. He is 6'9" and 256 pounds, with negligible body fat and a nasty disposition. Last month the Jazz agreed to pay him $6 million over six years, then they went out and traded for 6'11", 270-pound Darryl Dawkins and 6'11", 275-pound Melvin Turpin. With 7'4", 290-pound Mark Eaton starting at center and 6'11" Thurl Bailey 20 pounds heavier at 232 after an off-season weight-training program, the Jazz this year may look less like a basketball team than a buffalo herd.

Like it or not, Malone, and a growing number of players built just like him, may be the future of the NBA. In fact, teams such as Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, Indiana and Detroit, which rely on strength to complement their quickness, are threatening the league's balance of power. The Lakers, the ultimate example of quickness and grace, won the championship last season, and they may repeat next spring. But the special athletes who have made that system a success will be gone someday, and even L.A. will have to adapt.

"The Lakers ran away from people in the playoffs last season until Boston banged with them, slowed them down," says Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Fratello. "If Boston had been at full strength throughout the finals, who knows what would have happened? I'm not saying bulk is for everybody, that we need 250-pound bruisers, but it plays an important role.... It's a big factor in our success. Because of the contact, the physical beating night in and night out, the stronger he is, the better a player is able to cope."

Seattle president Bob Whitsitt is emphatic about the strength factor: "No pure finesse player is going to make it in this league, because the game is simply too physical."

"You can't be a punk under there," says Sixers forward Roy Hinson. "You let them, they'll back you right into the stands." The rumbling under the boards has gotten so rough that Hinson lost four teeth in a game last year, though to hear him tell it, he didn't even mind. "Not many people in the NBA have teeth anyway," Hinson says, "especially the front ones." You may think that's easy for him to say, but try putting yourself in Hinson's bridgework and gum these facts:

•Dominique Wilkins of Atlanta, already the most explosive player in the NBA despite being only an occasional weightlifter, prepared for this season by taking karate lessons. Wilkins didn't like it when Detroit's Bill Laimbeertossed him to the floor during the playoffs last spring. "I'm tired of being pushed around," he says, "tired of them messing with me. I make my living in there. I've got to get stronger just to survive."

•Laimbeer and Larry Bird, a couple of guys with about as much natural muscle tone between them as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, both hit the weights in the summer. Bird entered the Celtics' training room one day last season, did a couple of bench presses and walked out, never to be seen there again. But by the start of the playoffs Bird was so worn down from the NBA's 82-game bump-and-grind that he had lost 12 pounds and looked haggard. Against the Lakers, Bird shot only 44.5% and frequently disappeared in the second half. Both Bird and Laimbeer, known throughout their careers as "physical" players despite an almost contemptuous aversion to conditioning, are acolytes at the altar of the new NBA religion: Stronger is better.

•During the season, Indiana Pacers coach Jack Ramsay—a fitness zealot himself—makes sure to book his team only into hotels with a health club and swimming pool. "That's a must," Ramsay says. Home or away, win or lose, the Pacers seek to maintain a consistent strength level with a minimum of two weight workouts a week.

•Many of the NBA's 23 teams have developed some kind of off-season weight and conditioning program for their players, and several clubs now employ strength coaches.

•Kermit Washington, the man who practically invented weight training in the NBA—and helped define the term power forward—is attempting a comeback this season with the Golden State Warriors. Washington, who is 36, has been retired for five years.

"Now we don't teach anybody to play dirty," says Laker coach Pat Riley, "but because of the size of the players around the league, we have to teach our guys leverage and position and the parts of the body that are going to meet contact with contact. That's very difficult sometimes when players come from college programs where they've been taught the 'proper' way to play. So we've been sort of characterized as a finesse team.

"I think in the '60s and '70s teams were looking for 'basketball players'—basketball skills only," Riley continues. "You had to know how to play basketball; they weren't as interested in athletic ability as we are today. The whole thing has changed in the past 10 or 12 years, to the point where now coaches look for physical specimens. I don't say that coldly. We're looking for great athletes. A big guy—he's strong, he's filled out, he runs, he jumps. Then we teach him how to play the game."

Occasionally the "specimens" are so radically different from anything that preceded them that they are to basketball what Postmodern architecture is to Gothic, with a throwback or two provided by Charles Barkley's flying buttresses. At 6'6" and an alleged 263 pounds (Yo, Charles, not if they closed every Wendy's in America for a month), Barkley may have looked fat when he came into the NBA, but he played lean and mean. He forced people to adjust their thinking. "When you used to get the bulky man, you wrote him off as a fat guy who couldn't play," says Milwaukee coach Del Harris. "Now you get one of these guys, you try to reshape him and have yourself a Charles Barkley."

From the purely aesthetic standpoint, a question remains whether all this is good for basketball, or if, in fact, the game is becoming an altogether new creation. It is probably significant that two NBA coaches troubled by the trend toward greater physical play, Harris and John MacLeod of Dallas, both grew up and coached at the high school level in Indiana, where basketball is a sacred trust. "I've always felt that if strength is the overriding factor, then skill is going to be diminished," MacLeod says. "And at this level, skill ought to be dominant."

Harris is pragmatic, recognizing that once the Strange-lovian spiral to larger, more powerful arms begins, it becomes almost impossible to reverse. He says that the Bucks drafted 6'6", 245-pound Bob McCann of Morehead (Ky.) State specifically because their scouts found his size a plus factor. "I may see the trend toward bulk as being detrimental," he says, "but since the trend is there, you don't want to be behind everyone else. The greyhounds are getting beat up."

The players doing a good bit of the beating up are three hulks named Charles: Barkley of Philadelphia; the 6'8", 225-pound Oakley of Chicago; and the 6'8", 225-pound (Buck) Williams of New Jersey. They were the top three rebounders in the NBA last season, and they're strong. Oakley had 21 rebounds midway through the fourth quarter of one game at Philadelphia, and he undoubtedly would have gotten more had he not been ejected for patting a referee on the rear end. Oakley's fanny pat was so powerful it actually stung the official, Paul Mihalak, who tossed him out. "A guy my size has to take control," Oakley insists. "When you set a pick, you let the guy know who set it. He's going to look at your number after he passes by. It can't be an act, because you're going to be tested. And when you're tested, you have to show them what you're made of."

Nobody knows exactly what Oakley is made of, but the bolt in his neck would seem to violate the league's no-jewelry rule. "Oakley just pushes and shoves," says Hinson, "but it doesn't look like he's pushing and shoving because he's so strong." He may have only scratched the surface, though. "Right now they just use him to rebound Michael Jordan's misses," says Phoenix player personnel director Cotton Fitzsimmons, "but once they give him some more shots, he'll be a monster." Chicago coach Doug Collins, who is intending to do just that, says, "Oakley's rebounding is as important to us as Jordan's scoring."

Seven-foot, 235-pound Kevin Willis of Atlanta is another tough hombre. Willis bench-presses 375 pounds when he feels like it, but he does very little weight training during the season, which may turn into a blessing for the Hawks' opponents. "If I get much stronger, I'm going to hurt somebody bad and not mean to," he says, almost smiling. None of this makes the games any easier to officiate, of course. But it is fascinating to note that as the players have gotten bigger and the games more physical, the referees have been letting them play. The number of fouls called last season was down more than 2,000 from 1982-83. The NBA is evidently giving the people what they want, because attendance and television ratings have never been higher. The question is, How much further can it go before a hockey game breaks out? "There's only so much you can do in basketball before it becomes sumo wrestling," says Seattle's Whitsitt. "I think we're about at that level."

A not-so-subtle change may have occurred during the Eastern Conference finals last spring, when Detroit's 6'10", 260-pound Rick Mahorn and 6'10", 225-pound Kevin McHale of the Celtics pushed and shoved over low-post position for seven games. McHale leaned back on Mahorn so hard that when Mahorn purposely sidestepped him a few times, McHale nearly launched himself into the middle of Causeway Street. "The Mahorn-McHale matchup was the first nationally televised game where you could see there was something different going on," says Celtics G.M. Jan Volk. "It was reflected by all the pushing and the referees' lack of response to it. They were desensitized to it."

A lot of people would say you can't desensitize an NBA referee with an electric cattle prod, but a certain numbness does appear to be setting in. The old rules seem to be changing. Stronger is better. "The more physical you are, the more you get away with," says Denver coach Doug Moe. "It's the little stiffs who get all the fouls just trying to hold their ground." But even the little stiffs aren't all that little anymore. "I don't think it can get much more physical before it starts to get dangerous," warns Sacramento center Joe Kleine.

No matter how recent this trend toward beefcake may seem, the league actually began to move in this direction in 1963, when the San Francisco Warriors played 6'11" rookie Nate Thurmond—he was drafted to be a center—beside Wilt Chamberlain. And it has been almost a decade since the rough-tough finals between Washington and Seattle in 1978 and '79. "Those were two very physical teams," says Moe. "Every time you looked up, there were bodies flying off the court. Flying." The captain of those Bullets teams was Wes Unseld, who for 13 seasons was one of the NBA's finest centers despite being only 6'7" and weighing 245 pounds. "I don't know of anybody who ever set a meaner screen or who was more vicious under the boards than Wes Unseld," says Collins, wincing slightly.

Unseld had little in common with the modern player except his enormous physical strength. He never lifted weights; the Bullets didn't have a workout room anyway—like most NBA teams then. Unseld's power was forged in the steel supply house where he worked as a teenager. And while his methods may have been less sophisticated than the iron-pumping of the new Adonises, the results were no less physical. Players like Unseld and his teammate Gus Johnson, Dave DeBusschere of the Pistons and the Knicks, and Bill Bridges of the Hawks, 76ers, Lakers and Warriors took pride in the violence of their body language. "In those days we got more involved in articulating our picks," says Unseld, now a Bullets vice-president and assistant coach. "I was going to push you, beat on you, make your life miserable for 48 minutes to make sure you wouldn't be the one to beat us at the end." That type of play has been around pro ball forever, but today's Unselds and DeBusscheres have a lot more scientific data and better training methods available to them if they want to get stronger. And more and more of them do.

No current team has the muscle or the malignant personality to make the ultra-physical approach work better than Boston, whose collision game has spread like an ugly bruise throughout the Eastern Conference.

Just as the Celtics bang the drum slowly and thereby set the tone in the East, the Lakers have transformed the Western Conference game into something so frequently described as having "finesse" that you would think they were running a charm school out there. The Lakers would rather run than stand and fight, but running at such a breakneck pace simply requires another kind of physicality, which—judging from the look of it—may be more difficult for other teams to deal with. "These days nobody would ever turn down a Buck Williams or a Charles Oakley," says Fitzsimmons, "but the Lakers are giving up a few rebounds and getting guys who can put it on the floor and shoot it. The Lakers can explode and embarrass you, and when they do, you don't forget that. A team that pounds on you may beat you by a couple of points, but the Lakers demoralize you so bad you don't want to play 'em again."

There is something slightly dainty-sounding about the term finesse that has always made the Lakers uneasy. They lost the championship to Boston in 1984 in a series that first turned ugly—and then turned completely around—when the Celtics discovered that L.A. could be slowed to a standstill when the play got down-and-dirty. The finesse label haunted the Lakers until last season, when they proved they don't shy away from contact so much as they strike quickly and then disappear. With the Lakers, what you frequently hear is not the bang but the whoosh.

"The game, by its nature and the way skills are now developed, along with the size and strength of the men playing now, is sometimes pushed to that borderline between aggressively physical and violent," Riley says. "The danger is coming from the incredibly gifted athletes. You've got guys who are fearless, guys who are six-eight, 230 and get the ball on the wing and say, Hey, I'm taking it to the rim, and I'm not avoiding anybody. Hell, 15 years ago a guy would go in for a layup in that situation and someone might step in and take a charge. Now you've got guys who are going to block dunks! We're dealing with force against force."

Two seasons ago the Lakers' main force was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who at 39 seemed finally to show his age in L.A.'s 4-1 playoff loss to Houston. He had lost 18 pounds during the season, and yet his body-fat count had reached 11%. Abdul-Jabbar had always believed in conditioning, usually doing yoga exercises for 90 minutes five days a week during the off-season. Kareem frequents the tony Yoga College of India, Beverly Hills branch, under the direction of Bikram Choudhury, the so-called guru to the stars. In the summer of '86 Abdul-Jabbar lifted free weights for the first time, regained 21 pounds, reduced his body fat to 8% and was strong enough last June to handle McHale and Robert Parish.

Choudhury doesn't work in the NBA yet, but Rich Dalatri does—as the strength and conditioning coach of the New Jersey Nets, who were 24-58 last year and played like 97-pound weaklings most of the time. Dalatri was the strength coach at Mississippi before he was hired last June by the Nets. He has developed a six-point program for them that involves weightlifting; flexibility, agility, and jumping drills; anaerobic and aerobic conditioning; and restorative measures, including whirlpools and saunas. "In football," he says, "the emphasis is on maximum strength. In basketball, it's on functional strength. The whole game comes through your legs. We train the neuromuscular system to make the muscles fire more quickly and explosively. Football players know they have to do weightlifting. Basketball players are such great athletes that they have been able to get by just on natural ability...but now players are getting so big and strong—like Barkley and Oakley—that they realize they have to get stronger in order to compete."

"I don't know why it didn't happen before," says Nets center Mike Gminski. "I've always felt that the East Europeans and Soviets were so ahead of us as far as training athletes is concerned. The NBA owners invest so much in us, it seems stupid not to hire a strength coach and trainer to work with us."

Denver center Wayne Cooper backs that theory. "I'm in the best condition of my career," he says. Part of the reason is Dr. Marvin Clein, who was hired last spring by the Nuggets as training and conditioning coordinator. Clein set up voluntary programs for the Nuggets, and Cooper participated because his rebounding and shot-blocking averages dropped last season, partly, he felt, because he wasn't in the best condition.

Denver's program is similar to the Nets' and includes weight training and agility and speed drills. The Nuggets also brought in a diet specialist to advise the players. "I feel stronger, I have so much more life and explosiveness in my legs," says the 6'10" Cooper, whose weight has dropped from 256 pounds to 222 since April.

Clein says he will test players during the season to see if their conditioning has slipped, even though he has had some success already: He says he has seen a 50% increase in strength in some of the Nuggets; all the veterans were in his program.

A lot of basketball coaches used to be squeamish about weightlifting, fearing it would hurt a player's shooting touch. But the results of some strength tests conducted about a decade ago have greatly eliminated these fears. The tests revealed that some NBA players lost as much as one third of their power during a season. "That old taboo [about weight training] is out the window," says Ramsay. "I think everybody understands now that stronger is better."

But, says Bullets general manager Bob Ferry, "when you develop more than you're supposed to, it puts pressure on the bones, and when you make yourself bigger than you were meant to be by nature, things can just explode."

Things already have.

PHOTOMANNY MILLANTHE PISTONS TOOK IT TO BOSTON, BUT THE CELTICS SURVIVED TO WIN A TITLE IN THE EAST PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAMTHE TRUE TEST OF STRENGTH OCCURS IN THE PAINT, WHERE LIFE GETS TOUGH AND NASTY PHOTOFOCUS WESTA.C. GREEN OF THE LAKERS DISHES IT OUT, AND HE CAN TAKE IT, TOO, WHEN THINGS GET DIFFICULT TWO PHOTOSBRIAN DRAKEBACKINGIN FOR POSITION OR BACKING UP A POINT, AKEEM OLAJUWON IS A POTENT FORCE TWO PHOTOSANDREW D. BERNSTEINBIRD MUSCLED UP OVER THE OFF-SEASON SO HE COULD WITHSTAND ANOTHER YEAR OF POUNDING PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAMBARKLEY'S POWER AND HIS MOVES MAKE HIM A PROTOTYPE FOR THE FUTURE PHOTOBRIAN DRAKE[See caption above.] PHOTOSTEVE LIPOFSKYMcHALE'S BLINDING DEFENSE HANDICAPPED JACK SIKMA IN LAST SEASON'S PLAYOFFS PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERWHEN BODIES GO BANG IN THE NIGHT, REFEREES INEVITABLY BECOME THE FALL GUYS PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAM[See caption above.]

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)