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Thread: What ails the game

  1. #1
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    Default What ails the game

    This is a few months' old, but is an interesting read about the NBA game. The link from the NYTimes Magazine has expired, but here is the article in full:


    New York Times Magazine
    February 13, 2005
    Clang!
    By MICHAEL SOKOLOVE

    Behold the slam dunk, the pulse-quickening, throw-it-down, in-your-face signature move of the National Basketball Association. The dunk is a declaration of power and dominance, of machismo. In a team game, an ensemble of five players a side, it is an expression of self. In a sport devoted to selling sneakers, the dunk is a marketing tour de force, the money shot at the end of every worthy basketball sequence. (When you see the shoes in the 30-second spot, what is the wearer of those shoes always doing?) Next weekend in Denver, the cultural moment that is the N.B.A. All-Star Game will take place, an event set annually amid a weekend of concerts, lavish parties and showy displays of fashion. On such a big stage (and with defensive standards momentarily relaxed), the game itself is sure to be a veritable dunkathon, a string of self-satisfied throw-downs by the league's biggest stars. If I had my way, at the conclusion of the game the dunk would be taken out of commission. Banned as a first step toward rescuing a game that has strayed far from its roots, fundamentals and essential appeal.

    The addiction to the dunk is emblematic of the direction in which basketball -- like all major pro sports, really -- has been heading: less nuance, more explosive force. Greater emphasis on individual heroics and personal acclaim, less on such quaint values as teamwork and sacrifice. Basketball's muscled-up, minimally skilled dunker is the equivalent of baseball's steroid-fueled home-run slugger or the guided-missile N.F.L. linebacker, his helmet aimed at anything that moves. It is all part of a video-game aesthetic being transplanted into our real games: the athlete as action hero, an essentially antisocial lone wolf set apart from teammates, dedicated to his own personal glory and not bound by much of anything, even the laws of gravity. (Last month the sports media giant ESPN entered into an $850 million partnership with Electronic Arts, the video-game company that turns real-life athletes into digitized figures, further blurring the distinction between flesh-and-blood athletes and the superhumans we have come to expect in the sports arena.)

    In November, an ugly incident, a brawl between N.B.A. players and fans in Detroit, led some commentators to conclude that pro basketball is populated by thugs. (My online search of the keywords ''N.B.A.'' and ''thug'' a month later produced more than 400 hits.) But the fight was an aberration; N.B.A. players are, in my experience, as gentlemanly as (or more so than) athletes in other pro sports. The N.B.A. doesn't have a thug problem; it has a basketball problem. Its players are the best athletes in all of pro sports -- oversize, swift and agile -- but weirdly they are also the first to have devolved to a point where they can no longer play their own game.

    Unbelievable as it may seem, you can make millions in today's N.B.A. without having even one semireliable way to put the ball in the basket -- no jump shot, no hook shot, no little 12-foot bank shot. In fact, the entire area between dunking range and the three-point line, what used to be prime real estate for scoring, is now a virtual dead zone. (The three-point shot is the other one of the N.B.A.'s twin addictions, but more on that later.) Richard Hamilton of the Detroit Pistons, last year's N.B.A. champion, has been just about knighted for his ability to consistently sink the ''midrange'' jumper, which used to be an entry-level requirement into the N.B.A. -- if you couldn't do that, you had to find another line of work. But not anymore. This generation of players is so young, so green, so unschooled (four years of college is now exceedingly rare), so raised on a diet of ESPN highlights that many have nothing but so-called N.B.A. bodies.

    Last year, the New Jersey Nets scored 56 points in a playoff game. Fifty-six! ''We just missed shots,'' said a Nets player. No kidding. Wilt Chamberlain once averaged more than 50 points a game, all by himself. Two decades ago, teams averaged about 110 points a game; this year, the figure is about 96 points per game (which is actually 3 points better than last season). Presented with players bent on executing highlight-reel dunks -- but who otherwise do not pass well, shoot well or move effectively to open spots on the floor -- many N.B.A. coaches have slowed the pace to a plodding, unwatchable crawl. And the more important the game, the more slowly it is played. ''It's an incongruity,'' Rod Thorn, the president of the Nets, told me. ''We have better athletes than ever, but they play at a slower pace. The reason is they're not as sound fundamentally, so the coaches feel that the faster they play, the more mistakes they'll make.''

    The dunk, by the way, has been banned once before, for reasons other than the one I am proposing. In 1965, a 7-foot-1 basketball player of uncommon grace and coordination graduated from Power Memorial Academy in New York City and enrolled at U.C.L.A., then the dominant force in college basketball. In his first season, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) led U.C.L.A. to a national championship. Faced with the probability that no other team would have any chance at a title for the duration of Abdul-Jabbar's stay, the N.C.A.A. outlawed ''basket stuffing,'' aka the dunk. No one said straight out that the new rule was meant to handicap the young giant, but it immediately became known as the Alcindor rule. U.C.L.A. still thrived, winning national championships in both of Abdul-Jabbar's remaining two seasons. ''After the so-called Alcindor rule was passed . . . some skeptics said he wouldn't be as great,'' John Wooden, the legendary U.C.L.A. coach, observed years later. ''They ignored his tremendous desire and determination. He worked twice as hard on banking shots off the glass, his little hook across the lane and his turnaround jumper.''

    In other words, Abdul-Jabbar, already skilled, became even more so. His ''sky hook'' -- released 5 to 10 feet from the basket, with his right arm fully extended and the ball cradled in one hand -- remains the most devastatingly effective, and most beautiful, shot in the history of the game. A close second, in terms of grace, might be the ''finger roll'' of Julius Erving, in which high-flying Dr. J glided above defenders and let the ball roll toward the hoop with his palm facing up, as if he were a waiter extending a serving tray. It is no coincidence that Erving played his college basketball within the years (1967-76) that the Alcindor rule was in effect: the finger roll is the kind of move you invent when the option of just powering it to the basket and stuffing it is not available.

    arl Monroe, a stylish guard who played for the New York Knicks in the 1970's, employed ''tempo changes only Thelonious Monk would understand,'' the music and social critic Nelson George has written. Many others over the years have seen basketball as jazz, an apt comparison when the game is played well -- as an amalgam of creativity, individuality, collaboration, improvisation and structure. Much of what makes basketball interesting is the give and take, the constant tension, between individual expression and team concepts. On the best teams, players take their turns as soloists, but not at the expense of others in the quintet.

    The most obvious aspect of basketball, especially at the N.B.A. level, is the extraordinary athleticism of the players. What is less apparent is that the outcome of games, more so than in any other major sport, is determined by a series of social interactions. Basketball coaches have long taught that the ball must be ''shared'' -- passed from player to player until it ends up in the hands of the one with the best possible shot. Players are urged constantly to ''talk'' on defense -- communicate about the alignment and movements of offensive players -- and to ''give help,'' meaning that a defender is not just responsible for the man he is guarding but also for sliding over to help a teammate who has been beaten by his own man. With just 5 players on the court at a time and rosters that consist of just 12 men, N.B.A. teams are intimate groups, extended families almost, and the ones that succeed cover for individual weaknesses and stress their strengths. They play as if they are aware of, and care for, one another.

    One reason that fans of a certain age remember and still cherish the great Knicks teams of the early 70's is because they seemed to be such a functional, appealing social unit. The guards Walt (Clyde) Frazier, Dick Barnett and Earl Monroe were sort of urban hipsters. Bill Bradley, the dead-eye shooter and future United States senator, was an Ivy League wonk nicknamed Dollar Bill by his teammates for the presumed cost of the bargain-basement suits he wore. Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere did the dirty work under the basket and were so blue-collar in their approach to the game that it wasn't hard to imagine them carrying lunch buckets to some M.T.A. railyard. They meshed seamlessly on the court, elevating the concept of sharing the ball (Coach Red Holzman's mantra was ''hit the open man'') to something like an art form. The same could be said of the Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar in the 80's, the so-called Showtime teams. The multitalented Johnson, in particular, was understood to have sacrificed his own scoring in order to involve teammates in a free-flowing, high-scoring offense.

    Few teams play like that anymore because basketball culture in America is broken in ways that go beyond the addiction to dunking or the decline in fundamentals like shooting. It has always been possible to identify extraordinary basketball talent at very young ages. The game's phenoms present early, like female gymnasts or violin prodigies (and unlike athletes in, say, football or baseball, where seemingly talented 12-year-olds often just fizzle out). What has changed in basketball is that a whole constellation has been created for the phenoms; they are separated out and sent off to dwell in a world of their own. An industry of tout sheets and recruiting services identifies them as early as fifth or sixth grade, and they begin traveling a nationwide circuit of tournaments with their high-powered youth teams. In the summer, the best high-school players attend showcases sponsored by the big sneaker companies. (The latest of the prodigies earned cover notice on Sports Illustrated in January. ''Meet Demetrius Walker,'' the headline said. ''He's 14 Years Old. You're Going to Hear From Him.'')

    Quite understandably, these young stars, rather than being prone to sharing the ball, are apt to believe they own it. ''I'm amazed when guys make it out of that system with any sense of perspective at all,'' said Jeff Van Gundy, the former Knicks coach now coaching the Houston Rockets. ''It's not natural to be that catered to at such a young age. We've got kids being named the 'best 11-year-old basketball player in America.' How the hell do you recover from that?''

    As Van Gundy knows too well, many do not recover. The N.B.A.'s upper tier, its elite performers (the American ones, as opposed to the increasing number of foreign-born players), now typically come out of a system in which they have been pointed toward the ''next level'' since grammar school. They have never played in the present tense. Their high-school coach and teammates may well have been secondary to their peer group of nationally recognized megastars. If they stopped off in college before turning pro, it was probably for just a year or two. It is not often easy to coach such a player because he is likely to see himself as a finished product, in no need of instruction, polishing or discipline. (My favorite college coach, John Chaney of Temple University, recently benched a couple of players because they showed up for the team bus without the winter hats he requires in cold weather. Unsurprisingly, Chaney rarely lands any of the nation's most coveted recruits.)

    Stephon Marbury, the 27-year-old, $14-million-a-year point guard of the New York Knicks and one of the most celebrated schoolboy players ever, is in many ways the embodiment of modern basketball culture. Even among other very good players in his Coney Island neighborhood (including his three older brothers, who all went on to play college ball), he stood out as gifted. As a ninth grader, he was an instant starter at Abraham Lincoln High, the perennial New York City powerhouse. A basketball luminary since grammar school, he had been so eagerly awaited that after just one high-school game, Newsday proclaimed that the ''era of Stephon Marbury'' had begun.

    One night earlier this season at the press table at Madison Square Garden, I was seated next to Jeff Lenchiner, the editor of InsideHoops.com, an online magazine for basketball aficionados. During a lull in the game, he turned his laptop computer toward me and directed me to watch an electronic file of Stephon Marbury highlights, an array of breathtaking moves: crossover dribbles that left defenders looking as if they were stuck in cement; spinning, twisting drives to the basket; soaring dunks. The last clip showed the 6-foot-2 Marbury rising up for a jump shot over a taller defender. At his peak, just as the ball left his hand, his sneakers looked to be about three feet above the floor. ''Look at him!'' Lenchiner shouted. ''It's like he's in a video game. He's got thrusters!''

    Marbury played one year of college basketball at Georgia Tech before jumping to the N.B.A. A dazzling ball handler, utterly fearless about driving to the hoop against bigger defenders, he has compiled high scoring averages and high assist totals (an assist is a pass that leads directly to a basket) in the pros while at the same time often leaving the strong impression that he does not play well with others. But then again, the concept of being part of a team is one that seems to elude a great many N.B.A. players. Prodigies as kids, they see themselves as virtuosos, leading men with ''supporting casts'' (a favorite phrase of Michael Jordan's) rather than players with teammates.

    On his first pro team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Marbury chafed at sharing the spotlight with another young talent, Kevin Garnett, and forced a trade. Marbury has yet to play on a team that advanced past one round of the playoffs, even as, in the last three of his four N.B.A. stops (in nine seasons), he has been his team's unquestioned marquee performer. Marbury this year publicly proclaimed himself the best point guard in the N.B.A. The Knicks promptly lost 14 of their next 16 games, and the coach, Lenny Wilkins, resigned along the way.

    Few of the N.B.A.'s younger stars want to share top billing. Tracy McGrady left the Toronto Raptors rather than stay with another superstar, Vince Carter (who also happened to be his cousin). Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers is much admired for his grit and competitive spirit, but it is not unusual for him to fire up 30 or more shots in a game in which no teammate takes as many as 15. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal famously could not get along in Los Angeles, and with Shaq's trade, Kobe has been left on a vastly inferior Lakers team, a trade-off he seemed willing to make.

    Marbury was among a dozen N.B.A. players who went to Athens last August to represent the United States at the Summer Olympics. Since N.B.A. players began competing at the Olympics in 1992, the Americans had never lost a game, let alone failed to win the gold medal. But in Athens, the U.S. truly dominated only one game -- against the scrappy but overmatched Angolans. The N.B.A. players, who collectively earn more than $100 million a year, suffered relatively close losses to Lithuania and Argentina. They squeaked by Greece, which did have the home-court advantage. Stunningly, the U.S. Olympians were blown off the court by the commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

    In the midst of this tournament, as it was going downhill, Isiah Thomas, the president of the Knicks, called Marbury from New York. Marbury's game had been muted; he wasn't taking many shots or being very aggressive. His defense was so lax that the Puerto Rican point guard, Carlos Arroyo, scored 24 points on him (as compared with Marbury's 2). ''I was just honest with him,'' Thomas said, recalling the conversation. ''I told him he was playing like'' something that can't be reprinted here. Thomas advised Marbury: ''Remember who you are.'' In other words, be the man, be the wizard of Coney Island. But only one person at a time, of course, can be that kind of player.

    After his talk with Thomas, Marbury responded with a record-breaking barrage of three-pointers in a close victory over Spain, nearly single-handedly preserving the U.S. medal hopes. But the next night he failed to make any three-pointers, and the Americans lost the game to Argentina, and with it any hope for a gold medal. (They settled for a bronze.)

    The Olympic basketball tournament amounted to an indictment of U.S. basketball. If you had just watched the games in Athens and knew nothing of basketball history, it would have been reasonable to conclude that the sport had been invented and popularized in, say, Argentina or Italy -- and was just starting to catch on in the United States. Other teams passed better, shot more accurately, played better defense. (Foul shooting is generally regarded as a matter of discipline and repetition. With enough practice, most players can become proficient. It's worth noting that in Athens, the gold-medal-winning U.S. women's team made 76 percent of its foul shots while the men connected on a woeful 67 percent.)

    The American men, in defeat, chose to focus on how much better the rest of the world's players have become and how unfamiliar the U.S. players were with one another and the somewhat different style and rules of international basketball. The larger point, they would not face: after a month together and with the noted basketball teacher Larry Brown of the Detroit Pistons as their coach, they still played as strangers. Seasoned jazz musicians can pick up together in a lounge and play the standards and sound pretty damn good -- they would know all the changes in ''Stompin' at the Savoy'' -- but the American basketballers had no common basketball language. Five old heads on lunch hour at a gym in North Philly or Harlem could have meshed better.

    his season, some good things are starting to happen in the N.B.A., possibly because the Olympic debacle was such an eye-opener. Scoring has started to edge up for the first time in years, and some coaches have begun to trust their teams to play a fast-breaking style. After years of exporting the game, the N.B.A. is importing not just players but also a style of play from abroad. The high-scoring Phoenix Suns have been the surprise team of the N.B.A. season so far. Their coach, Mike D'Antoni, holds dual Italian and U.S. citizenship and has spent most of his career playing and coaching in Europe. The Suns' point guard, the master orchestrator of their run-and-gun offense, is Steve Nash, a Canadian. (The Suns signed him as a free agent to replace their point guard of last season, Stephon Marbury.)

    The San Antonio Spurs do not play at the frenzied pace of the Suns, but they are one of the N.B.A.'s best teams and, within the coaching fraternity, probably the most admired. On offense, they are a five-man whirl of movement. A player who passes the ball cuts to the basket. The player receiving a pass either shoots, makes a move toward the hoop or quickly passes to someone else. They execute the old-school ''give and go'' play -- a player passes to a teammate, cuts, then gets it right back. ''The Spurs are the gold standard,'' Van Gundy said.

    As the Spurs took the floor for a November game in San Antonio against the Knicks, I looked in my program and noted the backgrounds of the players in their starting lineup. Rasho Nesterovic is from Slovenia; Tony Parker, from France; Manu Ginobili, star of the gold-medal-winning Olympic team, from Argentina; and Tim Duncan, the Spurs power forward and best player, from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Among the Spurs starters, only Bruce Bowen was born on United States soil, and he spent four years after college toiling for minor-league teams in the U.S. and on the European pro circuit. A key reserve, Beno Udrih, is another Slovenian.

    For Marbury, playing the Spurs must have felt like being back in Athens. Their style is sometimes called Euro-ball, but it is really nothing new: constant motion on offense, hit the open man. It's the game that used to be played in the U.S. but was forsaken for a more static style.

    The Knicks got off to an early lead, spurred by one of Marbury's highlight-reel moments: he stole a pass, raced the ball toward his offensive end and shoveled a no-look, behind-the-back, left-handed pass to Nazr Mohammed, who finished the sequence with a dunk. Eventually, though, the Spurs' teamwork and Duncan's strong inside presence took over. What kept me fascinated, even after the game was no longer competitive, was that the two teams played according to entirely different geometries. The Spurs made a series of angled passes that usually culminated with the final one advancing the ball closer to the basket. The Knicks' offense consisted of Marbury using his speed off the dribble to dart inside the lane, and then, when the Spurs defense collapsed on him, he passed the ball back out, farther from the basket -- often to beyond the three-point line where teammates were standing still, awaiting a pass.

    ''They do that even on a fast break, not just the Knicks but most of the rest of the teams,'' Walt Frazier explained to me. A Knicks broadcaster now, Frazier diagrammed this on a tablecloth as he spoke. He was quite agitated. ''One guy's got the ball in the middle, and these two guys on the wing here, they should be cutting to the basket, right? But, no, here they go way out here, to three-point land, and they get the ball and shoot it. You're 6 feet from the hoop; why pass it back out 25 feet? And then people wonder why teams can't score 80 points.''

    I am guessing that the league's commissioner, David Stern, the best and the brightest of all sports executives, will not take my suggestion and decommission the dunk shot. It's too much of a crowd-pleaser -- just two points, but so much money in the bank. But I do hope that college and high-school basketball will again ban dunking, so that players on the way up have some chance of acquiring something other than a repertory of slam dunks.

    The three-point shot is another matter altogether. No reason it should not just disappear. ''The dagger!'' announcers sometimes call it, as if it were the shock-and-awe of the hardwood, a weapon that brings opposing players to their knees. The three-pointer is a corruption of the sport, a perversion of a century of basketball wisdom that held that the whole point of the game was to advance the ball closer to the basket. If its intent was to increase scoring, the three-point shot definitely has not done that, and if it was to make the game more wide open and exciting, it hasn't accomplished that either. The unintended consequence of the three-pointer has been to make the game more static as players ''spot up'' outside the arc, waiting for the pass that will lead to the dagger.

    ichael Jeffrey Jordan is almost certainly more popular than Jesus,'' Playboy declared in 1992. ''What's more, he has better endorsement deals.''

    Money, of course, is at the root of many, probably most, of the N.B.A.'s ills. Because Jordan established that one man can become a brand unto himself, that he can personally elevate a company -- no one was more responsible for making Nike into a worldwide cultural force -- the N.B.A. is now the only pro league in which a player can become an endorsement king without playing for a winning team. If he's a spectacular enough dunker, it can happen, even if he plays in some N.B.A. outpost.

    Jordan created this world, but it's important to remember that he did not grow up in it. Until he was deep into high school, few outside of his hometown had heard of him. When he needed coaching, he was still listening -- which is part of what made him worth watching. The same cannot be said of many of his heirs in the sneaker-shilling game.

    The power of the shoe deal (and the hoped-for shoe deal) in basketball cannot be overstated. It induces kids to skip college and go right to the N.B.A. because endorsement money from Nike and other companies can dwarf the salaries they make from playing ball. The shoe deal is specifically what is making the N.B.A. younger -- which, in turn, is what is degrading the quality of play.

    Sebastian Telfair of Coney Island was a phenom from an early age, pointed toward bigger things and therefore on the radar of the sneaker companies -- just like his cousin, Stephon Marbury. He went to an Adidas-sponsored camp. The teams he played for as a kid, right up through high school, were outfitted in Adidas. Last spring, he took the shoe money, a reported $15 million -- from Adidas, of course -- and skipped right from Lincoln High to the N.B.A. ''I've been Adidas all my life,'' he said at the press conference to announce his N.B.A. ascension. I saw him play the other night. He looked small and lost.

    snapshot from today's N.B.A.: the locker room of the New York Knicks, where in each dressing cubicle a necktie hangs on a hook, pre-knotted. Isiah Thomas, the team president, has ordered players to wear suits and ties to the arenas, a grown-up enough thing. But during games, a team functionary goes around knotting the ties so that when a player gets dressed afterward, all he has to do is slip the tie over his head and tighten it rather than actually having to make the knot himself.

    One other snapshot: the Knicks bench, with 12 players, 1 head coach and 6 assistant coaches. The Dallas Mavericks have employed as many as 10 assistants, nearly 1 per player. I checked into how many assistants Red Holzman had with the old Knicks. The answer: none. He coached by himself. It was explained to me by people around the league that in the modern N.B.A., a half-dozen or more assistant coaches are needed to help fill in the gaps for young players. In essence, they teach remedial basketball for millionaires.

    What the N.B.A. needs, most of all, is to get older. Last summer, eight first-round draft choices were high-school kids; four were college seniors. There are some true prodigies out there, young men ready to go straight from seventh-period English to the N.B.A. But not that many. The most notable recent one is LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who somehow survived intense high-school fame to emerge as a mature, team-oriented professional basketball player.

    For most, though, the N.B.A. is a bad place to learn, no matter how many coaches are available as tutors. The league is increasingly stocked with athletes who might have ripened in college -- if they had not been picked so young. They end up stunted. The players are paid, but the fans, and the game, are being cheated.

    Michael Sokolove, author of ''The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw,'' is a contributing writer for the magazine.



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  2. #2

    Default Re: What ails the game

    I think banning the dunk would doom the NBA.

    But I also believe it's way overused and overhyped...Give me Reggie Miller's and Ray Allen's games any day over the flashy dunks guys'.

  3. #3
    3ptmiller
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    Default Re: What ails the game

    Quote Originally Posted by MSA2CF
    This quote is hidden because you are ignoring this member. Show Quote
    I think banning the dunk would doom the NBA.

    But I also believe it's way overused and overhyped...Give me Reggie Miller's and Ray Allen's games any day over the flashy dunks guys'.

  4. #4

    Default Re: What ails the game

    the success of And1 proves that dunks and showmanship sell just as well (or better) as/than fundamentals, nationwide. This small sampling also shows that Indiana fans would rather see team ball and sharpshooting than dunking and chest-thumping.

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