NO TIME OF the year offers a clearer look than now at American sports at its dreariest. I have little concern about the fortunes of the Washington Bullets on any occasion - fortunes in both meanings of the word - but the playoffs are a moment for me to be concerned even less.
My regrets about this are deep. If anyone should be a fan, I would be a natural. I played the game as a varsity athlete in high school.I hung around a bit with Carl Braun and Ernie Vandeweghe of the New York Knicks of the 1950s, when Dick McGuire, their teammate, would make the sign of the cross before foul shots. Today, I go to a playground near my home to watch the pick-up games, which really do pick me up.
But it is hard to keep positive feelings about the sport when the Bullets and the other teams in the playoffs have been demeaning and cheapening it. Pro basketball has been sinking lower and lower in recent years, but in these past weeks an underbelly of the sorriest kind of glumness has been revealed.
The players seem to be suffering delayed stress fatigue, a disorder commonly associated with soldiers who have been in combat too long. In pro basketball's front lines, the battles begin in training camp in September and run through to May, with the championship games scheduled into the first week of June.
The strains of this grinding nine-month season must necessarily show. In the playoffs, referees seldom call a foul without taking a berating from the offending player. Sometimes it is side-of-the-mouth cursing, other times explosive tantrums in which some unjolly green-in-the-face giant bellows his outrage at the cowed ref. Coaches, who, unlike baseball managers, actually can do little coaching because the play is so fast-paced, put keys in their backs to become wind-up toys that abuse the referees for fouls they didn't call.
None of this hyperaction has camouflaged the joylessness that now pervades the sport.
How can players not be dispirited? The fatigue of the long season affects the emotions, but still another pressure is the actual punishment of the play. In the past three weeks, the Bullets' success has depended less on how well players performed than on how well their injuries healed before they performed. One player had a jammed finger, another a sprained ankle, a third was hospitalized with a bad back - made worse because he lacked the maturity to rest.
Games aren't games - they are medical seminars. Sportswriters play down the boring details of the actual play in favor of analyzing the import of the latest injury. A recent playoff game between Phoenix and Seattle was so forgettable that the Arizona Republic yawned in print by running top-of-the-page pictures of the contest's two most exciting moments: the team's trainer attending a player who had just twisted his ankle and the player himself hobbling into the locker room on crutches.
All that was missing from the picture was the player's agent, who should have been there with a financial projection of whether or not a sprained ankle could lead to a sprained portfolio.
After the playoffs, followers of the Bullets will be treated to the off-season details of contract talk. One player, Bobby Dandridge, has been in a pout all season because he thinks he's unperpaid. Others are already saying that with their-current contracts about to expire, they're going to become free agents. The message to the Bullets' management: Start your bids high.
For those players who are already monied beyond belief, grousing about other stars is the off-court pastime. Elvin Hayes, a good player who has yet to become a great one like Bill Russell, Abdul Kareem-Jabbar or George Mikan, sulked in public the other day about being passed over for the Most Valuable Player award. It went to upstart Moses Malone, who was dismissed by Hayes as a prima donna on a losing team while he, the great E. was a selfless team player about to get another championship ring on his now unjammed finger.
Who cares? Except for their display of stamina, Hayes and his teammates are doing little that is worthy, much less memorable. For my time, and not a cent of my money, the finest basketball these days is a few blocks up the street at the playground. There, no one argues with the refs because none are needed. A sense of honor lets players call fouls on themselves. Injuries occur, but mostly to the egos of the middle-aged who have no jump shots because they can't jump too well anymore. The games are celebrations, not contests. The victors don't leave the court waving the No. 1 sign into the faces of the defeated. They leave in a spirit of satisifed playfulness, glad merely to be physically fit.
The Bullets ought to come to my playground some weekend afternoon. They would see some graceful and fresh basketball. Perhaps they would remember when the themselves were able to find some joy, rather than merely misery and money, in the game. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post