Leave it to Darryl Dawkins, the uninhibited center of the Philadelphia 76ers, to put it best.
"This league," he said a few weeks ago on his 21st birthday, "is easy to figure out. It's the country guys versus the city guys.
"The city guys have a lot more moves. They know how to razzle-dazzle the crowd, go between their legs with the ball, slam-dunk and get nice. The country guys just work hard -- nothing fancy, but honest hard work. The kind I like to avoid."
Dawkins' analysis is a bit crude, perhaps, but his basic premise is a sound one. Professional basketball is a game of styles. Team styles and individual styles have been brought together, transformed and compromised to make the professional game, National Basketball Association style, the most exciting game around.
In no other team sport is the individual given so much freedom to express himself. How he does it was formulated years ago in places like suburban California, for the likes of Bill Walton, the New York City playgrounds for the incomparable Julius Erving.
Everyone has his own style that sets him apart from the rest, but it is still a fact that there are two basic styles of play in the NBA -- the city game and the noncity game. Others like to call it different things -- black style versus white style; one-on-one play versus team play; individualism versus conformity, or finesse versus muscle.
The city game, or black game, is one that has been molded on the playgrounds from coast to coast, molded from the time future stars who were 6-years-olds sneaking shots at a playground basket while the big-timers rested between games.
While the other kids were off at the bench, away at summer camp or playing American Legion baseball, the hard-core playground stars were pounding the pavement, getting their moves together. Their game was refined through countless hours on the same playgrounds and the finishing touches were applied at the ultimate playground -- the NBA.
The city game is a smooth, free-flowing coming together of slam-dunks, soft jumpers and spin moves. Style and flair is the most important thing. If it looks good and feels good and the fans like it, then do it.
It is a game of improvisation. The emphasis is on the individual. Everyone can leap and everyone can run. Everyone can dribble and dunk with both hands, shoot from 30 feet and hang in the air as long as a Ray Guy punt. That is the city game.
The noncity game is a game of screens and picks, back-door plays and people taking the charging foul. It's the world of the good-percentage shot; diving on the floor for loose balls and the sure pass. "Don't be flashy, just be good," is that game's motto. It is often dull, but usually efficient.
When one thinks of the city game with its flair and finesse, a number of players come to mind -- George McGinnis and Lloyd Free of Philadelphia, Phil Smith of Golden State, John Drew of Atlanta, Randy Smith of Buffalo, Fred Brown of Seattle, Campy Russell of Cleveland, Elvin Hayes of Washington, Adrian Dantley of Los Angeles and George Gervin of San Antonio.
The very best at the style, however, are the Doctor, Julius Erving, of the 76ers and Earl (The Pearl) Monroe of the New York Knicks.
The Doctor is more spectacular than the Pearl only because he is bigger, younger and can jump higher. His is a high-wire act with the finale being some mind-boggling dunk.
The Pearl's magic is performed below the rim, but it is just as devastating.
In his book, "Life on The Run," former Knick player Bill Bradley writes, "Earl Monroe plays like a man whose body was assembled through a mail-order catalog. Each part seems to move independently yet is controlled from a single command center.
"He has an uncanny skill for gauging the distance between himself and anyone who can block his shot. When his timing is off, as it is when he is returning from an injury, his shots are often blocked. When he is healthy, he can loft the ball over anyone's outstretched hand.Sometimes the defensive man misses a block by a foot, sometimes by an inch, but when Earl is right, no one can stop him."
Monroe learned his game on the playgrounds of Philadelphia. "First by watching and then by imitating," he says.
The patented Monroe move is his spin. It was unstoppable in his prime and still is to an extent. Monroe will drive toward his man and then, just as he gets there, he turns his back, pivots and goes off at a 45-degree angle away from his defender. He controls the ball as if it were a yo-yo, leaves his defender flatfooted and off balance, and calmly shoots his jumper.
Then we have The Doctor.
Teammate George McGinnis says simply that, "Doc is the greatest player to ever step on the floor.
"He can do things I can't even dream about doing and I can do some things out there myself that are pretty earth-shattering."
There are countless stories about moves Erving has made, but most veteran Erving watchers agree his greatest move came during a Rucker League game in New York a few years ago.
As the story goes, Erving was trapped on the right side of the basket, unable to shoot. He jumped and threw the ball up against the backboard. While he was still in the air, Erving glided under the hoop, took his own rebound and slam-dunked with two hands so hard that the ball bounded off the floor and went through the basket again.
"I just flow," Erving says. "I don't think about any play or moves and I don't remember much about them after I do them. They just happen."
At the other end of the style scale is the hard-working, gutsy blue-collar type player. He isn't particularly fancy, but is just as important a part of the game as his free-wheeling counter-parts.
The best of this group are Bill Walton of Portland, Bobby Jones and Dan Issel of Denver, Dave Cowens and John Havlicek of Boston, Rudy Tomjanovich of Houston, Dave Meyers of Milwaukee, Mitch Kupchak of Washington, Billy Paultz of San Antonio and Don Buse and Alvan Adams of Phoenix.
Then there is a special breed of players -- the black player who plays a more conservative or noncity game and the white player who plays as if he grew up on a New York City playground.
Two of the best one-on-one playground types around are Pete Muravich of New Orleans and Paul Westphal of Phoenix. Both are white. They have flair, the moves and the finesse, and they love to hear the roar of the crowd.
Rick Barry of Golden State, Doug Collins of Philadelphia, Brian Winters of Milwaukee and Kevin Grevey of Washington also fit into that category.
Some black players who play a white, or non-city, game are David Thompson of Denver, Norm Van Lier of Chicago, Wes Unseld of Washington, Ron Lee of Phoenix, Clifford Ray of Golden State and Quinn Buckner of Milwaukee.
"Coaching has a little bit to do with your style," says Dawkins, "but not as much as you might think. It's all in your background."
Maravich, who averaged more than 40 points a game for three straight seasons at LSU and is the defending NBA scoring champion and the leading scorer this season, has always been allowed to do as he pleases on the court. From the time he was a child, his father, Press, a basketball coach who later coached Maravich at LSU, worked with him. He taught him to throw behind-the-back passes, to shoot from all over the floor and to spin a basketball on his finger tips.
As a 5-foot 2, 90-pound eighth-grader, Maravich was handling the ball much like he does today. The flair for showmanship was part of him by then.
Most of the other individual stars of the game -- Erving, McGinnis, Hayes, Monroe, Bob McAdoo and Dantley -- have, like Maravich, basically always had a free hand on the floor.
Those who don't play the one-on-one game have always existed in a more controlled setting, in which they were spokes in a bigger wheel.
It is not fair to assume the one-on-one or city-game stars are ball hogs or hot dogs. They generally know when to go into their acts and when not to.
"I use fancy stuff only when I have to, when it's necessary," said Walt Frazier of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who a few seasons ago was the premier guard in the NBA while with the New York Knicks.
"My theory is that if it helps you score, if you can get a step on your man, then it's a good move. If you go behind your back and the guy is still on you, then it was a wasted motion and I try to waste as few motions as possible," Frazier said.
"Earl can get away with all that spinning and stuff, but there is only one Pearl."