Pity the poor National Basketball Association beat reporter. Eighty-two times from October to April he has to try to make a basketball game seen not only interesting in itself but significant.
Apparently the fans believe otherwise. The price is not the only thing keeping them away from games.There is the general perception that the season is far too long, that most games are meaningless if not dull, that players simply are going through the motions except-in close games-in the fourth quarter.
Thsi season, additional reasons for the erosion of audience interest may be found in rules changes that have curtailed contact and thereby eliminated intense man-to-man defense, indulged poorly disguised zones and encouraged a tedium of jump shooting.
Yet for the true basketball aficionado, the NBA still offers the best fare, even in the last few weeks of the regular season with most of the playoff slots determined. While college coaches draw attention to themselves by an overabundance of what they call strategy, the pros are playing the game.
Earl Monroe said recently that fans are bored by all the one-on-one moves, that it was a good how when "only a few us could do it." But now everyone can whirl, reverse, spin and fly. But even the rankest playground styling is better to watch than the "discipline" by whhich college teams try not to go to the basket.
On a recent Wednesday evening at capital Centre, 10,893 turned out to watch as nearly meaningless a game as could be imagined, the Bullets against the Chicago Bulls, Washington was sitting on top of the Atlantic Division, with the most wins in the league, though having played fewer games than most contenders.
Chicago was nestled in the basement of the Midwest Division with the second-worst record in the league, having only the slimmest of mathematical chances to make the playoffs.
The Bullets have evolved into a smoothly efficient machine, coordinating the material with method as few teams ever have. The Bulls present a collection of disparate elements in disarray, some trying to cohere into patterns around the methodical Artis Gilmore, some like Reggie Theus and Wilber Holland thriving on a style of freewheeling transitions. A contest it didn't figure to be, but for the connoisseur there would surely be redeeming features.
Jack Morse, for example, came to the game early as usual. A season-ticket holder, he finds in basketball a perfect release from the tensions of his plumbing supply company. He remembers being on the first bus that brought diehards from Langley Park to see the Bullets in Baltimore, and he knows the sport well.
The lack of significance to this game didn't phase him. He enjoys watching the players warm up, looking for signs that they are loose or tense, fresh or tired. He anticpates matchups, believes in the pride with which rivalries are carried on and delights in second-guessing the coaches on substitutions and officials on judgements.
There were few anxious moments for Morse as far as the result was concerned, but he got his money's worth. He focused often on the titanic battle between Gilmore and Wes Unseld for territorial rights under the basket, especially when the ball and official eyes were elsewhere. For contrast, he could see how easily Gilmore handled a lesser giant like Mitch Kupchak and dominated the lane.
He could share a grin with Charlie Johnson, as the wily C.J. ran John Mengelt into an Unseld pick. The bionic Bull bounced to the floor and rebounded to action with a new set to his jaw. He saw a leaner, hungrier Tate Armstrong than he remembered from ACC days, and he saw Larry Wright streak past him on full-court forays to the basket. And he had a field day ridiculing the Bad judgments of Lee Jones, Hugh Evens and Jack Nies.
The Bullets are playing so well that they seem totally unspectacular. Their games lack peaks and valleys, but basketball fans should appreciate the coordinated efficiency that is the essence of team play. Washington's fast break is the paradigm for all that: Unseld throwing the outlet pass to Henderson or Wright, who takes the middle, the lane being filled, and Dandridge ending with the ball for the easy score or the right pass.
For the most part, these games are won without intensity simply because Coach Dick Motta's team is executing properly. But there is a classic, enduring aspect of their attraction which should never be underestimated.
"Hears from now," as Dolph Sand, who works games at the scorer's table, has said, "when you're talking sports with your grandchildren, you'll be able to say that you watched Elvin Hayes play basketball."