Sunday's deep-think pages of this newspaper carried a column with the headline, ""Bullet Fever Is an Illness." The writer, Colman McCarthy, was in the dumps over the NBA playoffs. "No time of year offers a clearer look than now at American sports at its dreariest," McCarthy said. Wherever he looked, McCarthy saw pouting, sulking, injured, referee-baiting players of incredible wealth who rendered basketball a joyless game.
"except for their display of stamina, (Elvin) Hayes and his Teammates are doing little that is worthy, much less memorable," McCarthy said. "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 honour 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 face of the defeated. They leave in a spirit of satisfied playfulness, glad merely to be physically fit."
Even men who never had a jump shot to start with (they called me a playmaker) must agree with McCarthy that the purity of the playground game lifts the heart, as play ought to, while the incessant bickering in a body-breaking season of pro basketball is depressing.
Yet the NBA playoffs excite me. "Bullet fever" is not an illness; it is an intensified awareness of a beautiful game. Anyone who likes basketball - the concept of basketball, the best team game, not just the emotional attachment to a local or school favorite - is awed by the ability, concentration and tenacity of professional basketball players when the world championship is at stake.
I rail at the pouting sulkers. After losing Game 1 to the Bullets, Seattle's SuperSonics complained bitterly about the officiating. I said they cried like small children barely out of diapers. Yesterday, the mailman delivered a bundle ofletters from Moses Lake, Wash. Each letter contained a Kleenex. "You'll need this, Cry Baby," said a message written on one tissue.
As he did for McCarthy, Bobby Dandridge annoyed me with his talk of being underpaid.He signed a three-year contract a year ago for $250,000 a season. Hardly coolie wages, yet after helping the Bullets win a world championship, Dandridge fired the first shots of a battle to renegotiate the contract. He threatened basketball blackmail, saying the Bullets should depend on their higher-paid players - Hayes and Wes Unseld - to win games in the last minutes, not underpaid Bobby D.
And I am just as tired as McCarthy of hearing Elvin Hayes do his why-don't-I-get-the-MVP act. It is self-demeaning of Hayes, who if he finished third in the most-valuable-player voting still finished ahead of 239 players (and joins Jerry West, Rick Barry, Walt Frazier and John Havlicek as fair-to-middlin' players who have never been the league's MVP).
But take me to an NBA playoff game, put me out or earshot of the sulking pouters, give me a pound of tolerance for the referee baiting (which is, whatever we like it or not, part of game tactics), and I will tell Colman McCarthy he has never seen anything more beautiful in basketball than Bobby Dandridge on a streak.
On a three-and-two pitch from a rookie fireballer, the Yankees' Reggie Jackson struck out to end a World Series game that he might have won with a home run last fall. Of baseball's actors, none loves center stage more than Jackson. With a World Series game on the line, Mr. October against a kid pitcher, was Jackson having fun up there?
"Hell, no," Jackson, "That's hard work. I like to be up there when it's nine to nothing. Let the shaft out and see how far I can hit it. After that game, I was sweating like I'd just run three miles.And all I did was hit."
McCarthy sees no joy in the NBA playoffs. That's because he doesn't know where to look. This is not play for the Bullets it is, as Reggie Jackson said, hard work. Pro basketball executives sell the game as "play," because customers buy that idea, but it is no more "play" than Olivier is "playing" Hamlet and Nureyev is "playing" Swan Lake. For Bobby Dandridge, the joy is in the work well done and the job is not done until the playoffs are over.
Yet even Dandridge, who to his credit never carried out his threats of shirking duty at the end of games, occasionally allows himself a second of the fun that our playground man McCarthy longs for. When Dandridge sank a 25-foot, double pump, up-from-the-ankles jumper at the buzzer ending the third quater in Game 1, he slapped his hands together as he pranced off the floor in jubilant certification of wonder at what he had done.
Speaking of jubilation, has anyone in town been happier than Larry Wright at the moment he sank a free throw to win Game 1? For an hour before that, he played sensationally, making 10 of his first 12 shots, most from long range. After the decisive free throw, he celebrated by hopping up and down, a little kid put to bouncing by uncontrollable joy, and 19,000 cheering witnesses shared the nice moment.
"these guys don't play for money," the Bullets' general manager, Bob Ferry, said when we discussed whether or not more prize money for regular-season performance would make those games meaningful. Speechless, I blinked in disbelief at Ferry, who didn't smile. He meant what he said.
I won't go so far as to buy the whole idea of NBA players being motivated by pride more than money. But when a Dandridge is guaranteed $750,000 over three years and a Hayes gets $450,000 a year, the money available in the playoffs - maybe $30,000 for winning it all - is pocket change.
They don't play for money in the playoffs. I'll give this much to Colman McCarthy: during the interminable regular season, the pro game can be dreary. Yes, come summer, Dandridge will yell for more money. But right now, in a month of NBA playoffs, he is playing wonderfully. And the Bullets still can become the first NBA team in 25 years to win successive championships without Bill Russell at center.
With Game 5 here Friday, McCarthy couldn't even get me to playground even if he promised to let me shoot once in a while.