NBA basketball players have been criticized by some as being too black, too well paid, too boring and too talented for their own good. Writer Willie Schatz talked with eight former NBA all-stars and got their views on today's players and their game. DAVE DEBUSSCHERE
The ultimate measure of Dave Debusschere's feelings about basketball may be his becoming commissioner of the ABA when there was a strong possibility that he wouldn't have a job in nine months.
Sure enough, he didn't, joining the unemployment ranks in 1977, when the ABA and NBA merged.
"I found then, and I think it's still true now, that the great majority of players were very concerned about the game," said the president of Total Video, syndicated television programming group, from his New York office.
"They're fighting against something 99 percent of the people never had to fight against, and that's getting too much too quick and therefore probably not being able to appreciate it as much as if they had to fight their way up. It's been given too easily to them, and therefore some of their attitudes might prevail upon John Q. Public to say they're a little arrogant. I don't know if that's true or not. I do know that sometimes it can be very difficult to cope with."
Probably no tougher than coping with DeBusschere's defense, which helped the Knicks to three finals and two championships from 1970-73. After retiring in 1974, he became general manager of the rival New York (now New Jersey) Nets until presiding over the demise of the ABA. And if the statistics didn't lie about his value to the Knicks, they sure didn't tell the truth.
"I think there's too much emphasis on statistics," he said. "That's probably the league's fault, for keeping all sorts of crazy stats. The only one they should keep is the won-lost record. Throw the rest out the window. Who cares who shot what or how many he took? Did you win or did you lose? They ought to deemphasize individual stats and emphasize the overall team stats. That would promote the team, not the individual, and create more of a town identity, too"
And, in order to give the games more identity, DeBusschere would like to see the season divided into two halves and more emphasis put on traditional rivalries.
"If you're a Knick or Bullet or Capital, or whatever they are, you'd rather be playing Philly or Boston to create the rivalry buildup. That way fans get to know not only the players on their team but the opponents as well. The more you play against different teams, the more you know the type of game they play. That makes it a much more competitive season." BOB COUSY
Bob Cousy makes his living talking about the game he formerly played, and he's not too thrilled with what's happened during his absence.
"I think we are experiencing a massive turnoff by the fan," said the Boston Celtic and Eastern Eight television commentator. "Not only can't he relate to the athlete making these outrageous salaries, but when he does pay his money he's not seeing what he considers a worthwhile product.
"And the saturation by television has contributed. It pays the freight, so it demands the prime dates, which expands the season, and all of a sudden people are saying, 'Who wants to think about basketball in May?' And it's not just basketball. I think all sports will be affected. I see the end result, probably in the next 10 years, as the collapse of the pro structure as we know it."
After retiring in 1963 from the Celtics, for whom he was a 13-time all-star, Cousy coached college and pro basketball for 10 seasons. He then became the commissioner of the American Soccer League, that sport's clone of the ABA, resigning before the 1979 season after five years in office.
"I don't have any specific knowledge about basketball, but I'm aware of profit and loss statements from my years as commissioner, and I don't know why an owner would want to be in pro sports today.
"The tax benefits have been seriously diluted in terms of writeoffs. The bottom line, if everyone told the truth, is that you no longer show a profit in most sports. It is easy to lose a lot of money very quickly in pro sports today."
Ironically, it was Cousy who in 1956 started the players association.
"That was probably one of the few altruistic acts of my life," Cousy admitted from his Boston office. "I was the highest paid player in the league, so I had nothing to gain but abuse from the owners. I just felt it was needed. Now I've been through the other end of it, and I think I'm in position to be objective.
"the cycle has turned. The players now have the big stick, and they're using it, but if they use it to destroy the game, I'm against it. These salaries at this level cannot continue because it becomes impossible for management to show, not just a reasonable profit, but any profit.
"I certainly think athletes should be adequately compensated for their performance. But what is adequate compensation as opposed to the ludicrous compensation we are now dealing with by a few? No one's ever going to convince me that they should get 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 million dollars. I just don't relate to that." BILL SHARMAN
According to Bill Sharman, the problem with NBA players these days is that, unlike Bill Sharman, they're not having a good time.
"I think the biggest difference is that it doesn't seem that the kids are having as much fun as we did, especially at practice," said the Los Angeles Laker general manager.
"Today I go to practice and it seems that everybody's so serious and all worried about something. It's much more businesslike. Maybe that's because they have so much more on their minds because they've got so much more money. I used to look forward to playing and even practicing.(Celtic Coach Red) Auerbach used to make practice really interesting and fun."
The Celtics won four championships in Sharman's 10-year career -- and Sharman was a star, leading the team in scoring from 1955 to '59 and winning seven league free-throw titles.
"In those days 'superstar' meant something," he stated. "I think one of our problems now is that the word is badly overused. My definition is a player who is super in all phases of the game. Today it's used mostly for shooters. But they're still the biggest drawing card we've got."
Sharman happens to have a pretty good hand, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson as his pair. Johnson's presence this year has greatly improved the club's attendance, undoubtedly making it easier for Sharman to look in the mirror in the morning. He did, after all, approve Johnson's multiyear, multimillion dollar contract.
"I don't think those contracts have been a factor in our problems," he argued. "Baseball has done the same thing, and their attendance is up. Big salaries draw attention and publicity to the players, and that in turn draws more people to come see them. People always want to see someone controversial. I just wish they had been paying those salaries when I was playing. People might have resented it, but it would have created a lot of interest."
As have the three-point field goal, the remaissance of the Lakers and Celtics, and the presences of Johnson and Larry Bird. None of those factors existed last season, generally conceded to be the league's nadir.
"The biggest knock on us has been our television ratings," Sharman admitted. "Competition from the college games and the expansion of cable systems hurt us, but I thing the biggest reason for the bad ratings was that the key franchises -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston -- all had weak teams. That will affect both attendance and ratings and make the league seem worse off than it probably is." WILLIS REED
The image lingers: an injured Willis Reed painfully dragged himself onto the Madison Square Garden court just in time for the center jump in the seventh game of the 1970 championship final. He made his first two shots, then watched his inspired New York Knick teammates destroy the favored Los Angeles Lakers for their first title.
"I think players now are less willingto do the fundamental things and make the sacrifices necessary to win because they haven't had to grow up under tough coaches," observed Reed. "There's no one in the game who isn't faster or quicker or a better shooter than the players of a few years ago. But as far as understanding execution, that's where the game has really changed.
"You watch the All-Star Game, the showcase of the league, and you can see it. There'll be guys on defense who won't block or box out -- and those are fundamentals I was taught in high school -- or won't be able to see the man and the ball at all times, which is another fundamental.
"You see a lot of that, and that's bad basketball. You don't see give-and-go basketball. You see one-on-one. And basketball is not an individual sport. It's a team sport."
It certainly used to be, when Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier and Dick Barnett took the Knicks to three finals and two titles in four years. Suddenly, every youngster knew that if he wanted to be a player he had to "hit the open man" and "see the ball," just as Coach Red Holzman made the Knicks do.
"When we had those good teams," Reed reminisced, "so much was written about us that we even made the cover of Time magazine. Is that crazy? A basketball team. That led to the first big television contract, which allowed the people playing then to become well known."
But the cover stories and most other signs of fame decreased with the Knicks' performance. They lost to the Celtics in five games in the 1974 semifinals. After that Reed, the only player to win three most valuable player awards in one year -- regular season, All-Star Game and playoffs in 1970 -- retired with DeBusschere.
The Knicks were embarrassed by Houston in the 1975 preliminary round of the playoffs, then sank into relative oblivion before Reed, in his first year as coach, brought them into the 1978 playoffs.
It was his first and last hurrah. He was fired early in the 1978-79 season and replaced by his former leader, Holzman. He's waiting for a second chance. DOLPH SCHAYES
Any player who spent his first few por seasons playing in cities like Sheboygan, Waterloo, Hammond and Oshkoshs, would figure to be optimistic about basketball.
"I don't think the game is doing badly at all," Dolph Schayes said from his real estate office in Syracuse, where he and the Nationals, later the Philadelphia 76ers, often seemed synonymous during the early years of the NBA.
In Schayes' first year, 1948-49, there were two leagues, the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America, and 21 teams. b
"The current television ratings may indicate a malaise" in pro basketball, Schayes explained, "but that's only because people who live in cities where there's no team can't identify with it. The caliber of ball is sensational and they have great, great players, certainly better than when I played. I'm not sure how much it's appreciated, though. They do work very hard.
"So did we, but I think they have it easier. We had less games and shorter distances to go, but we had to take trains or buses. I think traveling was more tiring for us, but it shouldn't bother a player if he's in condition. Given several hours rest, you can do wonders."
Schayes' body finally got tired in 1964, but not before he became third in career free throws made, fourth in free throws attempted, and fifth in games playes. Two of the few aspects of the game he missed out on were winning a championship and signing a no-cut contract.
"I have to think that these long-term contracts decrease a player's incentive," said Schayes, an exponent of the 35-foot two-hand set shot. "You get the secure feeling of being set for a lifetime, and subconsciously that has to have some effect on your play. And I don't think the situation can change. I'm not begrudging the players their money; I certainly would rather make $200,000 than $20,000. But I think that kind of money tends to dilute your professionalism and pride. I also think it's turned off many fans.
"So, I think, has the game becoming more identified as a black game. If a team is all black the casual fan might be turned off, although a good fan would go regardless. It's a simple fact that the better players will be black. That's the trend in high school and college, so it will be the trend in the pros also. It's getting harder to find good white players." OSCAR ROBERTSON
His nickname -- "Big O" -- and number -- I -- told you all you needed to know. NBA career leader in assists and free throws made. Second in total points and free throws attempted. Third in field goals made and minutes played. By most accounts, the greatest guard ever to tie on sneakers.
Clearly, an impressive on-court legacy. But arguably not as important as the one Oscar Robertson left in court, where, as president of the players association, he filed in 1970 and antitrust suit against the league that was a major factor in salaries escalating to their present stratospheric level and protecting players' rights during the subsequent merger of the NBA and American Basketball Association.
Nine years later, he wants neither all the credit nor all the blame.
"If a kid comes out of college now after having done well and played on a winning team, he's an instant money man, and I don't see anything wrong with that," said Robertson. "But I think the two leagues were responsible for that more than anything I did. We tried to improve playing conditions and benefits and the draft. But when you've got two leagues competing for services, it's going to be a players' market. And it was bound to happen.
"But not I think the big salaries are really frightening people. People are jealous by nature. What can you say if a guy's not making that kind of money? He may be jealous, because deep down he wishes he could have been a player. But you can't go home again. The owners want to win and they're willing to pay for it, because in sports in America you've got to be on top."
Robertson made it there only once in his 13-year career, winning the championship with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971. He had spent his previous 10 years transforming the essentially harmless Cincinnati Royals into a genuine threat. Fans rarely went to see whether the Royals won or lost. They went to see the Big O.
"I've heard the talk about the game having too many blacks," he said angrily, "and I don't really think color, per se means that much. It's whether you win or not, although people will still go to see a star. When I was playing, Boston had two or three blacks starting, but they were the best so people went to see them.
"I think to condemn a guy because he has ability in a sport and can use it to get ahead is truly un-American. If a team were all white and weren't winning, I wonder if they would say the same thing. People who say they don't want to see basketball because there are too many blacks shouldn't go. But they'll be missing the best sport we have." GEORGE MIKAN
He was, literally, the game's biggest revolution since the jump shot. Before him, the game was played by relative Lilliputians miles away from the hoop. After him. Brobdingnagian centers became the rage.
"There's nothing new in basketball," George Mikan said from his Minneapolis travel agency, which he runs when he's not at his law firm. "Talent still dictates. There are more good players on the teams now. With us, there was a dropoff after the first five guys. Now the 11th guy is almost as good as the first. You don't see 5-8 guys anymore unless they're exceptional. And now you've got 7-footers running like deer."
Mikan moved more like a turtle. But at 6-10, 245 pounds, not many opponents were willing to stand in his path. To cut him down to size, the foul lane was widened from six to 12 feet, but he remained the main middle man, leading the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles in six years before retring in 1954. Not bad for someone who didn't play high school basketball.
"There are more coaches and everybody starts earlier now," he said. "But they don't play team ball like we did. We were always setting picks and screens and looking for an open shot. Now all you see is one-on-one. I don't like it. A guy who pays $8 to $10 for a ticket wants to see action. Where's the excitement in a guy getting a rebound, dribbling down court and taking a shot? The game definitely needs more team ball."
To get it, Mikan would extend the shot clock from 24 to 30 seconds, theorethically giving the coach more time to develop the offense and the players less excuse for going one-on-one. And, if two players were taking turns mugging each other, he'd have the officials use the standard of "no-harm, no-foul."
"If two 6-9 guys were pushing each other and it wasn't affecting the game, who cares? And if an honest effort results in two points, that should be it. I'm not advocating not calling anything, but I think no-harm, no-foul is a pretty good rule. I also believe they have to have things to bring excitement back into the game."
Under trying circumstances, Mikan tried. He was the first commissioner of the ABA, which lives on in the form of the 3-point goal. Its red, white and blue ball died, though, a demise Mikan considers most untimely.
"They frowned on ideas from the other league," he said, "but they ought to check how many mergers it took to form the NBA. And the ball has changed color 50 times. They should forget about tradition and start doing things for the fans, especially women. Have lights flash after a basket. Have uniforms designed by Dior.
"You have to merchandise your product and broaden your fan base. The number of fanatics is very small compared to the number of average fans. They can do all this and the stars will still be stars." PAUL ARIZIN
In Paul Arizin's day, driving to the basket cost you. For sure, a bruise or three. Probabaly a rainbow-colored welt. Possibly a sprained something or other. And every now and then a trip to the hospital.
"Nobody came through the lane unimpeded," Azizin recalled. "And dunking wasn't nearly as prevalent. When a guy dunked on you, it was like a personal affront. The next time he tried it he was sure to get his legs cut out from under him.
"I remember one year (1956-57) Bob Pettit was leading the league in scoring and they just went out and broke his hand. He had to play left-handed, and that's the only reason I won the scoring title.
"It was like a personal insult to you if your man scored. We took pride in not letting our man score. Now the attitude is, well, if he scores, I can get two back. There are so many players who aren't giving 100 percent. You never see people diving for loose balls anymore, and the overall defense is terrible. A lot of players just don't seem to be doing anything out there. Fans can sense this.
"Given those factors and high ticket prices and huge salaries, it's not surprising that they're asking themselves why they should spend all that money to go see guys who aren't breaking their heads."
During the 6-foot-4 forward's career -- 1950-51 through 1961-62 -- players figuratively broke their heads -- or any other part of the body -- in order to win. When Arizin entered the league, it had 10 teams, including those in Fort Wayne and Rochester.
When he retired rather than follow his Philadelphia Warriors to San Francisco, the league had nine teams.
"There aren't any close rivalries now," Arizin lamented. "We played about 10 (fewer) games than they do now, but we got to hate the other players. So did our fans. Now there are so many teams that you don't know anyone but the superstars. A guy like (Boston's) Jim Luscutoff wasn't an all-star, but people knew him and he could attract fans."
By today's standards, Arizin was working for free. He signed his longest contract when he went to work for IBM, by whom he's still employed, and settled near Philadelphia after retiring.