On a cold, rainy night the San Antonio Spurs, perhaps the least attractive good team in the National Basketball Association, defeated the Washington Bullets, an ugly duckling of a team if ever there was one, 110-99, before 5,583 people. David Halberstam, who spent a full season with the Portland Trail Blazers gathering material for his excellent book, "The Breaks of The Game," was one of them.
Halberstam is a fan of pro basketball, which he calls "the new American ballet," (Sure, Baryshnikov can jump -- but can he play D?) and a fan of pro basketball players, whom he calls "the best athletes in the world." But as the game ends, a fan notes: "Another troubled game in a troubled league."
The vital signs are all bad. Salaries are up. Attendance and television ratings are down. The college game -- more disciplined, seemingly more innocent, certainly more intense because of its shorter schedule -- seems to be a sounder television draw. And with the television audience predominantly white, clearly it is a whiter game. "Not just in the number of whites, but in the way it is played," Halberstam says. "More controlled. More set plays. No 24-second clock. Less speed. More kids diving for loose balls. A white audience responds to that."
Once there was Wilt; now the NBA seems to be dying on the vine.
"The game is overexposed," Halberstam says. "There are too many teams, too many games and too many playoffs; there is more, but there is less. Too little continuity and too little identity. Owners are so contemptuous of their regular seasons that they allow teams with losing records into the playoffs. I have a secret suspicion there was a moment of true excitement 10 or 12 years ago with black players coming into the league and showing moves that hadn't been seen before. But I think fans have become jaded; it's not even a racist thing -- there are so many good athletes doing so many good things, you almost take it for granted."
This sense of ease on the job, the making it look easy, which the great players communicate, creates, in Halberstam's opinion, the misimpression that there is a deliberate husbanding of effort in the NBA. "I think the players play much harder than people give them credit for," Halberstam says. "It's surprising how much they put out. White fans look at black players and think it comes easy to them. It comes hard. It takes long hours, and in the case of the black players, the game is their entire identity -- it's who they are. . .
"A black player's passion is more often concealed; a white player's passion is more often shown . . . The most surprising thing I found was the level of anxiety of the players. You'd think they were confident; they can do what we can't. But then you realize they come from such perilous, fragile backgrounds; their leverage in society is so vulnerable -- it's either this or nothing. They know it can be taken away from them in a moment, and this they fear."
A brief interlude. As in "Red on Roundball," introducing the 6-foot-5 power forward out of New York, Vietnam and Elaine's, "Halberstam on Hoops":
George Gervin: "So graceful, so light, so beautiful to watch . . . Delicate, supple; you never see him doing it, and yet he's done it."
Spencer Haywood: "Gimme the ball."
Larry Bird and Julius Erving: "They're gifts."
Jack Sikma: "A college fan's delight."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: "He really does try to play as if you're not out there watching. He refuses to acknowledge your presence or participation. It's like Miles Davis, when he turned and played while facing away from the audience. And yet when Kareem is gone, we will really miss him."
The Williams brothers, Gus and Ray: "Gus plays smart; Ray plays dumb. How can that be?"
Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong: "I thought God intended for them to play in the same back court."
David Thompson: "I don't know if you can ever fit David Thompson into a good, winning NBA club."
Bill Walton: "Bill not playing is like a bird being caged. He is being cheated in his life as I never was."
The Jerry Buss-Magic Johnson-Paul Westhead contretemps: "A new, modern buffoon owner who, in order to become a celebrity-star himself, gives a celebrity-star contract to this nice, young, ebullient man. So he can't be traded and can't be coached."
Mark Olberding: "He seems to take pleasure in the physicality of the game. Given a choice between Olberding and Lonnie Shelton, who do you take? Shelton hasn't improved a bit since he came into the league."
Tiny Archibald: "Always sulking."
Greg Ballard: "A really nice player."
The San Antonio lineup featuring Dave Corzine, Olberding and Paul Griffin, three white silos, up front: "The third-and-one offense."
With "The Breaks of the Game" behind him, Halberstam says his next book will be about the economy and the loss of productivity. He says it will take four years to do.
"My sabbatical is over, my fun is over," he says. "There must have been a lot of writers who would have loved doing this sort of book and for some reason they didn't. Why not? Because they thought they'd lose face or something? I don't think that doing this book was frivolous. I think a lot of people might have a fear that they might not be taken seriously with a sports book.
"There must have been moments when I was a little vulnerable about it, but I was always pretty confident that I could do something of value, that a real book would come out of it, a book that was perceived as being serious."
Rather than take the standard sports format, the day-by-day diary of a season, much of Halberstam's book is devoted to sociological studies of the players most crucial to the Portland essence, including Walton, Kermit Washington, Lionel Hollins, Billy Ray Bates, Bobby Gross, Larry Steele and Maurice Lucas, he of the fearsome body, pride and demeanor.
It is a Lucas story that provides the epilogue on this: "Everything with Luke is about turf," Halberstam says. "In the beginning he adopted a policy of nonrecognition where I was concerned. I didn't want to rush it, so I waited for him to make the first move.
"Once, I think we were at an airport, he gave a signal that he was ready to talk to me -- not an interview, just an informal talk. I didn't think that any of the players knew who I was or what I had done before, so I'd given them all copies of 'The Powers That Be.' This will tell you a little about Luke. He didn't want that book. He said to me, 'I want the one about Vietnam ("The Best and The Brightest"). My wife had to read it, man, in a course at Harvard.' "