The NBA gave its audio-visual presentation of social Darwinism today, starting with a "Don't honk, I'm pedaling as fast as I can" old-timers game, and ending with a "But dear, I didn't think the elevator went this high" slam-dunk contest. From the sublime to the ridiculous. From 65-year-old Bob Davies, who played in the first NBA All-Star Game in 1951, to 21-year-old Michael Jordan, who wasn't even born until 10 years after Davies retired. The evolution of the game; all the ages of hoop; the living roundball. And where the hell was David Attenborough when we needed him?
The old-timers game had a pleasant bittersweetness to it, a tenderness that compensated for what it lacked in grace and artistry. Most of the players -- Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, Dave Bing, Rick Barry, Pete Maravich and Mel Daniels, to name a few -- were barely into middle age. ("Age is immaterial," insisted Bob Cousy. "Twenty minutes after you retire you look like a tired old man.") But some were legitimate golden oldies, like Davies, 56-year-old Cousy, 50-year-old Tommy Heinsohn, 51-year-old Bob Pettit, 52-year-old Johnny Kerr and 56-year-old George Yardley. They didn't play long, and they didn't play well. Still, it was nice to see them play at all. A young kid looks at a geezer game and asks, why are all those fat, old, bald guys out there embarrassing themselves? As a fat, old, bald guy in training, I applaud them.
But it was the slam-dunk exhibition -- which ultimately had Dominique Wilkins ("The Human Highlight Film") eliciting more gasps than Michael Jordan ("The Holy Ghost of Hang") in the final -- that really drew the 17,000 people to Market Square Arena. In terms of high-tech and evolution, if the behind-the-back pass was NBA state of the art in the '50s, and the double-clutch scoop drive was it in the '60s, and the between-the-legs dribble was it in the '70s, then a crowd-gagging, tongue-wagging, arms- waving, legs-splaying, glass-shattering, reputation-flattering, whirling, crashing 360 from the foul line is what it is in the '80s. As in, that's cute, Mary Lou, but check out some of this stuff.
"The game is completely different now," said Yardley, who led the NBA in scoring 27 years ago. "From the '50s to the '80s is really as wide a gap as it is from the 1800s to the 1900s."
In the '50s, when Yardley played, dunking was not a big part of the game. "Only two or three guys on each team could even do it," Yardley said. "I could do it at 6-5, so I was an oddity; they'd ask me to come out at halftime and dunk for the fans." But Yardley never did it in a game. Nor did Pettit, who, at 6-9, could have easily. "Even when I had the opportunity I wouldn't dunk," Pettit said. "I went off the backboard because I felt I had a better chance of getting a three-point play that way, and also because it was a safer shot; much less chance of somebody cutting under and flipping you."
The thought of holding a slam-dunk contest in the '50s and early '60s amused Kerr. "I don't know who the hell would have been in it," he said. "But I know nobody would have won it." To be fair, some players dunked then, notably Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. But never the kinds of people who dunk now -- midsized guys like Jordan and Julius Erving. First of all, dunking by anyone other than a center was considered a hot dog move and was discouraged by the peer group. Second of all, as Heinsohn said, "It was a much more physical game then. Leapers were fair game; a guy in the air had to worry about coming down." What would have happened had a Jordan come into the NBA then and tried his kind of aerial ballet? "We'd have knocked him out of the air," Heinsohn said matter-of-factly.
By the late '60s, dunking was prevalent, but not predominant. "Other than Connie Hawkins and Gus Johnson, nobody made a point of going in and jamming," said Nate Thurmond. In the main, dunking was just another way to get two points, no better or worse than the others. Russell and Chamberlain still were the masters of all jams great and small, and they dunked powerfully, but not flamboyantly. ("Nobody ever slammed it down harder or faster than Wilt," Kerr said.) But, interestingly, neither cared much for the shot. According to Cousy, "Russell used to hold it in disdain; it came so easily, he didn't want to bother with it." According to Yardley, "Chamberlain felt that to dunk was taking unfair advantage of his height. He could have scored 10 more baskets a game if he'd wanted to by dunking, but he'd back off and take a jump shot instead." Thurmond, who battled both legendary big men for many years, also had little use for the dunk. "It took more energy to jam than to lay it up," he said. "And I was playing a lot of minutes."
By the mid-'70s, however, the spectacular dunk became commonplace, and players and coaches tried to use it as a psychological weapon. No one has been more successful in that regard than Doctor J. "I'd give him credit for making the dunk popular," said Thurmond. "He was such a charismatic player, and he had such a big following that once he did something, everyone wanted to do it just like him." Now, perhaps, the torch is already passed. Erving, by far the oldest of the slam-dunk contestants at 34, failed to, shall we say, get much of a rise out of the crowd today. Wilkins and Jordan seem to be taking the dunk form to new heights.
My guess is that some day, Jordan will do something so outrageous with a basketball that Erving himself will wonder if they really played the same game. And many years down the road, Erving will find himself in the same position then as Davies is now, looking at all the fresh talent and saying in wonderment, "The players are so good now, it's as if they're all alone out there."