A year ago, the National Basketball Association was coming off what league officials thought had been its best season ever. They had solved major problems in the areas of labor and drug abuse, attendance and TV ratings were up and they wondered what could be done for an encore.
As it turned out, nothing was needed, apart from simply playing the game. Once again, turnstiles throughout the country clicked to a record beat and effervescent personalities like Isiah Thomas, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan played with unbridled enthusiasm.
There were surprise teams like the Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks and, of course, the Cleveland Cavaliers, whose playoff performance almost spoiled a delicious championship rematch between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.
When that final series ended, Los Angeles had avenged the previous season's loss -- on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden, to boot -- as well as a string of eight straight playoff losses to Boston. That night, Most Valuable Player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said he felt like "Johnny Podres after the 1955 World Series."
Kareem was just a lad of 8 then. As he held the championship trophy aloft in the Lakers' locker room, he was an energized 38, so invigorated that after a summer of reflection he made plans to re-up for another two seasons.
Indeed, why leave when you and the NBA clearly have a good thing going as the league heads into its 39th season. And for Abdul-Jabbar, it only can get more interesting with the addition of Patrick Ewing to the New York Knicks and a 7-foot-7 shot-blocking phenomenon named Manute Bol to the Washington Bullets. EASTERN CONFERENCE Atlantic Division
Boston Celtics: Both championship finalists made offseason moves that were designed mainly to help should they meet for a third consecutive time. Two of the most unselfish players ever, forward Larry Bird and center Bill Walton, who was acquired from the Clippers, will be playing together for the first time. Already possessing one of the best three benches in the league, Boston got stronger with the addition of Walton, forward Sly Williams, steady guard Jerry Sichting and first-round draft choice guard Sam Vincent.
Washington Bullets: Surprise of surprises, this team has one of the other (along with Los Angeles') deepest squads in the NBA. Although they don't have the names of the league's glamor teams, forward Charles Jones, guard Frank Johnson, swing man Darren Daye and guard Dudley Bradley are quality players. And if Bol can measure up to the NBA game, he will be a valuable defensive asset.
The problem here is the starters. They are talented: center Jeff Ruland, forwards Dan Roundfield and Cliff Robinson, and guards Gus Williams and Jeff Malone either have been an all-stars or have the potential to be. But how healthy will they be and can they peacefully co-exist? That didn't seem to be a problem during the team's 5-2 exhibition season, but then again, Roundfield didn't play at all because of a broken bone in his left arm.
Philadelphia 76ers: All-star guard Andrew Toney's ankle is hurting and may require surgery. All-star center Moses Malone's knees are wearing down under the grind of year-round, nonstop basketball the past 10 years. All-star forward Julius Erving looks absolutely marvelous after a summer of weight lifting, but muscles can't hide that he's 35 years old.
In addition, substitute guard Clint Richardson is feuding over his contract with owner Harold Katz, which has the team walking on eggshells. Despite all that, don't be surprised if the 76ers win 50 games for first-year Coach Matt Guokas.
New Jersey Nets: Another first-year coach, former Lakers assistant Dave Wohl, parlayed his analytical insight into the job with the Nets. That, along with a degree in pop psychology, could come in handy when dealing with unique personalities like guard Micheal Ray Richardson's, center Darryl Dawkins' and guard Otis Birdsong's. Wohl does have two constants: power forward Buck Williams and center Mike Gminski, who is, next to Walton, perhaps the best back-up pivotman in the league.
New York Knicks: Fans in the Big Apple feel that they already have the best center in the league in Ewing. Predictably dubbed the Hoya Destroya by the New York press, the former Georgetown star must learn to keep his elbows and temper in check.
Ewing isn't going to bring the ball upcourt, or hit the jumper from the top of the key, or replace the 30-plus points per game from NBA scoring leader Bernard King, out with a wounded knee. King probably won't return before February. Central Division
Milwaukee Bucks: It's been tough the last couple of years not to place the Detroit Pistons atop the division, but not as tough as the Pistons have found it to finish ahead of Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson, last season's coach of the year. Nelson said 1984-85 was his most rewarding season. The reasons why -- guard Sidney Moncrief, forward Terry Cummings and guard Paul Pressey -- all are back.
Detroit Pistons: A question of addition and subtraction. Former Bullets center Rick Mahorn and his aggressive play should be a plus, but will it be offset by the loss of holdout forward Terry Tyler?
Cleveland Cavaliers: George Karl, perhaps the true coach of the year in 1984, must prove that last year's finish wasn't a fluke or that his tenuous peace with guard World B. Free wasn't either.
Chicago Bulls: An 0-8 preseason left guard Michael Jordan wondering if his teammates were getting accustomed to losing. New Coach Stan Albeck says that won't be the case. Maryland guard Adrian Branch was cut before the exhibition season.
Atlanta Hawks: If the Hawks had Jordan, all their problems might be solved. Right now, their starting guards are 5-foot-7 Spud Webb and 6-8 Dominique Wilkins.
Indiana Pacers: Rookie forward Wayman Tisdale -- once he gets in shape -- will only add to a strong front line. The Pacers' problem is their shaky back court. WESTERN CONFERENCE Midwest Division
Denver Nuggets: Another team that's out to prove that superior coaching and an outstanding record weren't a fluke. Doug Moe's pressure defense will be helped with a full recovery from knee surgery by tough-guy forward Calvin Natt.
Houston Rockets: This could be the Southwest's version of "The Towering Inferno" if the Rockets don't make the conference finals. Despite Twin Towers Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon, they won't unless they improve their back court.
Dallas Mavericks: There are enough small forwards on this team to stock the next three expansion franchises. The guards also are talented; but whither the pivot?
Utah Jazz: Center Mark Eaton is back after setting a league record for blocked shots in a season. Forward Adrian Dantley will get his points but guard Darrell Griffith, a free agent who's recovering from a broken foot, will be missed.
San Antonio Spurs: One of the better teams in the league three years ago, the Spurs are getting old. This may be the last hurrah for guard George Gervin and center Artis Gilmore.
Sacramento Kings: The franchise's change in venue from Kansas City to California isn't enough to hide that they're still the Kings; some talent but little cohesion. Pacific Division
Los Angeles Lakers: Newcomer forward Maurice Lucas won't have to make his presence felt until the playoffs. During the regular season he can coast alongside Abdul-Jabbar and leave the driving to greyhounds like guard Earvin (Magic) Johnson, forward James Worthy, et al.
Portland Trail Blazers: This team is making noises about its potential. They'll be good, but not up to Los Angeles' level. Clyde Drexler and Steve Colter may supplant Jim Paxson and Darnell Valentine in the back court.
Seattle SuperSonics: A bouquet to the motivational skills of former Washington assistant Bernie Bickerstaff, now Seattle's coach. The change in leadership will help a strong front line, but Bickerstaff is too old to play guard for himself.
Phoenix Suns: The Suns would like to fast break this season but that's virtually impossible without rebounding. Guard Walter Davis looks as if he has recovered from last season's knee injury, but not having holdout forward Larry Nance will hurt.
Golden State Warriors: The return of center Joe Barry Carroll may help. Former Bullets forward Greg Ballard still can shoot, as can first-round draft choice guard Chris Mullin, if he signs a contract.
Los Angeles Clippers: Some great names on the roster -- forwards Marques Johnson, Cedric Maxwell and Jamaal Wilkes and swing man Junior Bridgeman. But who's going to rebound?