Sunday, February 21, 2010

Looking back on the golden age of basketball


Try to imagine this — a superstar college player today, say John Wall, who would tell confidantes that he'd play in the NBA for free. Yeah, not happening, right? 

Well, that's exactly what Larry Bird said upon the completion of his career at Indiana State as he prepared to join the Boston Celtics. He was so grateful for the opportunity, money didn't matter to him. He just wanted to continue playing the game he loved at its highest level.

Perhaps I'm extremely biased at the moment, considering I just finished reading the second of back-to-back books about Bird and his rival Magic Johnson, but I don't think most basketball experts would disagree with this — the game will never be as delightful or full of as much passion it was 25 to 30 years ago.

Blame society. Blame the media. Blame agents. Blame scouting services that start dissecting kids' crossovers and left hands when they're 6. All of the above have made the basketball scene today less about kids playing for the love of the game and more about money, exposure and such things as "The Summer of 2010."

It's not surprising. It's simply the evolution of society. But that means that now, more than ever, people my age and younger need to read such books as "When March Went Mad: The Game that Transformed March" and "When the Game was Ours," which both chronicle the careers of Bird and Magic — with the former focusing entirely on the 1979 season that concluded with the historic national-title game between Michigan State and Indiana in Salt Lake City and the latter, while overlapping, chronicling the careers of the pair of basketball icons.

I wasn't born until late in 1983 and my family didn't even own a TV until 1994, so I missed out on all things Bird and Magic. Through reading such books, however, not to mention watching ESPN Classic programs, I've gained a great appreciation and admiration for them and all the basketball stars of the eras before theirs that were marked by players working second jobs to support their families.

Yes, it's much easier to appreciate the feats of of players who made only a small percentage of the money that average players pull in today. (And that did relate to players showing incredible effort each game.) But outside of that, what stands out about Bird and Magic was the way they went about playing the game. There was never a personal agenda. They never played for their next contract. Rather, the games were always about winning, and that started with creating opportunities for their much less-gifted teammates. 

Not surprisingly, their unselfishness translated to matters off the court. After his career, Bird went back to his high school in French Lick, Ind., one afternoon to work out only to come across cheerleaders using the gym. They offered half the gym up to Bird, but he told them to go ahead and finish practice and stretched for 45 minutes while he waited. 

By no means am I bashing the state of basketball today or modern-day players. In fact, I probably watch more college hoops than I ever have. And come May, I'll be watching the long slog that is the NBA Playoffs every night. The games are exciting, the storylines juicy, the talent on the court incredible. 

But any young player today could benefit from popping in a DVD of how the game was played in the 1980s or reading a few books about teams like the 1979 Sycamores, who were made up of Bird and a bunch of nobodies. Wait, check that. Even Bird was considered a nobody to many in college basketball before he took the grand stage at the Final Four. 

Through playing team basketball and not worrying about any outside sources or distractions, Bird and his ragtag group were able to win an astounding 33 consecutive games before finally falling flat against the Spartans in the title game. 

And get this: To this day, here almost 31 years later, no basketball game has garnered higher TV ratings. None. It's a telltale sign of how big the game was then and how hyped up a single game could be despite the lack of multimedia sources that we now have today. Thirty years ago, it was all about the players and the game. 

Today, college basketball remains an incredible spotlight. The NCAA Tournament and its 65-team field is the greatest spectacle in American sports each March. Millions upon millions of Americans — whether hoops fans or not — fill out brackets and then tune in for the games. But in a sign of the era, there has been talk this season about expanding the tournament to 96 teams, which is just a horrific idea, and that talk, of course, is spurred by money. 

The title of Magic and Larry's book "When the Game was Ours" is perfect. Because back then, they did get a ton of attention for their exploits on the court — and rightfully so. Beginning with that 1979 title game, basketball went through a golden age in the 1980s when the NBA was at its best as Bird's Celtics battled Magic's Lakers in spectacularly hard-fought games and the NCAA had some of its greatest, most improbable championship games.

The basketball scene is still great today, and it could be even better if young players and fans alike read up on the era that predated them and learned to appreciate what it was all about.


J-bo said...

Great article, and glad you enjoyed your Christmas gift! Reading this reminded my why I used to love the NBA so gosh-darned much. I used to watch a game almost every night and watch Sportscenter every single morning to watch all the NBA recaps. Back then, players almost always stayed on the same team, there were hardly any arrests or scandals, and the players genuinely cared about the game. All this being said, however, I also wonder how much of my current disillusionment is also due to the prosperity of internet/gossip media in today's society. Had Michael Jordan, who I thought was a stand-up guy as a kid, been playing during this current generation, he likely would have face the exact same disappointment and fall from grace that Tiger is going through now. Jordan was no better than Tiger, he just got away with more. But even with that in mind, the game itself was certainly more personal and passionate in the 80s-90s glory years.

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