The Good Old Days Weren't So Different than Today

June, 5, 2008
6/05/08
3:06
PM ET

Matt from Basketbawful e-mails:

You might have noticed I've been running a Worst of Celtics-Lakers series on my site.

I sometimes find myself -- like many other fans, bloggers, writers, etc. -- flipping out over hard fouls, freethrow discrepancies, blown calls, and basketball players saying and doing the wrong things at the wrong times.

Now, a lot of times we look back at the 60s, 70s, and 80s with rose-colored glasses. The general consensus is that players were smarter, more selfless, and much classier than they are today.

Anyway, I've done a ridiculous amount of research for these posts, and I've discovered that there have been countless cases in which one team got way more freethrows than the other, countless bad calls (or questionable ones), countless cases of poor sportsmanship/gloating/sour grapes, and conspiracy theories, and selfishness, what-ifs brought on by this or that call that wasn't made, this or that shot that should or should not have gone in, so on and so forth.

In short: Nothing has changed.

It feels like it has, we think it has ... but it hasn't.

I mean, Russell called Wilt a loser, Auerbach rubbed dirt in his opponents faces, Larry Bird blasted his teammates and later complained about not getting enough shots, The naysayers, and there are many of them, always seem to think the game is in trouble, that it's devolving into a darker, uglier version of itself.

But the fact is, in a lot of ways, things have gotten better. Most players have learned what they can and can't say to the press. Dirty play has been greatly limited. We're moving toward transparency ... I mean the League is actually admitting blown calls now!

The lesson: We should all try to overreact a little less and enjoy a little more. 

Take note. This is a guy who runs a site about the most awful things about the NBA. And here he is telling you that the NBA ain't so awful.

As someone who loves the NBA warts and all, I'll second that emotion, and back it up with some more evidence.  

You know how the planets used to revolve around the sunny Lakers of Magic Johnson? Then in the modern NBA, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant had all their spats and eventual divorce which seemed so hideous by comparison?

I have been re-reading Roland Lazenby's mighty Laker tome The Show, and you know what? It was never peaches and cream for those close to the Lakeshow. It's more about the way information flows. These days, there's no hiding a lot of those warts.

Some examples of the kinds of things that have always been part of basketball, but aren't always part of basketball memories:

  • When Magic Johnson was brand new to the League -- this is the guy most consider the greatest point guard ever -- few people believed he could play point guard. And the existing guard, Norm Nixon, led a faction in the locker room to which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar belonged. For instance, Lazenby tells that in practice the coaching staff would give the ball to Johnson to run a play, and Abdul-Jabbar would take the ball from Johnson and give it to Nixon.
  • At one point, Magic Johnson told the press he wanted to be traded because of the style of play, and coach Paul Westhead was instantly replaced. 
  • At the press conference to announce Westhead's replacement, owner Jerry Buss said that Jerry West would be the coach. West was there and denied it. Pat Riley -- who had recently been a broadcaster -- got the job. You almost never see that kind of nuttiness anymore.
  • Jamaal Wilkes, talking about the 1982 title team, says "we had so many unhappy people you wouldn't believe it." 
  • When Magic Johnson got a big new contract, Lazenby says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called a press conference and wondered aloud if Johnson had become part of Laker management. Abdul-Jabbar ended up getting himself a bigger contract.
Also, one thing I'll say about today's NBA: At least the uniforms match.

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