To those who think the NBA is just a pale, slow-motion shadow of its former self, Coach says: Take another look; the running game is back, and you need only look at the eight surviving playoff teams to see it.
This note of encouragment comes from my father, in response to a column detailing some personal TV habits. He forgets that far worse things than my viewing habits have been revealed in this column -- with space to fill, my shame threshold is high. He's become a curmudgeonly old codger, seeing the apogee of the National Basketball Association to have occurred on Feb. 27,1959, when Bob Cousy dished out 19 first-half assists against the Minneapolis Lakers. For me, I'm just an under-appreciated sportswriter trying to do his job, not the way it was done in '59, well before the invention of the television set, but the modern way, sitting in front of it. I might also mention that Mr. Mello once made it a yearly habit to post, like a modern Martin Luther on the door of the refrigerator, an annual sports calendar (subject to arbitrary revision) with a lengthy list of dates around which my mother was required to plan the yearly family social calendar. If poor old Grandma Klopot's birthday happened to fall on a day when the Red Sox were playing in Chicago, for example, well, we wouldn't be missed. This operating mode caused more than a little tension within the extended and the nuclear family units. It does, however, make one appreciate the old wisdom about where exactly apples fall and pots calling kettles black
Still more views from the couch: I tried to explain to my dad that a subtle change was occurring in the NBA right before my tired, TV-strained eyes: the exciting up and down game of yore is back and in front of our noses. For proof, I suggested he watch Dallas play Game Five against Utah, the last remaining vestige of le Ancien Regime. This was a calculated risk. Better teams than Dallas have had their offenses ground to mush under the relentless 23-second Utah pick and roll. Indeed, the first half was rotten as a week-old tuna. Dallas -- playing scared and being shamelessly cheated by the officials -- looked like a poorly directed team from the Town Lake YMCA. Displaying reasonable discretion, even I switched to ER. At 10, with the problems at County General quelled for the moment, Dallas was still down by 17. The game and series clearly over, I figure I'll watch until I finish dipping cookies and go to bed.
This being a sports column, there's no need to recount what happened next.
The old man watched the first half, confirming all his suspicions, and missed a finish both sad (you've got to feel for the impossible efforts of Sloan, Stockton, and Malone) and exhilarating. Dallas is an obvious example of a return to the fast-breaking game lost for 15 years. But with the blessed early elimination of the devotees de Riley, virtually every team left is comfortable with a fast-paced game: not a Knick clone in the bunch. The Every-Possession-a-War virus began in Detroit in the late Eighties. Pat Riley made it a holy crusade, spreading it through the copycat league like an unholy plague sweeping through ancient Babylon. Now I can hear the Munchkins chirping, "The witch is dead, the witch is dead. Hi Ho, the wicked witch is dead." (Though my naturally negative nature prohibits the song from coming through totally clearly just yet.)
Another creeping change, visible only after hour upon hour in my La-Z-Boy rocker, is that for the first time in more than a decade, the Eastern Conference is on the upswing. The Bull Dynasty covered up an ugly family secret: outside of Chicago, the East was swill. The balance of power started changing around 1990, as the West regularly trounced the East in inter-conference games. Once Chicago dismantled, this superiority was apparent to even a blind sea otter. All the young talent was in the West. The plodding East, deep under the baleful influence of Riley, looked like they were playing in oatmeal with too little milk.
The longer I sit here, watching game after game, the more apparent it's becoming: not a dramatic shift in power, but a leveling of the talent. In the West, Portland's so old (Arvydas Sabonis is surely a Russian wrestler I used to watch in Miami Beach in the early Sixties), so wasted by the evil mojo of years past, and so sick of each other, I'd take a bet they won't make the playoffs next year. The Spurs are like a still-popular but aging movie star (Terry Porter's the starting point guard, for the love of God). The Czar has been shot in his bed by the scum and rabble in the East. Youth will be heard.
I just got off the phone with my dad. He dithered on and on about the demise of pro basketball, how the game's nothing but dunks. He believes the three-point shot a device thought up by Beelzebub himself, the downfall of the game. The Couz, he wouldn't have approved at all, though his contemporary and fellow Celtic, Don Nelson, runs the most three-point-crazed team in the league. When he started going on about the evils of the internal combustion engine and the electric light, I asked to speak to mom.
The Game will survive.