I will never forget the first time I saw a basketball game.
My parents weren’t really sports fans, and I discovered my love for them while my dad was stationed with the Air Force in England. Because I was there, my first sports loves were soccer and tennis.
When we returned the States while I was the ripe old age of nine, I saw my first ever NBA game. Now granted, it was on tape delay, but it was nonetheless amazing. It was Game 6 of the 1977 Eastern Conference Finals.
Julius Erving, “at long last” as I remember the announcer saying, led the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals. All I could think about was that man was doing things that shouldn’t have been humanly possible.
The purity of motion, the fluidity of movement, the effortlessness with which he soared—he was like a superhero to my nine-year-old eyes. And immediately, I fell in love with a new sport.
It was in that moment, a historic moment in time.
In the 41 years since, the game has changed a lot–just as it had changed a lot in the 86 years that had elapsed before that.
I also remember a discussion of whether Erving could be or was already, the greatest the game had ever seen.
It’s a running theme through history–how does the greatest player of that era fit in with the greatest of all-time. Some will argue that eras change and that because of that, you can’t compare players from different eras.
I would argue that’s why you need to understand the different eras.
I think if most of us saw an “original” game of basketball, we wouldn’t even recognize it. For instance, the 13 Original Rules didn’t allow for dribbling. That was an innovation of the game that came fairly early on, though.
You couldn’t run with the ball, but you could pass the ball. One of the more creative players thought, “If I bounce it off the floor, I’m just passing it to myself.” Naismith allowed it, and the dribble was born.
Well, after a fashion anyway. The first “dribbles” were basically chest passes into the floor. The balls were very different. They were just rubber bladders with leather stretched over and then stitched shut. So they weren’t perfectly round and a dribble ran the risk of an errant bounce if an odd bubble or the laces hit the floor.
Because it wasn’t a perfect sphere, it also didn’t shoot as well.
Of course, there was that problem with the basket itself. Initially, you had to literally get a ladder and climb it to pull the ball out of the basket. Fortunately, one early innovation was putting a hole in the bottom of the bucket.
The standardized hoop still didn’t exist, though. And remember, a larger ball (32 inches in circumference instead of 30 inches) would have been harder to get through today’s standard rim.
And the backboard? An interesting fact about that is that it wasn’t invented initially to bank shots off or something so relevant. The original baskets were often installed from the rafters, and zealous fans would reach over and “block” the shots on their way down.
The backboards were installed to prevent that from happening.
As the game evolved, it grew increasingly violent, much to the chagrin of Naismith who went through painstaking efforts to invent a sport that deterred violence. For example, that’s why the “goal” is 10 feet off the ground. It emphasizes accuracy and touch over power.
Let’s just say the attempts to create an indoor version of soccer led to some broken windows, and leave it at that.
One issue: while it was illegal to hit the guy with the ball, there was nothing illegal about the guy with the ball running over a defender. So that happened.
The sport grew and spread with amazing speed. Within 10 years, it was national. And accordingly, the pro game emerged. For several years (decades) even the best teams were “barnstorming” teams who didn’t play in a particular league but went from city to city.
One such team, which is still in existence today (albeit in a different type of way) is the Harlem Globetrotters. Before they became the comedic anathema to the poor Washington Generals, the Globetrotters were a team that authentically completed.
Another team was the Original Celtics, who shouldn’t be confused with the Boston Celtics.
It also became increasingly violent.
When the ball went out of bounds, the original rules stated the first person to get it got to throw it in. That led to some pretty physical kerfuffles as players scrambled over one another racing to get the ball.
Some bright person thought a groovy solution to that would be putting a cage around the court. You can’t have the ball going out of bounds if there’s a cage there, right?
Only, that led to players checking one another into fences, hockey style. A lot of times these were literally made from chicken wire, and players would genuinely worry about getting tetanus during a game.
Think about the next time you hear a curmudgeon complaining about how soft the game is today.
Leagues rose and fell. Eventually, the cages came down and the game started to become something that resembles what we see now.
The BAA, which eventually merged with the NBL to form the NBA, had its first season in 1946. After a few years of the league being nearly destroyed by teams deliberately holding up the pace, holding onto the ball when they had the lead–often for ridiculous amounts of time–the NBA instituted the shot clock.
Scoring went through the roof, and so did fan interest.
Not long after, the NBA had its first truly larger-than-life player in Wilt Chamberlain and its first truly great dynasty in the Boston Celtics, led by Bill Russell. Thus the first great rivalry was born and the “individual stats vs. team success” debate which still rages today was born.
The NBA narrowed the lanes to decrease Wilt’s impact. That sort of helped, but it didn’t stop Russell from winning more rings than he had fingers.
While basketball was integrated, there were still largely self-imposed limitations on how many black men would be on a team, and how significant a role they could take.
In the 70s, which in many ways was a low point for the NBA, the ABA rose up as a rival league. It encouraged the wide-open style of play, showmanship and high-flying acrobatics of guys like David Thompson and Julius Erving.
Their dunk contest was the stuff of legends:
Also, the 70s saw the beginning of free agency after Oscar Robertson won his lawsuit after a six-year process. Players could shop themselves around, but the original teams could match any offers.
The ABA lost the battle but won the war, so to speak. Yeah, the league “merged” which is polite for “got eaten” by the NBA (except for Ozzie and Daniel Silna, who received over $750 million in compensation since their team was nixed by the merger.)
The NBA carried on as a league, but the ABA culture is arguably what prevailed. The 3-point line became the first significant change on the court since the lanes were widened, but teams pretty much ignored it.
The post-merger league saw the game open up more, and no one was more able to take advantage of that than Magic Johnson, who led the “Showtime Lakers” as one of the most entertaining teams in the league, before or since.
Meanwhile, Larry Bird was the greatest white player in the history of the NBA (and still is).
Without going into a lot of detail, the rivalry also contained an element which reflected on the relations of the time. “Showtime” captured the imagination of black America. Larry Bird was pitted as the “Great White Hope.”
Then along came Michael Jordan whom everyone loved. The 90s were his decade and basketball soared to unprecedented heights. One wonders how Jordan would have been received if he played in the 60s.
In the wake of his departure, the NBA (by admission) came up with a series of rules that opened up the game. These are often reduced to “no hand check” but really are much more extensive. And their goal was to move people out from the rim and make it easier for guys to do the things that Jordan did.
From 1998-99 to 2003-04, the NBA experienced what was arguably the most prolonged inefficiency since the advent of the shot clock.
Ironically, it worked, but not in the way that was expected. The rules were changed to make it easier for guys like Kobe Bryant to attack the rim, but there was some give and take with the changes.
Rules which prevented zone defenses were lifted. And defensive 3-seconds was instituted. Tom Thibodeau engineered defenses to stop penetration through strategies which involved heavy rotations. His schemes were so effective they were adopted league-wide.
The way to beat them was to stretch the court.
Enter Stephen Curry. Everyone was so focused on what would happen if you couldn’t keep the ball handler in front of you with a hand check, no one thought what would happen if he went backward.
Well that, and could make a pull-up jumper from another planet. Over the last three seasons, Curry has dropped in 1,102 threes. In 1980-81, the entire league made 943.
A new kind of excitement ripped through the league.
Another thing that changed were the advances in how the game was viewed, absorbed and processed. Teams could break down everything from the seconds a player had the ball to where he could shoot from.
That was coupled with the way guys like Dean Oliver changed the way the game was viewed. Rather than just looking at “game” stats, Oliver’s view was that the game is that of taking turns on possessions, so perhaps we should break it down by possessions instead.
As those things merged we were able to ascertain what types of offenses worked and which didn’t. Teams started to build their teams around more efficient play and around that.
Overlapping with that time frame was LeBron James’ “Decision”. For the first time in history, a free agent didn’t just change teams so to speak. He effectively “built” a team, joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.
Later, he left Miami to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then last summer, Kevin Durant joined the Warriors in a similar, “win-motivated” move. Both Durant and James were willing to take a little less money for the chance to win.
And the NBA has experienced a new revolution. There’s a lazy way of attributing this just to analytics, but it’s really just the latest step in a game that has been evolving since that first game Naismith put the rules on paper the first time.
But in many ways, the heart of it might warm the cockles of Naismith’s heart. The game is open and free-flowing and as entertaining as ever.
Would Steph Curry have been as great in the 50s with an uneven ball and taking set shots instead of jump shots? Probably not. But he’s not playing then, he’s playing now.
There is a long list of players who thrived in their own era. There is a much smaller list of players who defined their eras. These are the greatest to play the game. And this is the history we need to understand when debating players.