NBA’s Golden Age?

Clyde Frazier and Earl the Pearl

An outgrowth of the sports-fan aging process is the urge to no longer observe in the present, but in historical context where players compete not only against one another but against ghosts that once occupied that field or floor, or others like it.  I fell victim to this — if “victim” is the right word — first with Kobe Bryant; basically, freshman dorm arguments about whether Kobe — a champion at 21 — was better than Michael Jordan at the same age.  These debates drive a great deal of sports interest.  Without narrative, a bunch of strangers running around to throw a sphere through a ring can lose meaning and (gulp) maybe even seem like a waste of time and money.

I bring this up having just finished Earl Monroe’s excellent autobiography that includes Pearl’s stream-of-consciousness epilogue about the NBA as he perceives it, past, present and future.  Monroe had this to say about the best era of pro hoops:

I would like to close by addressing a couple more topics, and the first one is what I’ll call the Golden Era of Basketball in the 20th Century.  Now, things could change, but I have boiled it down to the 10 years between 1965 and 1975.  Why those years, you might ask?  I have picked that decade because if you look at all the players who played during that time, you will see that most of your Hall of Famers and the 50 greatest players of all time come from that era, that decade.  There were no more than 17 teams playing in the league then, so you had a concentration of talent on squads, unlike what you have today.  You had the great Boston, Saint Louis, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Golden State teams during that period.  The competition every night was so very high, and the players were veteran players who knew the fundamentals of the game.  Nobody could take a day off for fear of not only being embarrassed, but also of losing the game.  So that’s my reason for picking this decade.

The key players of those teams he listed — John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Dave Cowens, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Wilt Chamberlain, Gus Johnson, Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry and others — have their former skills and accomplishments memorialized by Pearl throughout the book.  (Lest you think the quoted paragraph is light on details.)  He clearly thinks highly of the NBA talent from the late ’60s and early ’70s.  Pearl identifies Wilt as perhaps the greatest player of all time.

Pearl provides more reasoning for this opinion after making an impassioned plea for a higher NBA age minimum.  (He believe it is the players union’s responsibility to the current members to protect their interests instead of teenagers not yet playing in the NBA and paying dues.)  He explains that the game has regressed some because the young players in the league are only good for high-flying acrobatics and don’t yet play with their minds.  He notes exceptions to this, specifically LeBron, Kobe, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd, and Kevin Garnett.  Pearl also says that young European players, by virtue of their having played and learned under older, smarter players, come into the NBA with better fundamentals.  His concern lies with young American players and the integrity of the NBA game.

I suppose it’s worth pointing out that his “Golden Era” just so happens to coincide precisely with the prime of his career.  Glory Days, and all that.  Chamberlain, his choice for G.O.A.T. is an old buddy from the playgrounds of Philly.  When Pearl also identifies his Knicks backcourt with Clyde Frazier as the greatest one of all time, his objectivity is called into question.  That said, his writing makes clear that he’s a longtime student of the game (I particularly enjoyed reading that Pearl is a big Kyrie Irving fan — #GameRecognizeGame) and the countless humbling stories shared in the book — on and off the basketball court — are not the stuff of a delusional bragger.

This viewpoint is fascinating to me not because I immediately accept it as truth, but because it is so different from my general outlook on basketball history.  I’ve always had the general belief that basketball quality, at the highest levels, is on a relatively stable, ongoing trajectory of improvement.  It seems to me that the game has only gained popularity — at home and abroad — and that improvements in training methods (particularly weight lifting, which Pearl concedes was not popular in his era) diet, and evolution in strategies and techniques would lead to an inevitable progression in the quality of team play.  (I’ve generally had the opposite view about baseball.  Mostly from listening to my dad — usually when criticizing my friends and I for playing Super Nintendo on beautiful summer afternoons — I’ve had this sense that baseball was something that every American kid used to play everyday, and that it’s less popular today than in the 1950′s.  It would stand to reason that there would be weaker arms and slower hand-eye coordination on ball fields.)

But Pearl is not necessarily making the case that the highest-level talent is any weaker (or weaker at all).  He’s making the case that the quality of team basketball in the NBA was higher in his era than it is today.  If you’ve sat through recent Timberwolves seasons, it isn’t a stretch to believe this to be true in some arenas anyway.  Pearl doesn’t get into the AAU talent development machine and how it compares to playgrounds like the one he grew up on.  So I guess that is a conversation for another day.  But reading his streetball tales and how he perfected his legendary spin move, combined with the unique driveway-shooting upbringing of contemporary shooting star Steph Curry sometimes make me wonder if there are better ways to achieve true greatness than the never-ending cycle of five-on-five that serves more as showcase than competition.  I digress.

Reading books like Pearl’s — and Jerry West’s and The Breaks of the Game — help challenge my preconceived notions.  Improvement isn’t inevitable and I subscribe to ESPN’s HoopIdea mantra that the game can always be better.

I recommend Monroe’s book if you’re into this sort of thing.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “NBA’s Golden Age?

  1. Dave A.

    When “The Pearl” was in college, I watched him try out for, I think, the U.S.A. team for the PanAm Games. The tryouts were at Williams Arena where Gopher coach John Kundla (formerly of Minneapolis Lakers coaching fame) was the U.S.A. coach. Four teams formed the tryouts. NCAA, NAIA, Industrial League, and Armed Forces. Surprisingly, Pearl didn’t make the team. Too much individual showboating, according to Kundla.
    Any comments by Pearl in his book about Archie Clark and Lew Hudson, both of whom played for Kundla at Minnesota? Of Gophers who played in the NBA , they rank in scoring Hudson first , then Kevin McHale, Michael Thompson and Clark.

  2. Nathan Anderson

    Always interesting to compare eras. Great article.

    Would fewer teams and a higher age minimum make NBA basketball games more entertaining (or of a higher “quality”) today? Sure. That means no Timberwolves, of course.

    But this does not mean that NBA basketball was higher quality when there were fewer teams and players were older. My guess is that there is a larger supply of great basketball players today than there was 30-40 years ago. Basketball seems relatively more popular today than in 1960 and players get paid relatively more as well.

    I’ve never been as convinced about the training, diet story. It’s all relative. I’m convinced training and diet would give today’s players an advantage in a time machine match up, but I’m not convinced that it gives them a relative advantage against their peers or makes for higher quality or even more watchable games. The training thing seems important, and players would not do it if there wasn’t a huge monetary payoff in terms of both keeping oneself in the league a few years longer or getting a higher paycheck while doing it.

    I’d rather have a minor league than an age minimum. And I think the age minimum is stupid. If a kid can play in the NBA let him play in the NBA. I understand why the players union wants an age minimum, but wouldn’t a decent minor league offer them similar protection?

    • Nathan–
      The interesting thing is that the players union does not (or so it says) want an age minimum. Stern has always been the one pushing for that. I wonder how much of it is disagreeing just for leverage in other matters. In any case Stern is on the record as wanting it moved up to 20 years from 19. The union pushes back.

      I’d like a good minor league and an age minimum. It isn’t about the guys who “can play in the NBA” — many or most of them (“them” being 19-year old rookies) can’t. But they’re ready to be drafted because they have the potential to be good players in a few years.

      • Nathan Anderson

        Andy,

        I’m against the age minimum. I do think, however, that the non-existence of a minor league is worse for young players. If a player is good enough they should not be forced to go college and make millions of dollars for their university without compensation.

        I’m 100% OK with an 18-year old being drafted to play in a minor league and in the NBA, if they are ready. I’m curious about your reasons for supporting an age minimum and a minor league.

        • The problem, right now, is that high-level players think they are “forced” to go to college. If Andrew Wiggins banded a group of 10 or so of the top high school seniors together they could probably form an exhibition “tour” team right here in the states that could draw sponsorships for the players while getting themselves trained for the NBA the next year. That’s without a league. I think the lack of creativity in filling this “one and done” gap is pretty shocking, considering how things work in other sectors. I think that if the NBA upped the age min. another year the pressure would burst and there’d be another league in America. Two years would just be too long a wait.

          I think the age minimum is great — but too low — because of the incentive problem for shitty teams to draft the highest-potential players that are almost always the youngest players. Low-talent teams draft players that aren’t ready. The whole age spectrum of the NBA shifts younger. The entire NBAPA is a fixed number until there’s more expansion. It isn’t a matter of “preventing” players from playing. It’s just choosing which players get to play and when. If Andrew Wiggins got a job in the league next year he’d be taking somebody else’s.

          I totally subscribe to the Steve Kerr/Earl Monroe school of thought that 19 year olds should not be in the NBA. It isn’t that no 19 year olds can help a team — it’s that the system is designed so ALL talented 19 year olds should declare for the draft and start getting paid ASAP. Maybe a flexible approach is possible that grants *exceptions* for special players. But that isn’t how Stern’s NBA has really worked. Maybe Adam Silver will be different.

          • Nathan Anderson

            My guess is that the reason there isn’t another pro league is because the NCAA gets these players for free and makes a ton of money. A private league cannot compete with that.

            I like your idea of increasing the age minimum as a catalyst to create a league, but I wonder if the NCAA effectively blocks that with its ability to get free labor. Of course, players prefer to play for $ now than for free now, but at the moment they get more exposure in the NCAA. Do they get better coaching or a better lifestyle (I’m not sure).

            If the NCAA could not get free labor a private league would have a better chance to complete because many schools would choose not to pay for the best players.

            Ideally, NCAA teams (paying their players) could compete with non-college pro teams. I don’t follow soccer, but there could be professional basketball clubs for guys 18-21.

            I didn’t think about this before writing it, I should have told you earlier! so I appreciate your patience.

  3. WRSI

    Is there a part of the word “union” that NBA players don’t understand? Any union that regards the interests of current members as separate from, and **actively at odds with,** those of future members…. That’s a Union that can be divided, and conquered, by management. And thus, we arrived at the rookie scale, along with any number of other “Here’s the pie, we’re letting you squabble over dividing it up” tactics by NBA ownership. Remind me not to hire Earl Monroe on as a labor negotiator any time soon.

    In general, the idea that any historical trend is a gradual line describing steady improvement should be regarded with extreme skepticism. If you hold up models like that for things like, oh, race relations or women’s rights up against real history, it sure *seems* like the “things gradually got better” version is almost an active attempt to deny that human agency has any real role in how things happen. Also, more to the point, things in those two areas *haven’t* gradually gotten better at all. We’ve had all sorts of zigs and zags in race relations, or hiring practices when it comes to women, over time. Betcha the same is true of NBA basketball, though I’m not offering any considered way to measure “quality” (or whatever) over time.

    Just getting my Wolves fix. Hey Andy!

    • Hello there–

      Great stuff, and interesting tie-in to those social issues. In basketball which is, I suppose, *less important*, I’ve probably offered too much credence to the idea that improved strength and conditioning automatically makes for better basketball. With our Wolves, my (perhaps) flawed thinking is highlighted by the contrast between the success of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Andrei Kirilenko, and the struggles of players like Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams. Race aside, I think most would view the former as “average athletes” (by NBA standards) and the latter as pretty special athletes, in terms of combining size with explosive jumping ability.

      Regarding the union duties, I think the NBA age rules are complicated. There are a fixed number of “NBA player” jobs. (Well, there’s a fixed range, anyway, depending on how many of those 13-15 slots are filled). Those teens that are prevented from playing in the NBA today will be protected in 12-15 years when they — in theory, anyway — get an extra year. Maybe if they haven’t saved their money, it’ll be a crucial year.

      The ethics of it are subject to debate, but I personally think it helps improve the quality of play and would do that to a greater degree if it were raised a year.