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.