Whenever today's NBA salaries come up in a conversation, someone inevitably asks if I have any regrets that I played professional basketball in the underpaid Sixties. My response has always been the same. I begin by explaining that once a month I enter my hall closet, scrunch my way to the back behind the heavy coats, and I primal-scream for a couple of minutes, much as Lisa Minelli did standing under the railroad trestle in the movie, Cabaret. Like Minelli, I emerge emotionally refreshed and , in my case, temporarily cleansed of financial envy.
Purged of such envy, I proceed to explain why I have no regrets. More than any other NBA decade, my era was special. While the Beatles were changing American music, and anti-war activists were altering national politics, and women were raising the consciousness of a male dominated society, the NBA players of the Sixties, were revolutionizing pro hoops.
With apologies to Magic and Bird, and to Bill Simmons, the Basketball Guy, the most dramatic changes in the game of professional basketball started at the end of the fifties, through the Boston Celtics dominated Sixties and into the early Seventies with the arrival of Kareem, Adul Jabbar in Milwaukee. During that decade and a half the last of the great set shooters, Dolph Schayes, Carl Braun, and Larry Costello disappeared and the jump shooters of the future, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, and Billy Cunningham emerged.
Left behind were the slow-footed centers, replaced by the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Nate Thurmond. For the first time, guards such as Guy Rodgers, Lenny Wilkins, Dave Bing, and Nate Archibald brought lightening speed and paint penetration to the game. Power forwards were no longer simply rebounding hatchet-men like Andy Johnson and Jungle Jim Loscutoff, but players like Rudy LaRusso, Dave DeBusshere, and Tom Heinsohn who could step out to twenty feet and knock down jumpers.
One marvels today at 7 foot Dirk Nowitzki shooting threes, but I remember 6'11" Walter Bellamy, at a time when there was no three point line, sinking jump shots from beyond the arc. (Like Nowitzki, he didn't play much defense.) I know of no player today as fast as Nate Archibald, and no players as creative as Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Pistol Pete.
Had the NBA not banned Connie Hawkins, I feel confident that The Hawk would have joined Elgin Baylor as the spiritual model for mega-stars such as Julius Irving and Michael Jordan. (Wilt's 100-point-game and one season's 50-point scoring average stands alone and belongs to all the ages.) As for scorers, Rick Barry and John Havelick paved the way for Kobe Bryant, LaBron James, and D. Wade. From time to time as I watch Mano Genobili, one of my favorite scorers, play, it has occurred to me that Mano has figured out a way to channel Hondo.
Then, there are the great defenders, not be confused with some of today's great pretenders. Before there was a Ron Artest or a Bruce Bowen, there was a Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lear, and Satch Sanders. No greater defensive pit bull ever existed than Sloan. I grant we did not play in the air as most of today's players do, but there were high-fliers a-plenty: Johnny Green, Joe Caldwell, Gus Johnson, (shatterer of the first NBA backboard), and languishing in some schoolyard playground, the memory of Earl "The Goat" Manigault- like Jumping John-the-Baptists preparing the way for Dwight Howard, Jason Richardson, and Nate Robinson.
This blog is not intended to compare players and eras. Perhaps in a future blog I'll give it a try, in which case I'd probably start by pointing out that today's players are the beneficiaries of years of ECBD (Early Childhood Basketball Development). I can only imagine what the players I have mentioned might have accomplished had they had the same skills-training and physical fitness regimen of today's players. But that's beside the point. All NBA eras are different. About every ten years the curtain rises on new and wonderful super-stars all of whom will possess fantastic skills, all of whom should hearken back to the NBA Sixties where most of their moves originated.
Aside from innovation born out of rule changes and individual physical capability, by the time I retired in 1971, the game of professional basketball had reached its creative zenith. Everything that followed has been a variation on a theme. I know, I was there. That's why I have no regrets.
Earl "The Pearl" Monroe by Tom Meschery
In the rec leagues
they called me Black Jesus.
When I walked onto the court
the crowd parted like water.
In college, someone found a rhyme
and I became a pearl.
I guess I've been a mixed
metaphor ever since. Sometimes,
when I backed a player
down into the paint
and spun into my shot,
I knew before the ball left
my fingers it was going in.
At that moment
I could have healed lepers
raised the dead.
What my musings are all about...
Blogging might well be the 21st century's form of journaling. As a writing teacher, I have always advised my students to keep a daily journal as a way of organizing their thoughts for future writing projects, a discipline I have unfortunately never consistently practiced myself. By blogging, I might finally be able to follow my own good advice.
The difference between journaling and blogging is that the blogger opens his or her writing to the public, something journal- writers are usually reluctant to do. I am not so reticent.
The trick for me will be to avoid cluttering the internet with more blather, something none of us need more of. If I stick to subjects I know: sports and literature, I believe I can avoid that pitfall. I can't promise that I'll not stray from time to time to comment on ancillary subjects, but I will make every attempt to be interesting and perhaps even insightful.