Ahead of the Curve

They were giants of the sporting world: names like Mikan, Pettit, Russell, Chamberlain, Truck, Moses, The Enforcer, the Big O, the Big E and the Big Redhead.

Basketball's leviathans in the low post.

Fans thrilled at their combination of size, strength and agility.  The battles they fought under the boards defined the NBA and made sport headlines for nearly 40 years.

But with the advent of consumer democracy, change is a constant.

The Chuck Taylor high-tops and short-shorts are long gone, replaced with hideous foot-wear and a plethora of prison-yard tattoos.  Historic but cramped old arenas gave-way to bigger & brighter venues with better seats, paint-happy hardwood and $17.50 nachos.

And no change has been greater than disappearance of the inside game.  In particular, the demise of the dominant center and power-forward.

Different from women's basketball where the tall pivot player still reigns (Lauren Jackson / Candace Parker), the menacing man in the middle has become an endangered species.

Since the days of Kareem Abdul Jabbar you could count on two hands the number of big men who've been dominant down low: Bob Parish, Larry Bird, McHale, Laimbeer, Rodman, Magic, Olajuwon, Shaq, Duncan, Karl Malone and Dirk Nowitzki nearly fill out a very short list.

The culprit: NBA's adoption of the three-point shot.

The National was sitting pretty in the late 70s, having 'merged' with what remained of the ABA (1976) and negotiated lucrative TV / merchandise deals.  But a dramatic rise in player salaries gave some jughead in a Suit reason to get creative.

In 1979 they reached into the ABA's bag of tricks (the American had employed the dunk and the tres in 1968 "as marketing tool(s) to compete with the NBA" (3 point / Wikipedia)) and pulled out the three-point gimmick to prime the pump.

Basketball's never been the same.

There had been a balance, a symmetry, a ying & yang in roundball.

Fans were treated to two theaters of play: one inside, where bruisers like Adrian Dantley, Thurmond, Unseld, Reed, Walton, Lanier, Cowens, Gilmore and Dan Issel waged war; the other, out on the key where long-rangers Jerry West, Dave Bing, Frazier, Maravich, Gervin, Winters and Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson could heat it up in a hurry.

As long as both theaters had direction there was a symbiosis and the game flourished.

But by the mid-80s the physical, combative play which for years had made the sport so colorful...vanished.  Centers and power forwards regressed into mere supporting players or disappeared all together.  Much of the action moved away from the paint and up to the high-post where guards and guard-wannabes directed the flow and became the stars.

The spotlight swung away from bangers and over to finesse guys like Julius Erving and Mike Jordan as the 3-pointer and un-contested dunk became signature plays of the NBA.

If you see a guy in the low-post today chances are he's only waiting on an alley-oop or mesmerized as an opponent dunks on his head.  Post game both will hug & laugh about it.

As most NBA rookies are on the 5-year maturation plan, they'll never develop the wide range of skills that even stylers like Dr. J and Jordan would eventually pick-up.

But then skill-sets, rivalries, even titles are mere trifles to the Overlords of sport. Owners & media are so aligned with profiteers it's hard to imagine they've ANY affinity for the game.

"You don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle" (Kramer / Seinfeld).  They don't sell the game anymore, they sell celebrity (endorsements), air-time (TV / Twitter / fantasy) and merchandise (cantaloupe-sized driver heads and kids with wicked metal bats (Outside the Lines; 3-1-11)).  If it generates revenue stream, then history, integrity and safety can all be overlooked.

When big-shots like LeBron (6'8"), Love (6'10") and Durant (6'9") spend half their time on the perimeter you know the game's gone soft.  All should be living around the basket.  Instead, each'll rack-up 300+ 3PAs, making only about a third (.357 NBA).

So much for pumping-up the offense.

There are men who keep the spirit alive with dynamic play in the paint.  A few of the standouts: centers Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut and Pau Gasol; forwards Amare Stoudemire, Garnett, Nowitzki ('11 Finals), Boozer and Joakim Noah.

And Clippers' phenom Blake Griffin: talented, but now tipsy with celebrity since the dunk got into his bloodstream.

It's time to bounce the 3-pointer outta' the gym.  Send it, along with the dunk contest and home run derby over to where they all belong: Saturday morning TV.

Then watch the roundball renaissance begin.

Steven Keys


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