If you watched last Sunday's high school all-star basketball game in Michigan expecting to see guys who can really play an all-around game, you were also disappointed.
There were a few nifty plays and some classy assists, but the No. 1 goal of the performers, it seemed, was to lurch toward the basket and slam the ball home -- the more hot-doggery the better. To hell with skill, finesse, rhythm and, heaven forbid, anything remotely resembling team play. Just brute force with as much showtime, hang-time and woofing as a guy could muster. I found myself chuckling with delight when some of those intended thunder-dunks went awry.
Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and even, now and then, Larry Bird, could display impressive dunk skills. But they also cultivated all-around excellence that I'm not sure most of today's carnival acts will ever match. Look at all the other things these superstars could bring to the table in their prime.
There's been considerable talk about how today's kids get so hung up trying to play above the rim that they neglect scads of basics, like learning to shoot the ball from farther than three or four feet. Ever notice that for all their other accomplishments, the Birds, Magics, Jordans and Ervings also had shots? No wonder shooting percentages at the college level are dropping, from the field and from the free throw line. You pound your wrists on the hoop trying to dunk and go around high-fiving after doing nothing particularly noteworthy and you're bound to lose a little digital sensitivity.
Think of past stars who practiced for eons shooting the ball from every distance and angle and won game after game with timely shots. Are they a dying breed?
Women's basketball has been gaining more attention in recent years. I can't help wondering if part of that is because there is a basic purity about their game that a lot of men's contests don't provide anymore.
I mean, very, very few women can or do dunk the ball. Even if it is an inch smaller in circumference than the men's orange their hands still aren't big enough to do much palming. Most of them aren't cultivated enough as jumpers to throw it down. So they have to work the ball, shoot it, get position for rebounds and create something besides a Waldo Pepper Flying Circus vs. G-8 and His Battle Aces (an old pulp mag hero of mine from the 1930s). It's a pretty good game to watch.
Has the time finally come, as the late Phog Allen said it would, to raise the baskets to 12 feet? All sorts of equipment would have to be changed and the international teams would be shocked beyond belief. But what can be done to bring back some of the grace and fluidity that once existed?
Short-term, UCLA wizard John Wooden may have a reasonable solution without the need to alter courts, baskets or anything: Make the dunk a one-point basket, a genuine touch shot (including a legitimate lay-in) two points, and bombs from beyond the arc three points.
Athletes would have to think before they hot-dogged, coaches would have to advise what to go for in certain situations; the strategy of the game could be altered a great deal. Wooden, a purist with 10 NCAA crowns in his cabinet, is even more fed up than most with powerhouse dunking.
The dunk was outlawed in college ball from the 1967-68 season until re-legalization in 1976-77. UCLA's Lew Alcindor played two seasons in that format; Kansas had two Final Four teams (1971-74) in that span. College ball kept getting better and better.
So let 'em dunk. But if it was worth only one point, maybe we'd get a little more of what basketball ought to be.
- Seems the National Basketball Assn. could alleviate a number of its salary problems by re-instituting the old rule preventing drafting a collegian until his four-year class has graduated -- the way it was with Kansas' Wilt Chamberlain.
Eddie Gottlieb of the Philadelphia Warriors drafted Wilt after his senior year at Philly's Overbrook High, figuring The Big Dipper was worth the wait. Maybe Wilt could have gone right from high school to the pros, not sure. But he never considered it.
Chamberlain spent freshman, sophomore and junior years at KU. NBA rules forbade his "coming out early." He said he wasn't having any fun against stifling college zone defenses. He got $10,000 and a long red Olds convertible from Look Magazine for his "why I'm leaving" story. Then since he couldn't go to the NBA until after the 1959 college season, he played a year with the Harlem Globetrotters for a $50,000-plus stipend (big money then).
The NBA might have fewer Glenn Robinson ripoffs if it went back to the four-year class rule. And it would get more finished products. But all this is about as likely to happen as my high-jumping seven feet or running next year's Kansas Relays 100 in 10-flat.