NBA history framed by few key moments, personalities
Posted: Thursday December 2, 2004 1:42PM; Updated: Thursday December 2, 2004 3:07PM
In leading the Celtics to 10 titles in 12 years, Bill Russell helped instill the modern style of play to te NBA.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images
In the two weeks since some jackass Detroit Pistons fan hit a sometimes jackass named Ron Artest with a cup of beer, I've said or written a couple dozen times that it will turn out to be one of the most seminal moments in NBA history. I hope that's the case. I hope league and team officials use the brawl to get serious about security and the atmosphere of incivility that prevails at most arenas. And I hope the players take the cue that their public relations are at an all-time low and must be repaired.
So I thought I'd use the fateful evening of Nov. 19, 2004, as a jumping-off point for my Pick Five this week: The five most significant events that affected the history of the NBA, not including The Malice at the Palace. Reducing almost 60 years of pro hoops to just five moments is impossible, of course, so feel free to disagree.
Just don't throw a cup of beer at me.
1. April 29, 1956
The St. Louis Hawks trade the draft rights to Bill Russell to the Boston Celtics.
Drafting Russell was not the no-brainer it would seem to be in retrospect. Like Michael Jordan three decades later, Russell was the third pick, not the first, and the Hawks gave up the University of San Francisco center for Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagen. The latter two were both fine players; Russell evolved into an immortal.
His defensive abilities, athleticism, smarts and toughness coming out of college were unquestioned. But there were doubts about his offense and, moreover, his commitment to the NBA since there were rumors that he was going to play for the Harlem Globetrotters, and, further, that he was too intelligent to pursue a life in pro sports.
Celtics czar Red Auerbach didn't care. In Russell he saw the future of his franchise and he would've stopped at almost nothing to get him. So the deal was made, the Celtics won championships in 10 of the next 12 seasons, and a modern, fast-breaking style of basketball -- engineered by Russell's rebounding, shot-blocking, outlet-passing and floor-running -- was ushered in.
2. June 17, 1976
The ABA officially folds and four ABA teams -- Denver, Indianapolis, New York (Nets) and San Antonio -- join the NBA.
Even though it was pooh-pooed by NBA stalwarts such as Auerbach, the ABA had a profound effect on hoops culture. It was a vaguely outlaw league with high-scoring games, zany promotions and the 3-point shot. Ultimately, it could not compete financially, but the four teams that the old striped-ball league gave to the league remain strong franchises today. (Well, with the exception of the Nets.) Furthermore, the influx of such ABA stars as Julius Erving, George Gervin, David Thompson and Dan Issel gave the NBA a fresh infusion of talent.
3. June 9, 1978 and June 25, 1979
The Celtics take Larry Bird with the sixth pick of the draft, and a year later the Lakers take Magic Johnson with the first pick.
They came in together for the '79-80 season but few remember that Auerbach actually plucked Bird a year early, before his senior season at Indiana State. The two college stars, who had met in what is still possibly the most riveting NCAA final showdown in history in '79, came into a league beset with major problems. Several teams were going bankrupt, there was no national live TV contract and fans couldn't identify with the reigning superstars such as Pete Maravich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes, Gervin and Bernard King.
Magic and Bird changed that immediately, bringing team-first basketball and a cross-continental rivalry that revived the NBA and, in retrospect, may have saved it.
4. February 1, 1984
David Stern, a lawyer who had worked on NBA-related issues for an outside firm, replaces Larry O'Brien to become the fourth NBA commissioner.
It has often been written that Stern, now in his 21st year on the job, has the best timing in sports history, having taken over when Erving was still around, Bird and Magic were still dominant and Jordan was just beginning his ascent. No question about that. But over the years Stern has been the furthest thing you can imagine from a caretaker commish. He immediately got the respect of the owners with his smarts and financial sense; he mended faces with the players' union; he maximized marketing opportunities; he buddied up to the superstars and convinced them to be diplomats for the game; and he provided a face of stable leadership to a league that, B.S. -- Before Stern -- always seemed to be one step from disaster.
5. April 17 and April 20, 1986 and May 18, 1988
Jordan goes off on the Celtics in Boston Garden for 63 and 49 points in consecutive playoff losses. And the Detroit Pistons close out Jordan's Chicago Bulls in five games in the '88 Eastern semis.
A tortured tie-in? I don't think so. In those '86 games Jordan announced to the world just how good he was by putting on a one-man show in the Garden, which failed to lift the Bulls past Boston only because the '86 Celtics had one of the strongest teams in NBA history. "Michael Jordan is God," Bird said after one of those games.
Flash forward two years: Jordan has only cemented his rep as the best individual player in the world, yet for two years still can't get his team past the Pistons. His Airness failed in '88, he failed in '89 and he failed again in '90 before finally breaking through in '91. Why? Because the Pistons marshaled all of their defensive forces to stop him, playing a chest-thumping, shoulder-thrusting brand of defense that sent a message: Tough is what wins. Tough overcomes talent.
Sure, Jordan went on to dominate the '90s. But the Pistons' style, for better or worse, came into vogue and remains today.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum covers the NBA for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.