Time to spread the NBA's wings?
Should the NBA consider changing the as yet unchanged dimensions of the court?
Jerry West thinks there are arguments for, against, debunks some of the myths
West is still a passionate student of the game, willing to listen to ways to improve
One of the great things about being a sportswriter is that you can talk to the legends. So when Jerry West called one night a few weeks ago, just as I was sitting down to supper with my wife, our 2½-year-old son and a dinner guest, I wasn't about to miss the opportunity.
West is the League Logo. Basketball royalty. The meatloaf could wait.
Besides, West was returning my call. I had sought him out to ask about an idea that had been bouncing around my head over the past few seasons: Should the NBA widen the court?
Think about it. The NBA has been playing with the same 94-feet-by-50-feet dimensions for a long time. But the players seem to have grown much bigger. Doesn't it only make sense to expand the court at least a little bit to accommodate that change?
Before I get into West's response, let me say that I'm not the first person to raise the idea. Bill Walton, Jeff Van Gundy and others have lobbied for it in the past. Indeed, the immediate impetus for my call to West was from a casual conversation with Hawks GM Rick Sund, who suggested the court needed to be bigger as we watched players going through shooting drills before a recent game.
NBA insiders say it will never happen for financial reasons (owners don't want to give up any of those precious courtside seats), but supporters believe that widening the floor -- even by just a foot on each side -- would improve the game by allowing for better spacing. It would open passing lanes. It would give players a little added breathing room, especially with the three-point line now just a few feet from the sideline.
If nothing else, it might cut down on all those whistles we've seen in recent years for players accidentally stepping out of bounds.
"I think it's an intriguing idea," West said. "There'd be some coaches, those who like to play quicker, who would relish it. But those coaches who like to play games with 85-75 [final scores], well, they sure don't want a bigger court."
But what really struck me over our 45-minute conversation was how much West enjoyed just talking about the issue. At age 70, after a Hall of Fame playing career and successful stints as GM of the Lakers and Grizzlies, he could have brushed off my query. But West seemed to actually enjoy arguing the merits and drawbacks.
Playing devil's advocate, he dissected all the arguments in favor of widening the court.
On the notion that today's players are so much bigger and need the extra room:
"The players today are not that much bigger," he said. "They are bulkier. They take up more space inside. But they're not that much taller. So I'm not sure it would make that much of a difference."
On the fact that so many players are stepping on the sidelines:
"They're just not being alert. You have to be aware. A lot of today's players just aren't aware. And their footwork is bad."
On the idea that the game needs more offense:
"I think Don Nelson and Mike D'Antoni do a great job [getting their teams to score points]. ... Good teams find a way. When you watch the Spurs or the Lakers, the court doesn't look too crowded."
But while West might have been reluctant to see the NBA tinker with success, it's instructive to know that he wasn't opposed to any form of change. Like so many of his peers, he's open to any idea that will improve the game. West says he even sees the merits of the more controversial argument that the court should be longer by a few feet, with the basket remaining in the same spot, to create more room along the baseline.
"Guys could drive more freely along the baseline," he says. "I think it would make [defenders] react more. They couldn't just stand there. ... That's something I think might help a lot, and you could probably do it without impacting any seats."
As I hung up the phone, and got ready to head back down to my family supper and dinner guest, I paused for a moment to think about West's willingness to talk about this subject in such detail. I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised.
One of the things I've learned in covering the NBA over the last 14 years is how much the game means to so many of those involved. Most players, coaches, GMs and officials love it with a passion. They live it, breathe it, talk about it endlessly amongst their peers, and think about it when they go to sleep at night.
The amount of work that goes into being an NBA player or coach is incredible. The casual fan might think it's a few hours of work each day, but it's really way more than that. Players are constantly working out or getting treatment on their bodies, practicing in a gym or traveling to/from airports and arenas. Coaches pore over film on the team plane or at the office in the wee hours of the morning.
So in talking about the game, West was just doing what came naturally to him. Like breathing or eating. Or dribbling a basketball.
These kinds of basketball conversations with the men who made the NBA great are one thing I will miss as I get ready this week to leave SI.com. To widen my court, so to speak. Whether or not I continue to write about the NBA in the future, I will remain a fan of the game and an admirer of those like West who care so much about it that they will never close their minds to ways of making it better.