NBA's rich past vital part of present
That so many figures who helped shape the NBA are still alive is worth celebrating
Larry Miller, the Jazz's owner, died last week at 64; Bulls' Norm Van Lier died at 61
The NBA is a relatively young league compared with the other major pro sports
The NBA is widely considered to be a young league, owing mostly to the age of its players and the target of so much of its marketing. That's how we get 19-year-old franchise players, edgy footwear commercials, "tweets'' from the office of a commissioner who fondly remembers 45-rpm records (maybe even 78s) and, until a couple of years ago, team scouts squeezing elbow-to-elbow into the bleachers of cramped, sweaty high school gyms, lusting and fretting all at once over their clubs' next big draft gambles.
In fact, the NBA is a young league, not merely in style or in spirit but in actual chronology. That reality hit home again, and again and again, over the past week, first with the news of Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller's death, then with the passing Thursday of two popular Chicago Bulls figures, Johnny (Red) Kerr and Norm Van Lier.
Kerr, 76, a deserving Hall of Famer for his work as a player, coach and broadcaster, lost his battle with prostate cancer. Van Lier, a three-time All-Star who teamed with current Jazz coach Jerry Sloan in arguably the toughest backcourt in NBA history, was found dead at age 61. And Miller, 64, died last Friday of diabetes-related complications, ending a run as the Jazz's chief executive and most ardent fan that began in 1985. That's when Miller purchased half the team for an amount that was double his net worth, a move that came one year after David Stern moved into the big office at Olympic Tower, signaling what for many was the NBA's real modern era. (The Jazz's modern era pretty much began then, too, with John Stockton coming in the 1984 draft, Karl Malone arriving 12 months later and Sloan bumping up to head coach in December 1988.)
But even if you factor in all that came before them -- before Miller, Stern, a franchise in Salt Lake City, Van Lier's debut with Cincinnati in 1961 and even Kerr's rookie contributions to the Syracuse Nationals' 1954-55 championship season -- the NBA still truly is on training wheels as an entity. Losing each of the three -- Utah's passionate, everyman owner, the feisty Van Lier and Chicago's truly gentle giant -- is the sort of farewell of which the league has had precious few, if you stop and think about it.
Of the four major North American sports leagues, the NBA is the youngest. The NHL dropped its first pucks in 1917-18, in the thick of Woodrow Wilson's administration -- or, more pertinently, during Robert Borden's prime ministry in Canada, since the U.S. contributions to the so-called Original Six didn't show up until the 1920s. The NFL kicked off as the American Professional Football Association in 1920. Baseball, of course, had the others beat by a half century or more.
The original NBA charter wasn't signed until June 1946. Its official "modern era'' began in 1954-55 with the introduction of the shot clock, and the league grew with each passing decade. By the late 1960s, the Celtics had established themselves as dynastic counterparts to the Packers, Yankees, Canadiens and UCLA Bruins, and the New York (Knicks) and Los Angeles (Lakers) markets were thriving. By the late 1970s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had shown up, with Julius Erving in full flight. Ten years after that, Michael Jordan was boosting the NBA to rarefied heights. And 20 years after that, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, a revived Celtics club, San Antonio's near-dynasty, the significance of Yao Ming and all the other freshly tapped global markets are doing much the same thing.
It is a crowded but relatively short timeline, and one of its greatest benefits is this: Both the league and basketball fans are ridiculously fortunate that so many of the NBA's giants still roam the Earth. That's not to say that mortality has somehow missed hitting the league -- Len Bias, Bobby Phills, Malik Sealy, Bison Dele and Drazen Petrovic all were ripped from grasp. Many who preceded them as players, from Gus Johnson to Pete Maravich to Dennis Johnson and beyond, still are sorely missed.
But the numbers have been relatively and remarkably kind. Consider: When the NBA named its 50 Greatest Players as part of a golden anniversary promotion in 1996-97, 49 of those legendary performers still were alive and well and available to show up for the All-Star celebration in Cleveland. Only Maravich had passed and thus was represented by his two sons. (Actually, Shaquille O'Neal -- a shaky, semi-unproven choice back then -- was hurt and didn't attend. Jerry West was undergoing surgery but had his logo representing him.)
Now here we are, a dozen years later, and 46 of the 50 still are with us. Wilt Chamberlain died in 1999, Dave DeBusschere in 2003 and George Mikan in 2005. For years, I'd walk through the Target Center dining room in Minneapolis on my way to the media workroom and there Mikan would be, sitting and holding court, with distinguished gray hair, more stylish glasses than he wore in his playing days and one of his many Corgi sweaters. It made for pinch-me moments, like strolling through a dugout to interview Derek Jeter and bumping into Babe Ruth.
Red Auerbach was with us until 2006 and, nearly to the end, available to reach via telephone for a bit of wisdom or a jab at Phil Jackson's mounting trophy collection. In fact, of the 10 Greatest Coaches named at the same time as the Nifty 50, all were around at the time. Red Holzman died in 1998, while a couple of all-timers who missed the list -- Alex Hannum (2002) and Cotton Fitzsimmons (2004) -- died more recently. But John Kundla, whose Minneapolis Lakers teams won five of the NBA's first eight championships, still is feisty at 92, despite drawing his last NBA paycheck a few months before Magic was born and a whole year before the Lakers moved to L.A. Three-quarters of his primary starting lineup -- Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen and Whitey Skoog -- still are around, too. As is bench guy Bud Grant, who had a little more success coaching football for the NFL Vikings.
Celtics icon Bill Russell, who turned 75 two weeks ago, is a regular on the NBA scene again, with the Finals MVP trophy newly named for him. Coaching great Jack Ramsay turned 84 last week and still contributes as a pro hoops analyst -- and physical fitness specimen. Other NBA legends well past the threshold for maxing out their Social Security benefits include Bill Sharman (who will turn 83 in May), Dolph Schayes (81 in May), Bob Cousy (81 in August), Bob Pettit (77 in December), Sam Jones (76 in June) and Elgin Baylor (75 in September). That still leaves fellas named Greer, Robertson, West, Havlicek and numerous others.
Compare that to baseball. In 1999, Mastercard sponsored an All-Century Team of 30 players. Of that group, 12 of them already were deceased: four of nine pitchers (Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove) and eight of 21 position players (Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb). That's not a bad thing -- it's a tribute to baseball's longevity and lasting appeal, stretching well beyond some of its biggest names. But it is a nice thing for the NBA that it has seen more franchises go defunct than superstars. What has become a staple of Oscar telecasts -- the role call/clips-and-stills gallery of Hollywood folks who died in the past year -- still, mercifully, would be quicker than one commercial spot for the NBA.
This will change, of course, as the league endures longer than its flesh-and-blood pillars. The farewells will accelerate, to the point where they feel fast and furious, a by-product of so many folks sticking around this long. But it's not something to dread, any more than Larry Miller's unused seat at courtside in Salt Lake City is anything to run from.
It all is something to cherish, and a reminder to tap into the memories now while they're still vibrant, to summon the stories from those who lived them on the courts. It really is something to celebrate, that so many of the NBA's greatest courtside seats still are filled.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.