The game changes so fast. Elgin Baylor becomes Julius Erving, who becomes Michael Jordan, and it all happens so seamlessly that we hardly notice it. Somewhere along the line the layup gives way to the dunk, Bob Cousy evolves into Magic Johnson, the skyhook becomes the Shaq Attack. And kids who used to buy trading cards are accessing http://www.nba.com.
Most of us take it all for granted. Or we would, if this year wasn't the 50th anniversary of the NBA, a milestone that makes us stop and survey the distance the game and the league have traveled in the last half-century. On Nov. 1, 1946, the New York Knickerbockers defeated the Toronto Huskies 68-66 in the debut of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), the forerunner of the NBA. The best seats at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto that night cost $2.50, a bit more affordable than the $1,000 courtside seats at Knicks games in Madison Square Garden today. The average player salary that first year was about $4,500, or roughly the amount that some of today's players spend on a suit. Teams traveled by bus and train in the early years; now customized chartered planes are all the rage. Nine Toronto businessmen paid approximately $100,000 for the Huskies franchise, which folded after the first year; 49 years later, the expansion Toronto Raptors franchise cost $125 million.
This will be a season to marvel at the transformation the NBA has undergone not just in 50 years but also in a single summer. Perhaps you don't remember George Mikan in a Minneapolis Lakers uniform 48 years ago, but you surely recall Shaquille O'Neal in an Orlando Magic jersey six months ago. Both images belong to history now. Maybe you don't miss the old Providence Steamrollers of 1946-47, but surely you will notice the absence of the old Phoenix Suns of 1995-96, who don't look much like they did a season ago.
After a wild summer of free-agent spending and trading, the league's salary structure has been permanently altered. On some future NBA timeline, this year will be prominent not just because it marked the league's golden anniversary but also because it was the beginning of a new era, with the signing of the first $100 million free-agent contracts, by O'Neal ($120 million) with the Los Angeles Lakers and by two players who re-signed with their teams, forward Juwan Howard ($105 million) of the Washington Bullets and center Alonzo Mourning ($105 million) of the Miami Heat. It may also be remembered as the year it became more acceptable for players to head straight from their high school proms to the NBA draft, as 17-year-old guard Kobe Bryant (selected by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Lakers) and 18-year-old center Jermaine O'Neal (chosen by the Portland Trail Blazers) opted for the pros over college. These are ominous changes for the NBA; paying obscenely high salaries and providing an incentive for teenagers to skip college are not the best ways to endear yourself to fans.
Appropriately enough for a league that has reached middle age, several of its teams have undergone radical face-lifts. With forward Charles Barkley having joined fellow All-Stars center Hakeem Olajuwon and guard Clyde Drexler on the Houston Rockets, the Hall of Fame might want to consider opening a branch office in southeast Texas. The team Barkley left, the Suns, received four Rockets in return (guard Sam Cassell and forwards Robert Horry, Chucky Brown and Mark Bryant), who will provide Phoenix with depth and versatility. The Knicks, old and impotent when we last saw them, are now younger and more powerful offensively thanks to the off-season additions of forward Larry Johnson (in a trade from the Hornets) and free-agent guards Allan Houston (late of the Detroit Pistons) and Chris Childs (the New Jersey Nets), making them the Eastern Conference team with the best chance of forcing the defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls to break a sweat. And when O'Neal decided to consolidate his basketball and entertainment careers by moving to Los Angeles, he at once turned L.A. into a contender and Orlando into a pretender.
There are so many familiar faces in new places that it may take until the All-Star break for fans to readily attach a player to his new uniform. Center Dikembe Mutombo, previously the most recognizable Denver Nugget, is now an Atlanta Hawk. Guard Kenny Anderson is in New Jersey...no, Charlotte...no, Portland...that's it, Portland. In August forward-center Kevin Willis signed with Houston, his third team (after Miami and the Golden State Warriors) in six months.
"It's all about change," O'Neal said when he announced his signing with the Lakers. That's as good a motto as any for this NBA season. O'Neal also said change is good, which is sometimes true (24-second clock, three-point shot, alleyoop) and sometimes not (TV timeouts, trash talk, Dream Teams). But change is certainly unavoidable, especially in this era when signing free agents has replaced the draft as the preferred way to reconstruct a team. The most prized possession other than a championship ring has become salary-cap space. Some $9.5 million of it allowed the decrepit Knicks to rebuild in a heartbeat, since they were free to spend the loot to lure Houston (at $56 million over seven years) and Childs ($24 million over six years) and to deal for Johnson, who has nine years and more than $70 million left on his contract. Those additions should be enough to vault New York past Eastern Conference rivals Orlando and the Indiana Pacers. The Magic will still be formidable without O'Neal, but the only championship Orlando fans can realistically hope for this season is the scoring title, for which point guard Penny Hardaway could battle you-know-who, now that Hardaway is the focal point of the Magic offense.
But no one in the East has reached the level of the Bulls, one of the few teams that changed very little in the off-season. Chicago simply re-signed Jordan, forward Dennis Rodman and coach Phil Jackson, all for one year, and its only significant addition was 43-year-old third-string center Robert Parish. If the Bulls stay healthy and Rodman stays interested, Chicago should make another trip to the Finals, where it once again will meet last spring's foe, the Western Conference champion Seattle SuperSonics. The Sonics, with their defense and depth, should have enough to hold off the Lakers and the Rockets, the latter being Seattle's likely opponents in the West finals.
But the same two teams reaching the Finals does not mean this season will be a repeat of the last. The Bulls and the Sonics have a radically altered league to deal with. And if they meet again in June, the circumstances will be different then as well. Chicago will arrive after having won "only" about 65 games, instead of last season's record-breaking 72. Seattle will be far more confident than it was entering last year's Finals, which is why at least a few observers will pick the Sonics to win the series. Jordan simply will smile and make sure the Bulls prevail in Game 7 for their fifth title in seven years.
Some things never change.