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Jack McCallum
November 03, 1986
In an era when the big man is ever more dominant—when seven-foot forwards and six-seven guards are not uncommon—some astute students of NBA basketball believe that the players have outgrown the game
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November 03, 1986

The Incredible Shrinking Court

In an era when the big man is ever more dominant—when seven-foot forwards and six-seven guards are not uncommon—some astute students of NBA basketball believe that the players have outgrown the game

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Premise: A bigger court would open up the game and make the quick, smaller man more valuable.

Notable quotable: Warrior coach George Karl says, "When you make the court longer, you give the guard and ball handler a little bit more time to have an open court and create a two-on-two or a three-on-two. Fans like that."

In a recent letter to Rod Thorn, the NBA's vice-president of operations, Milwaukee coach Don Nelson—well-respected as a lucid thinker around the league—proposed that the court be expanded from 94' X 50' to 100' X 52'. "Adding length would give fast-break opportunities a better advantage," says Nelson. "The emphasis on speed as opposed to bulk would be enhanced." And this from a man who likes to post up his big guards and who for the last two seasons alternated the hulking trio of 7-foot Alton Lister, 7'3" Randy Breuer and 7-foot Paul Mokeski in the pivot. Bravo, Don.

Loughery agrees with Nelson and Karl. "In my opinion, fans of the NBA game respond to four things: dunks, great passes, blocked shots and acrobatic moves. We're doing just fine on the first three, but I think we could use more room for the acrobatic moves." Portland's Buckwalter goes along with that, too. "A longer court would spread the game out, and it would take the big men longer to reach the other end of the floor." New Jersey coach Dave Wohl, while not advocating change, has evidence that Buckwalter's theory is correct. "We practiced on a floor in Cleveland that was about 10 feet longer than normal, and it took the play out of the big men a little," said Wohl. "Quickness and speed did better than size." And isn't that the way you always heard it should be?

Not necessarily, says Celtic assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers. "Big bodies in a contained space are part of the beauty of the game—how they operate, how they get themselves open." Houston general manager Ray Patterson agrees. "Even if we see a whole league of six-foot, eight-inch point guards like Magic Johnson," says Patterson, "there will always be enough room to accommodate them." The common thread connecting these two gentlemen, of course, is that they represent last year's finalists, teams with skilled collections of big men. It's hardly surprising that they like things the way they are. So does Net power forward Buck Williams, who earns his all-star salary in blue-collar fashion. "People like to see contact," says Williams. "The fans relish the fact that players mix it up."

Change is also anathema to Red Auerbach, the man who coached nine NBA championship teams on a 94' x 50' court. "Let me tell you why guys propose stuff like that," says Auerbach, puffing on a cigar at a dangerous rate. "Because they're showing off. They just want to get remembered for something."

Nelson's motives seem pure, though—a bigger court would increase fast-break opportunities, the NBA's lifeblood. Almost imperceptibly, the pro game has slowed over the last few years because the successful teams pound the ball inside. The NBA's top clubs may or may not be good running teams (as the Lakers have been with Magic Johnson), but they absolutely must be teams with a half-court offense revolving around a dominant center. Witness Robert Parish-Kevin McHale, Akeem Olajuwon, Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone. That type of offense can get awfully boring. Quickly.

The biggest argument against larger court dimensions, however, might be described as the Jack Nicholson Dilemma. Nearly every team in the league has courtside seating from which it extracts "significant revenue," and those two words mean much more to an owner than, say, "fast" and "break." Says Houston coach Bill Fitch of the courtside seating, "It means we'll have to stick with what we've got."

Not good enough, Bill. In most arenas, accommodating a change in the length of the court wouldn't be a problem. And surely management could figure out some way to push the celebs back a few feet at courtside. Increasing the dimensions of the court would not alter the basic geometry of the game. The big men who can run—Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, Parish, Patrick Ewing, et al.—would still be rewarded for their athleticism, but there would also be a higher premium on transition and open-floor basketball.

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