PROPOSAL—PLAY WITH FOUR-MAN TEAMS.
Premise: Taking two men off the floor would speed up the game and make the centers less dominant.
Notable quotable: San Antonio forward Mike Mitchell says, "I don't think you'll ever see four men out there, but I wouldn't be against having six."
Sorry, Mike—it's a virtual certainty that the NBA will never go the route of girls' basketball in Iowa. But the concept of a four-man game is not absurd, though it is now discussed only late at night behind closed doors with the stereo turned up real loud. You can imagine what Phoenix's Colangelo thinks of it. "Four-man game?" he says. "Whoever wrote that, or thought about it—he died."
One of the people thinking about it is CBS commentator Billy Packer, who is very much alive and more than willing to expound on his theories about the necessity of four-man NBA teams. Packer believes that the pivot position is entirely too pivotal in the NBA; the very history of the league was shaped by big centers: There was a Mikan era, followed by a Russell-Chamberlain era, followed by an Abdul-Jabbar era. Without a dominant center, even great players rarely win an NBA title. Oscar Robertson needed Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West needed Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving needed Moses Malone. The incomparable Elgin Baylor, who played the first seven years of his career with centers whom he out-rebounded, never won a championship. Could Larry Bird win a title without a dominant center? We don't know; he's always had a Dave Cowens or a Parish and a McHale—and now he has a Bill Walton, too. Magic without Abdul-Jabbar? Perhaps. We'll see in the coming years. Will Isiah Thomas ever get the chance? Dominique Wilkins?
Still, the four-man game, even for those who acknowledge that it would put a premium on skill and speed, is an alien concept. "It's tampering with the fabric of the game," says Houston's Patterson. Loughery likes the idea but doesn't give it much thought "because it will never, ever happen." Bird sees too much of the natural order of things in the five-man game, things like grappling for position and defensive switches that make for creative passing. "Besides," he adds, "with two less people on the court, you couldn't get away with nearly as much."
But hold on. Support for Packer's idea comes from a surprising source. Abdul-Jabbar, one of the primary examples of the over-dominant center, has this to say about the four-man game: "You'd still get the dynamics of the interplay between all the positions, but it would be less crowded, and it probably would be easier to officiate. With four guys it would make for a different game, insofar as you wouldn't have all the interplay, but you'd have most of it there. I think it's the only change in the game that makes sense."
And don't even consider that four-man basketball is a plot by stingy NBA management to save money on players' salaries by reducing roster size. The stepped-up pace of the game would demand more frequent substitutions.
Let's face it. There's not as much magic to the number five in basketball as there is to, say, nine in baseball. Kids grow up playing two-on-two and three-on-three more frequently than they play five-on-five. Most NBA teams do daily four-on-four drills, either to work on conditioning or to formulate defensive game plans. Game situations are almost always three-on-two or two-on-one, rather than five-on-five. Precious few offensive sets involve all five players.
Naismith had 18 kids in that first gym class, so he put nine-man teams on the court. The number was soon reduced to five and made official in 1893. Almost a century has gone by since then. Might it be time for a change?