SI Vault
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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Down through the years, the cosmic geometry of sports has held up pretty well. Ninety feet from base to base, 100 yards from goal line to goal line—one may as well declare that 99 pennies equal a dollar as tamper with those basic truths. Is there anything so perfect as nine men on a baseball side? Anything so necessary as 22 men to cover a football field?

But the elemental geometry of professional basketball—a goal 10 feet off the floor, a rectangular court measuring 94' X 50'—doesn't seem quite so perfect anymore. It is imperiled by the increasing size, strength and swiftness of the gladiators. A 7-foot player is no longer an oddity—what is odd is a team without a 7-footer. Last year there were 32 7-footers in the league. Power forwards 6'10" and guards 6'7" and taller are increasingly commonplace. "The game was designed for players five-feet-seven-inches tall, a hundred and twenty-five pounds," says Washington coach Kevin Loughery. "Now, we have frontlines that average seven feet tall. Something's got to give."

And what has given is this: the wide-open, free-flowing rhythm of the game. Huge bodies collide in every half-court situation. "Sometimes it's like football without the pads," says Jerry Sichting, a Celtic guard who at 6'1" would've been one of the bigger guys on the floor 50 years ago when the court was the same size as it is now. True, a rule against hand checking has cut down on open-court combat. But down low—down where a 7'7", 230-pound Manute Bol meets up with a 7'3", 297-pound Mark Eaton—hulking centers and muscular power forwards grapple for territory like animals in the wild. "At times in the paint it resembles sumo wrestling because we have so many big guys," says Detroit coach Chuck Daly.

The referees allow the battle to continue unabated one night, blow a whistle at it the next. Consistency is next to impossible because even the best-trained zebras cannot referee a basketball game and a rugby match at the same time.

In short, there is a danger, as Portland Trail Blazer player personnel director Bucky Buckwalter puts it, "that to a certain extent the players have outgrown the court." Or, as 6'2" Seattle guard Gerald Henderson says, "The court has to grow with the players."

Such opinions, however, are not held by the majority of NBA players, coaches and general managers—not yet, anyway. In fact, because so many things are going so well, this seems to be an illogical time even to discuss changes in the pro game. After a slump that began around 1978 and raised serious questions about the economics and aesthetics of the NBA, the league has experienced a spirited resurgence in recent years. Attendance is up (the league set records in '85-86 for the third consecutive season). TV ratings are up. Franchise requests are up. Sales of Michael Jordan accessories are up. "We're no longer the Rodney Danger-field of professional sports," NBA commissioner David Stern said during the upbeat league meetings in Orlando in September.

And these upward trends and this new respect have, in turn, given rise to a new complacency. Casting a vote for the status quo, Phoenix general manager Jerry Colangelo dismissed the idea of change this way: "Radicals are out. Conservatism is in."

But not completely. There are those who have come to believe that the NBA must confront the problems caused by the increasing size and physical abilities of the players (see diagrams), and confront them now. There are 23 NBA teams, each with only 12 spots on the roster. With such a rigorous filtration system, only the biggest, the strongest and the swiftest find their way into the league—especially the biggest. Second-round draft picks are often throwaways, and some of the players who should be throwaways win roster spots simply because of their size. "Right now, the Manute Bols of the game are successful just because they are huge," says Golden State coach George Karl. "Now, is that the purity of our game that the fan wants to see? I say no. I say the fan wants to see the Michael Jordans and the Julius Ervings and the Magics, the great athletes who can play basketball." Surely it is not absurd to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the NBA's rarefied gene pool has altered the basic symmetry of the game.

Here are some of the ideas being kicked around these days in circles where "radicals" congregate to debate the relative dimensions of the players and the court:


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