SI Vault
Bruce Newman
November 09, 1987
Finesse is taking a backseat as teams vie with each other to get the big bangers who can tough it out under the basket
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November 09, 1987

Let's Get Physical

Finesse is taking a backseat as teams vie with each other to get the big bangers who can tough it out under the basket

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? Kermit Washington, the man who practically invented weight training in the NBA—and helped define the term power forward—is attempting a comeback this season with the Golden State Warriors. Washington, who is 36, has been retired for five years.

"Now we don't teach anybody to play dirty," says Laker coach Pat Riley, "but because of the size of the players around the league, we have to teach our guys leverage and position and the parts of the body that are going to meet contact with contact. That's very difficult sometimes when players come from college programs where they've been taught the 'proper' way to play. So we've been sort of characterized as a finesse team.

"I think in the '60s and '70s teams were looking for 'basketball players'—basketball skills only," Riley continues. "You had to know how to play basketball; they weren't as interested in athletic ability as we are today. The whole thing has changed in the past 10 or 12 years, to the point where now coaches look for physical specimens. I don't say that coldly. We're looking for great athletes. A big guy—he's strong, he's filled out, he runs, he jumps. Then we teach him how to play the game."

Occasionally the "specimens" are so radically different from anything that preceded them that they are to basketball what Postmodern architecture is to Gothic, with a throwback or two provided by Charles Barkley's flying buttresses. At 6'6" and an alleged 263 pounds (Yo, Charles, not if they closed every Wendy's in America for a month), Barkley may have looked fat when he came into the NBA, but he played lean and mean. He forced people to adjust their thinking. "When you used to get the bulky man, you wrote him off as a fat guy who couldn't play," says Milwaukee coach Del Harris. "Now you get one of these guys, you try to reshape him and have yourself a Charles Barkley."

From the purely aesthetic standpoint, a question remains whether all this is good for basketball, or if, in fact, the game is becoming an altogether new creation. It is probably significant that two NBA coaches troubled by the trend toward greater physical play, Harris and John MacLeod of Dallas, both grew up and coached at the high school level in Indiana, where basketball is a sacred trust. "I've always felt that if strength is the overriding factor, then skill is going to be diminished," MacLeod says. "And at this level, skill ought to be dominant."

Harris is pragmatic, recognizing that once the Strange-lovian spiral to larger, more powerful arms begins, it becomes almost impossible to reverse. He says that the Bucks drafted 6'6", 245-pound Bob McCann of Morehead (Ky.) State specifically because their scouts found his size a plus factor. "I may see the trend toward bulk as being detrimental," he says, "but since the trend is there, you don't want to be behind everyone else. The greyhounds are getting beat up."

The players doing a good bit of the beating up are three hulks named Charles: Barkley of Philadelphia; the 6'8", 225-pound Oakley of Chicago; and the 6'8", 225-pound (Buck) Williams of New Jersey. They were the top three rebounders in the NBA last season, and they're strong. Oakley had 21 rebounds midway through the fourth quarter of one game at Philadelphia, and he undoubtedly would have gotten more had he not been ejected for patting a referee on the rear end. Oakley's fanny pat was so powerful it actually stung the official, Paul Mihalak, who tossed him out. "A guy my size has to take control," Oakley insists. "When you set a pick, you let the guy know who set it. He's going to look at your number after he passes by. It can't be an act, because you're going to be tested. And when you're tested, you have to show them what you're made of."

Nobody knows exactly what Oakley is made of, but the bolt in his neck would seem to violate the league's no-jewelry rule. " Oakley just pushes and shoves," says Hinson, "but it doesn't look like he's pushing and shoving because he's so strong." He may have only scratched the surface, though. "Right now they just use him to rebound Michael Jordan's misses," says Phoenix player personnel director Cotton Fitzsimmons, "but once they give him some more shots, he'll be a monster." Chicago coach Doug Collins, who is intending to do just that, says, " Oakley's rebounding is as important to us as Jordan's scoring."

Seven-foot, 235-pound Kevin Willis of Atlanta is another tough hombre. Willis bench-presses 375 pounds when he feels like it, but he does very little weight training during the season, which may turn into a blessing for the Hawks' opponents. "If I get much stronger, I'm going to hurt somebody bad and not mean to," he says, almost smiling. None of this makes the games any easier to officiate, of course. But it is fascinating to note that as the players have gotten bigger and the games more physical, the referees have been letting them play. The number of fouls called last season was down more than 2,000 from 1982-83. The NBA is evidently giving the people what they want, because attendance and television ratings have never been higher. The question is, How much further can it go before a hockey game breaks out? "There's only so much you can do in basketball before it becomes sumo wrestling," says Seattle's Whitsitt. "I think we're about at that level."

A not-so-subtle change may have occurred during the Eastern Conference finals last spring, when Detroit's 6'10", 260-pound Rick Mahorn and 6'10", 225-pound Kevin McHale of the Celtics pushed and shoved over low-post position for seven games. McHale leaned back on Mahorn so hard that when Mahorn purposely sidestepped him a few times, McHale nearly launched himself into the middle of Causeway Street. "The Mahorn-McHale matchup was the first nationally televised game where you could see there was something different going on," says Celtics G.M. Jan Volk. "It was reflected by all the pushing and the referees' lack of response to it. They were desensitized to it."

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