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LET'S GET PHYSICAL
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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A lot of people would say you can't desensitize an NBA referee with an electric cattle prod, but a certain numbness does appear to be setting in. The old rules seem to be changing. Stronger is better. "The more physical you are, the more you get away with," says Denver coach Doug Moe. "It's the little stiffs who get all the fouls just trying to hold their ground." But even the little stiffs aren't all that little anymore. "I don't think it can get much more physical before it starts to get dangerous," warns Sacramento center Joe Kleine.

No matter how recent this trend toward beefcake may seem, the league actually began to move in this direction in 1963, when the San Francisco Warriors played 6'11" rookie Nate Thurmond—he was drafted to be a center—beside Wilt Chamberlain. And it has been almost a decade since the rough-tough finals between Washington and Seattle in 1978 and '79. "Those were two very physical teams," says Moe. "Every time you looked up, there were bodies flying off the court. Flying." The captain of those Bullets teams was Wes Unseld, who for 13 seasons was one of the NBA's finest centers despite being only 6'7" and weighing 245 pounds. "I don't know of anybody who ever set a meaner screen or who was more vicious under the boards than Wes Unseld," says Collins, wincing slightly.

Unseld had little in common with the modern player except his enormous physical strength. He never lifted weights; the Bullets didn't have a workout room anyway—like most NBA teams then. Unseld's power was forged in the steel supply house where he worked as a teenager. And while his methods may have been less sophisticated than the iron-pumping of the new Adonises, the results were no less physical. Players like Unseld and his teammate Gus Johnson, Dave DeBusschere of the Pistons and the Knicks, and Bill Bridges of the Hawks, 76ers, Lakers and Warriors took pride in the violence of their body language. "In those days we got more involved in articulating our picks," says Unseld, now a Bullets vice-president and assistant coach. "I was going to push you, beat on you, make your life miserable for 48 minutes to make sure you wouldn't be the one to beat us at the end." That type of play has been around pro ball forever, but today's Unselds and DeBusscheres have a lot more scientific data and better training methods available to them if they want to get stronger. And more and more of them do.

No current team has the muscle or the malignant personality to make the ultra-physical approach work better than Boston, whose collision game has spread like an ugly bruise throughout the Eastern Conference.

Just as the Celtics bang the drum slowly and thereby set the tone in the East, the Lakers have transformed the Western Conference game into something so frequently described as having "finesse" that you would think they were running a charm school out there. The Lakers would rather run than stand and fight, but running at such a breakneck pace simply requires another kind of physicality, which—judging from the look of it—may be more difficult for other teams to deal with. "These days nobody would ever turn down a Buck Williams or a Charles Oakley," says Fitzsimmons, "but the Lakers are giving up a few rebounds and getting guys who can put it on the floor and shoot it. The Lakers can explode and embarrass you, and when they do, you don't forget that. A team that pounds on you may beat you by a couple of points, but the Lakers demoralize you so bad you don't want to play 'em again."

There is something slightly dainty-sounding about the term finesse that has always made the Lakers uneasy. They lost the championship to Boston in 1984 in a series that first turned ugly—and then turned completely around—when the Celtics discovered that L.A. could be slowed to a standstill when the play got down-and-dirty. The finesse label haunted the Lakers until last season, when they proved they don't shy away from contact so much as they strike quickly and then disappear. With the Lakers, what you frequently hear is not the bang but the whoosh.

"The game, by its nature and the way skills are now developed, along with the size and strength of the men playing now, is sometimes pushed to that borderline between aggressively physical and violent," Riley says. "The danger is coming from the incredibly gifted athletes. You've got guys who are fearless, guys who are six-eight, 230 and get the ball on the wing and say, Hey, I'm taking it to the rim, and I'm not avoiding anybody. Hell, 15 years ago a guy would go in for a layup in that situation and someone might step in and take a charge. Now you've got guys who are going to block dunks! We're dealing with force against force."

Two seasons ago the Lakers' main force was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who at 39 seemed finally to show his age in L.A.'s 4-1 playoff loss to Houston. He had lost 18 pounds during the season, and yet his body-fat count had reached 11%. Abdul-Jabbar had always believed in conditioning, usually doing yoga exercises for 90 minutes five days a week during the off-season. Kareem frequents the tony Yoga College of India, Beverly Hills branch, under the direction of Bikram Choudhury, the so-called guru to the stars. In the summer of '86 Abdul-Jabbar lifted free weights for the first time, regained 21 pounds, reduced his body fat to 8% and was strong enough last June to handle McHale and Robert Parish.

Choudhury doesn't work in the NBA yet, but Rich Dalatri does—as the strength and conditioning coach of the New Jersey Nets, who were 24-58 last year and played like 97-pound weaklings most of the time. Dalatri was the strength coach at Mississippi before he was hired last June by the Nets. He has developed a six-point program for them that involves weightlifting; flexibility, agility, and jumping drills; anaerobic and aerobic conditioning; and restorative measures, including whirlpools and saunas. "In football," he says, "the emphasis is on maximum strength. In basketball, it's on functional strength. The whole game comes through your legs. We train the neuromuscular system to make the muscles fire more quickly and explosively. Football players know they have to do weightlifting. Basketball players are such great athletes that they have been able to get by just on natural ability...but now players are getting so big and strong—like Barkley and Oakley—that they realize they have to get stronger in order to compete."

"I don't know why it didn't happen before," says Nets center Mike Gminski. "I've always felt that the East Europeans and Soviets were so ahead of us as far as training athletes is concerned. The NBA owners invest so much in us, it seems stupid not to hire a strength coach and trainer to work with us."

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