It wasn't too long ago that the Central Division was a one-note wasteland made up of Milwaukee and five NBA ghost towns. From the 1980-81 season, when the current divisional alignments were created, through 1985-86, the pattern was the same: The Bucks would win the Central without a struggle and then lose to the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference playoffs. In 1982-83, the Central's six teams had a collective winning percentage of only .411 and finished 88 games below .500. That was the worst performance by a division in NBA history.
"The division used to have what I call 'bops,' " says Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly. "You could bop into town, get a win, bop out again."
But now the Central has gone from bops to tops. Through Sunday, five of its six teams had .500-or-better records, and the sixth, the Cleveland Cavaliers, was only three games below break-even. Moreover, all six teams should make the playoffs. Boston is the conference's top team, but at week's end Centralians held down spots 2 through 7. (Eight teams make the conference playoffs.)
More than the other NBA divisions, the Central has forged an identity, in much the same way that college basketball leagues do. For the most part, Central teams are young, eager, athletic and feisty. How did this happen? "There's less exposure and less pressure to win right away in the Central cities than in places like New York, Philly or L.A.," says Atlanta Hawks general manager Stan Kasten. "So teams have built slowly, using the draft. And that's the best way."
Donnie Walsh, general manager of the Indiana Pacers, has a simpler theory: "I know we work harder than most. Then again, we had farther to go."
Consider that only 12 players are still with the Central teams on which they played in that nadir season of 1982-83. The Chicago Bulls (with center Dave Corzine), Indiana (forward Herb Williams) and Cleveland (forward Phil Hubbard) have only one each. Further, no Central coach was with his present team in 1982-83. New players and new coaches, new intensity and new boldness yield new results.
Consider that when the Phoenix Suns recently put out a sign that read FIRE SALE, Central teams lined up at the door. Detroit general manager Trader Jack McCloskey swapped rookie forward Ron Moore and a 1991 second-round draft pick for Suns center James Edwards. McCloskey also considered giving Phoenix two of his better young players, guard Joe Dumars and forward-center John Salley, for either point guard Jay Humphries or point guard Jeff Hornacek and standout forward Larry Nance. When that deal fell through, Cleveland stepped in, trading rookie playmaker Kevin Johnson (the seventh pick in last spring's draft) and two valuable backups, center Mark West and forward Tyrone Corbin, for Nance and reserve forward Mike Sanders. It was a major move not recommended for the squeamish dealer.
Let's not ignore the obvious about the Central, either: It's the mailing address of those no-last-name-necessary superstars Michael, Dominique and Isiah. And it's home to some of the league's most fascinating and frenetic coaches. In a recent game against Indiana, Atlanta's Mike Fratello ran down a ball that went out of bounds, passed it to the referee and tried to start the Hawks on a fast break. Daly prowls the sideline like a crazed sentry, yet somehow never musses his GQ duds or his wavy hair. At 63, the Pacers' Jack Ramsay is a triathlete, still pursuing physical fitness off the court and victory on it with the intensity of a man 40 years his junior. The two former NBA players among the Central coaches, Doug Collins of Chicago and Lenny Wilkens of Cleveland, can still hold the floor in pickup games.
It's a good division for unusual general managers, too. Kasten may be the busiest man in sports because he's also president of the Atlanta Braves. He'll spend the next month shuttling between his office at the Omni in Atlanta and the Braves' winter home in West Palm Beach. Wayne Embry of the Cavaliers has been highly successful in business—he was a McDonald's magnate in Milwaukee, where he ended his playing days. Walsh once turned down a job offer from Richard Nixon's former law firm. McCloskey is an energetic sort who has said, only half in jest, that he would trade anything but his trusty, old tennis racket.
The Central also is the most likely place other than an NHL arena to catch some fisticuffs of a winter's evening. Even the superstars take off the gloves. Chicago's Michael Jordan, Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins and Detroit's Isiah Thomas have all been involved in squabbles this season. Indiana's superstar-to-be, forward Chuck Person, is a veritable Charles Barkley of the Central, a volatile, unpredictable fellow who throws elbows at opponents and tortured glances at referees with equal abandon.