And what wasn't he? Well, he wasn't a great defender, but then no one expects Bruce Springsteen to sweep the stage between sets. And the small forward was usually quick enough and cunning enough to get more than his share of steals, as Erving—who averaged almost two per game in his 11-year NBA career—did. Erving wasn't a consistently strong rebounder, but he got rebounds when necessary, sometimes in bunches and often on the offensive boards, where he could put back his own shot. He wasn't an intimidator, but his leaping ability and overall athleticism made him a shot blocker, someone to be aware of at all times.
By the time Erving was through, small forward was a big deal. Bernard King, Jamaal Wilkes, Walter Davis (he once preferred playing small forward to playing shooting guard), Mike Mitchell, Orlando Woolridge, Wilkins, Worthy—they all searched for those small-forward footprints that Erving left. And some are still searching.
Bird is indisputably the best small forward of the '80s—and maybe of the ages—yet he doesn't own the position as his former sparring buddy, Erving, did. Why? Because Bird brings to mind the forwards of old, the "justa forward," as English calls them. Forwards like Dolph Schayes, Pettit, Baylor, Dave DeBusschere (though his stalwart rebounding would lead many fans to think of him as one of the first power forwards), Rick Barry. Bird has point-guard presence and shooting-guard marksmanship, while possessing neither small-forward quickness nor small-forward jumping ability. He rarely even guards the opposition's small forward, usually taking the power forward or the center, laying back with hands poised and eyes peeled, in what's commonly known as the Bird zone. Bird is designated a small forward simply because he's clearly not the Celtics' power forward, a position owned by 6'10" postup master Kevin McHale. In Bird's case, the modern terminology is meaningless.
As it is with Barkley. At 6'6", he's small forward in stature, yet there's nothing small about him, surely not the zeal with which he rebounds or the abandon with which he drives to the hoop. Like Bird, Barkley is justa forward.
And finally, there's Malone. Teamed as he is with 6'10" token starter Marc Iavaroni and 6'11" designated closer Thurl Bailey, Malone is most often Utah's "smaller" forward. But, like Barkley, he's both a take-no-prisoners power rebounder and a devastating finisher on the break. He doesn't have the outside touch of some of the justa forwards like DeBusschere, Barry, Bird and even Barkley, but his versatility demands that he be listed with them.
All around the league, in fact, the small-forward position has simply outgrown, or outevolved, its designation. It's known as the 3-spot in the numbering system that has gained favor among NBA coaches (1 is point guard. 2 shooting guard, 4 power forward and 5 center), but that designation is meaningless to the average fan. And the antecedents of the term small forward aren't satisfactory. Take "quick forward." That doesn't describe Bird. Or "shooting forward." That doesn't fit McCray or Sanders. And is not, for example, McHale, a power forward in the orthodox sense, also a shooting forward?
We need something new to describe the justa forwards, not only the Birds, Barkleys and Malones, but also the versatile perennials, like English and Chambers, and the young comers, like McKey and Xavier McDaniel of the Sonics, and Danny Manning of the Clippers.
Perhaps we could use the terms "pivot," "center," and "forward" to designate the roles played in contemporary offensive schemes. On the Lakers, for example, Abdul-Jabbar would be the pivot; A.C. Green the center; and Worthy the forward. For the Celtics, McHale would be at pivot, Robert Parish at center and Bird at forward. In Detroit's alignment, Dantley, the smallest frontcourtman, would be the pivot because he plays with his back to the basket. Bill Laimbeer, now the Pistons' center, would be the forward because, while he does more than his share of rebounding, he shoots well from the outside. That would leave an inside player, like Rick Mahorn or John Salley, as the center. But those designations are complicated and not applicable to every team.
Maybe small forwards could become "finesse forwards?" Nah, too precious. How about "floating forwards?" Nah, too airy. "Free forwards?" Nah, too political.
Many observers, like Laker general manager Jerry West, would prefer that the smalls and powers and numeral designations be junked. "You're always going to have a difference in scoring and rebounding production between two people playing forward," says West, who in his playing days was justa guard if there ever was one.