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THE CHANGING GAME
Frank Deford
October 21, 1968
Heading into a new season, pro basketball has problems. There are too many teams, too few superstars and not enough money to go around. But there is a way out that the two leagues may one day adopt despite their natural inclination to play a pat hand
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October 21, 1968

The Changing Game

Heading into a new season, pro basketball has problems. There are too many teams, too few superstars and not enough money to go around. But there is a way out that the two leagues may one day adopt despite their natural inclination to play a pat hand

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It is difficult to conceive that cities will continue to permit huge, luxury baseball stadiums to be built with public funds. In a time of obsessive social concern one cannot imagine San Francisco approving the suggested $40 million downtown replacement for Candlestick Park. At the same time, indoor arenas are blossoming as never before. While stadiums rarely serve anybody but the owners and the fans of major league football and baseball, any arena is a live facility that is in use almost every day of the year, and for a wide variety of community events.

Consider Baltimore, where the city has built both a stadium and a civic center. In the fiscal year 1966-1967, 95 of 99 stadium events were athletic in nature. In the Civic Center there were 301 events and only about one-third of them were athletic. In the mid-'50s Milwaukee and Portland agreed to build public edifices, each costing about $8 million. Milwaukee's was a stadium. Last year, before the White Sox started coming in for token visits, a total of 18 events (eight nonsporting) were held there. Portland built an arena. Last year 313 events of all types were held there and less than half of the total attendance of 1,565,000 viewed sports events. Milwaukee has a white elephant and dreams. Portland has a vibrant building that serves the city in many ways.

With these facts repeated in every section of the country, it is becoming as difficult to reconcile stadium construction as it is to stop voters and officials alike from pushing for new arenas. In December 1970 the Norfolk Cultural and Convention Center of Virginia is scheduled for completion. It will serve the entire lower Chesapeake, an area of nearly 1 million people. The building will have an 11,800-seat arena, a theater and a convention hall that will draw an estimated 1 million spectators to 2,000 events in its first year of operation. Only 200 of those will be athletic. And who is paying? Two-thirds of the projected $30 million cost will come from the Federal Government, which authorized the building in, of all things, the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965. When other Congressmen get a look at the Norfolk plum, the arena boom should be on in earnest.

The existence of these new arenas in every Middlesex, village and farm in America should be encouragement for basketball to restructure regionally. The logistics of travel in the sport have always been simple, anyway, since a traveling squad never includes more than a dozen men, and equipment means only sneakers, T shirts and a few rolls of tape. Neither does the playing floor, compact and simple, depend upon the idiosyncrasies of nature, ground-keeper or ice machines.

The increased travel demands will work a hardship on the players, as they no doubt will immediately object. But they are already flying a lot. Rudy LaRusso, for instance, commutes 400 miles to play with the San Francisco Warriors, because he prefers living outside of Los Angeles to living in San Francisco. More to the point, the players are not going to have any choice about travel if they wish to be paid in the style to which they have become accustomed. In large part it is their demand for big salaries that is making it impossible for franchises like the Hawks to survive. Without a big-name, high-priced star among them, the Hawks still averaged almost $28,000 apiece last year. The NBA pays its players a higher average salary than any league in any sport.

This year the pay is higher than ever, and for the main attractions—Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, et al.—it is sweet almost beyond any athlete's most avaricious yearnings. This week they and the several hundred other almost equally gifted men of the NBA and ABA begin new seasons at 18 old city stands and seven new ones. Scouting reports of the players and the teams begin on the next page. Enjoy the teams while you have them by yourself, but do not count on having them always. As ex-Owner Ben Kerner says, the old system does not work very well when you put the numbers together.

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