What if General
Robert E. Lee, after all those terrible months in the trenches at Richmond, had
gone off to surrender at Appomattox only to find that his troops would not quit
fighting? Well, after four years under constant siege by the rebel American
Basketball Association, the National Basketball Association has finally
capitulated and agreed to merge. At least, the NBA owners have agreed. Their
players have not. After all, the hostilities turned them into some of history's
most generously rewarded war profiteers.
Today, the merger
that seemed so near last spring is still incomplete. But for the fans, the days
are now past when clamor about player raids, interleague intrigues and other
nonbasketball brouhaha can detract from the game itself. Beginning with the
season-opening tip-offs last week, basketball is back.
Sometime in the
next few months Congress will act on the battle between owners and players, but
whatever the final decision it will have little effect on the face of the game.
If the players win—and theirs is the stronger philosophical position—the bosses
will grouse for a time, a franchise or two may fail and then the front offices
(perhaps those in baseball and football as well) will adjust to the hard
reality of doing business in a free-market economy. Should the owners win—and
that also must be considered a possibility since Congress is often responsive
to those who appear before it with the most money and influence—the players
will grouse awhile, continue to compete as hard as they do now and watch their
average salaries slowly decrease.
If the notice
given the opening round of Senate hearings earlier this month is a true
indicator, fans will have to subscribe to the Congressional Record to find out
how the owner-player battle fares. But most basketball buffs will be too busy
enjoying the sight of Kareem Jabbar, stronger and better than ever, trying to
propel Milwaukee to another championship, or Julius Erving, very likely the
best rookie in either league, doing his thing for Virginia.
another aspect of the game well worth watching. Scoring in the NBA has dropped
steadily over the past few seasons, and the once point-happy ABA is certain to
begin following the trend now that the talent and size of its players are
reaching NBA proportions. Ten seasons ago five NBA players averaged at least 30
points per game; last year only Jabbar among all pros reached that level. In
the 1961-62 season the average NBA team scored 120 points a game; in 1970-71
the mean was 112.
Jerry West, a top
scorer throughout the past decade, says, "Defenses all around the league
are more sophisticated. This has necessitated a change in all players. The days
of four or five guys averaging 30 points are gone. There are more complex zone
types of defenses now. They have the appearance of man-to-man but work on zone
the ones pictured on the preceding pages, are the key to good defense,
particularly for teams without a huge, shot-blocking center. Coaches routinely
respond to opponents' substitutions with lineup changes of their own,
attempting to gain an edge in speed at one position or in height at another.
For a coach, the ultimate tactical triumph is a mismatch in his team's favor, a
situation in which the fine balance of talent has gone awry and put the
opposition at a defensive disadvantage.
There will be
plenty of interesting new match-ups this year involving the largest group of
good young players ever to enter the pros in one season. Aside from regular
draftees like Portland's Sidney Wicks and the two giant, defense-oriented
centers, Artis Gilmore of Kentucky and Buffalo's Elmore Smith, there are
several even younger rookies who have reached the pros a year or more before
their college careers were due to end. Erving, Cincinnati's Nate Williams and
George McGinnis of Indiana are among those who left school as a result of
wartime raids or because of the decision in the Spencer Haywood case which
obliges the leagues to permit special "hardship" cases to play even
before their college eligibilities have expired. The presence of these
premature pros will make this spring's draft a monumental nonevent. The talent
in the present college senior class is now considered so thin that at least one
scout will be staying home most of the winter. Atlanta's Gene Tormohlen will
spend less time viewing college games in order to remain with the Hawks and
give individual coaching to 7'2" hardship draftee Tom Payne, who was a
sophomore at Kentucky last season.
rookies, most of whom play in the ABA, will help the newer league move more
rapidly to equality. There are other signs of approaching balance: the ABA's
surprising record in interleague exhibitions (8-15), its success for the first
time in matching the NBA in signing college seniors and the fact that it was
the NBA which moved franchises and made more major trades during the off
The two leagues
are not equal yet, but within each of them tight races, far more exciting than
that dreary battle between the players and owners, are at hand. Scouting
reports on the NBA and the ABA start on the next page.