- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Events such as these, as any of the principals involved will tell you, are not commonplace in the NBA. In the 41 fights that occurred last season, only eight involved the six premier enforcers. At least partly responsible for keeping the relative peace is the threat of a $10,000 fine for flagrant fighting. "I guess at times I've felt obligated to fight," says Awtrey. "But ever since they put in the $10,000 fine I don't know how obligated I am."
The fact is that a top-rank enforcer rarely has to fight. Once he has earned his rank, further demonstrations are usually unnecessary. An enforcer's job is to keep things in order on the court, in whatever way works best for his team. If an opponent is taking liberties with a teammate, the enforcer sends him a message. Sometimes a glance is all it takes, sometimes a word or two, sometimes an elbow or an extra-hard pick. But if the opponent sends back a message of his own—"Are you talkin' to me?"—sterner means may be called for.
Until the Lucas-Dawkins confrontation in the playoffs, Philadelphia had been in complete charge, winning the first two games with ease. Lucas had been playing poorly. But his chilling intimidation of Dawkins changed everything. Lucas went on to cow George McGinnis into the worst shooting slump of his career, Dawkins was barely heard from, and the Trail Blazers went on to win the next four games and the championship.
"You need a rugged, we're-not-going-to-take-any-nonsense personality on a team," says Jack Ramsay, Lucas' coach. "It's important for your team to let it be known that you will not be pushed around, will not be intimidated."
"Enforcers are vital," says Pete Newell, former Laker general manager, now a scout for Golden State. "They are part of the game by whatever name you call them. Basketball is not a non-contact sport. You have to have someone out there who loves contact and is willing to keep order."
Because the game has been so refined in the past 10 years, most of today's enforcers are also highly skilled finesse players. That was not so true in the NBA's earlier days when eight teams played each other 10 or 11 times, or in the ABA where many players of unseemly reputation were exiled. In those days, enforcers were more crudely known as "hatchet men"; their job was to protect their teams' stars. Red Auerbach's Celtics had the first such specialist, 6'5" Bob Brannum (1951-55). "Red never said 'Go get that guy,' " Brannum recalls. "He'd say, 'Look, don't be intimidated out there.' So if I saw a guy pushing Cousy around I'd say, 'Hey, Cooz, bring him down here,' and I'd give him some of the same thing."
Brannum's successor was the legendary Jungle Jim Loscutoff (1956-64), who also inherited Brannum's number 18 (later to be worn by notable Celtic scrappers Bailey Howell and Dave Cowens). "Nobody had to ask me to do anything," says Loscutoff. "In fact, Red used to have fun with me in a special drill to build my confidence after I'd had a knee operation. He'd throw a ball out on the court and say 'Go get it,' and I'd have to go diving and rolling on the floor. This was during exhibition season. Red would get the guys from the other team and say, 'Watch this,' roll out the balls for me, and I'd go diving."
There were always plenty of fights started or finished by the likes of Loscutoff, Walter Dukes, Andy Johnson, Tom Hoover, Al Attles, Gus Johnson, Luke Jackson, Wayne Embry, Johnny Green, Sweetwater Clifton. The classic ABA matchup was John Brisker and Wendell Ladner. But of the three greatest alltime enforcers—Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Willis Reed—two, Russell and Chamberlain, never really had a fight. "Russell simply intimidated with his skills," says Auerbach. As for Chamberlain, Lenny Wilkens says, "There are a lot of guys walking around today only because he didn't lose his temper."
Most basketball people will tell you that the single greatest basketball fight was "the night Willis Reed cleared out the whole Laker team." The Knicks have a film of the affray that has probably had more runs than King Kong. It was Oct. 18, 1966, the Knicks' home opener at the old Madison Square Garden. Reed, 6'8", 235, then in his third year, had been exchanging elbows all night with Rudy LaRusso. After a third-quarter free throw. Reed tripped LaRusso, who tagged Reed with a right while Darrall Imhoff held Willis from behind. That sent Reed into a frenzy. He slugged Imhoff and chased LaRusso to the bench. Then he hit John Block with an enormous left hook, spreading his nose all over his face, turned and again belted Imhoff, who fell and knocked five Lakers off the bench like dominoes. Reed planted two more shots on LaRusso and one more on Imhoff, who, bleeding from above the left eye, dived under the bench, to find Block already hiding there with a broken nose.
Recently, Reed chuckled about the incident. "They said I should be banned. All I got was an ejection and a small fine, nothing like what they give out now. You know what would happen if someone did all that today?" Would a full $10,000 be a good guess?