The final problem, of course, is that illegal defenses, however comprehensible in the rule book, are just plain hard to recognize on the court, even for the zebras. Frequently a violation will be whistled on the possession that immediately follows an assistant coach screaming: "Illegal defense! Illegal defense!" This is hardly science. Garretson, who knows the guidelines inside and out, admitted that when he worked a summer game without them, "It was like a vacation."
It would be worth the NBA's while, it seems, to experiment for a season, or a preseason, with all-out zone. This would make life easier on the refs and take some of the hypocrisy out of their calls. However, most NBA people absolutely cringe at the suggestion of a legal full-fledged zone because they fear the kind of zone that would be played. They see teams stationing their big men within finger-roll distance of the basket, arms spread, pterodactyl-like, all the way across the floor, discouraging any kind of penetration to the basket. "We don't want a jump-shooting league," they say.
Why is the NBA hierarchy so sure that fans don't like jump shots, especially long ones? "Jeez, every time somebody lets a three-point shot go," says Pacers vice-president Wayne Embry, "the whole crowd's on its feet." Why not move the boundary in a foot or two and make outside shooting a more important part of the game? Players are far better shooters than they were a couple of decades ago, when 40% from a guard would be acceptable. Now there are guards shooting better than 50%. Go ahead, you clowns on defense, sit back in a zone and just watch us shoot you right out of it.
And wouldn't zone defense encourage transition basketball, the NBA's real calling card? The way to beat a zone, better than bombing it from outside, is to zap it before it sets up. Granted, once a zone is set up, 24 seconds isn't much time. "Big deal," says Newell. "So just start the clock when teams get it past midcourt."
"Teams that don't win now wouldn't be able to win with the zone," contends Portland G.M. Stu Inman. Says Detroit forward Kent Benson, "I just don't think it would change the game that much."
But maybe if the NBA tried zone for a season it would put out the word that defense is a legitimate part of its game. Baseball doesn't take away Dwight Gooden's "yakker" because he can get everybody out with his fastball, so don't take a weapon away from NBA defenses. Let offenses figure out a way to beat zones—they will.
The league should attack defense as a public-relations problem. Make defenders into protagonists, instead of bit players. Look into the possibility of a defensive box score. Show defensive replays on the tube.
Address the race issue head-on. Cite the work of blue-collar black players like Dunn, Pressey, Moncrief and Dennis Johnson. Sight in a few salvos on the college game. Like this from Scotty Stirling, the NBA's vice-president of operations: "If they're talking about where defense isn't played, let's talk about college basketball."