GOING WHOLE HOG
The NBA starts a new season this week in which the number of teams that qualify for the playoffs will be increased from 12 to 16. This means that the league's 23 teams will labor through an 82-game schedule whose sole purpose will be to eliminate just seven of them. In expanding its playoff format, the NBA is following the dubious lead of the NHL, which renders its regular season similarly meaningless by qualifying 16 teams for the playoffs. And the NHL, remember, has only 21 clubs to begin with. It plays an 80-game schedule to eliminate exactly five teams.
The reason the pro leagues are willing to turn their regular-season games into jokes by qualifying so many teams for the playoffs, of course, is that postseason games are more lucrative. Fine, but we wonder why the pros don't go whole hog, simply dispense with the regular season and launch immediately into playoffs, with everybody qualifying. The scheme we have in mind would go roughly like this: The playoffs would begin with best-of-15 series in the early rounds, then move on to a best-of-25 round and conclude, in the championship round, with a best-of-35-showdown. In the interest of generating the most revenue possible, teams that are eliminated would automatically go into consolation playoffs that would proceed along the same lines as the championship playoffs.
But wait, you haven't heard the best part. When their respective playoffs have finally run their course, the newly crowned NBA and NHL champs would meet in yet another playoff series. A best-of-11 deal for that one sounds just about right to us. Whether the two teams played hockey or basketball would depend on which sport made the most dough during its own playoffs. Who would want it any other way?
BLOCK THAT BLOCK
After his team's 22-19 loss in overtime to the Colts on Sept. 25, Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka punched a locker and broke his right hand. During a 23-14 loss to the Vikings on Oct. 9, Ditka berated officials and screamed at his players, some of whom complained publicly after the game about his outbursts. Ditka later promised to be cooler under fire, but that proved easier said than done. His latest excess occurred during a 31-17 loss to Detroit on Oct. 16, when, before a Lions kickoff late in the game, Ditka instructed rookie Safety Dave Duerson to "get" Detroit Kicker Eddie Murray.
The incident happened after the Lions' Eric Hippie scored the game's final touchdown with an eight-yard run on a fake field-goal attempt. Murray was the kicker and Hippie the holder, and they chortled on the field about Hippie's touchdown because, as it turned out, the fake was a mistake; Murray had thought he heard an audible to fake the kick. On Murray's subsequent kickoff, while the other Bears formed a blocking wedge, Duerson shot upfield straight at Murray. The Lion kicker saw Duerson coming and hit the ground, but Duerson drove into him. Murray writhed in pain; he said he suffered a dislocated shoulder that popped back into place.
No penalty was called on the play, and even Lions Coach Monte Clark conceded that the hit by Duerson had been legal. For his part, Ditka said that Duerson's action was "part of football." Ditka also insisted that Duerson had barely hit Murray and that the Lion kicker really wasn't hurt.
But Ditka's attempts to justify his actions weren't persuasive. The hit on Murray may have been "legal," but only because the NFL has no specific rule against deliberate attempts to inflict injury. After the game Ditka was quoted as saying that he'd told Duerson to "block Murray," as one account had it, or to "go out there and take out the kicker," according to another. Duerson said the coach's words were, "Go get him." Although those instructions might ordinarily be interpreted as referring to a blocking assignment, the circumstances of the game suggested otherwise; a 170-pound placekicker is hardly the likeliest man to be singled out for special blocking attention. Ditka seemed to be about the only one who thought the hit was "part of football." Duerson was visibly startled by Ditka's order and said that when the coach told him to get Murray, "I was baffled, but I didn't argue. I'm just a rookie." Two other Bears, Kicker Bob Thomas and Safety Gary Fencik, apologized to Murray for their coach's actions.
An NFL spokesman said that Commissioner Pete Rozelle was reviewing a tape of the play. Under his broad powers to impose discipline for actions detrimental to the game, Rozelle could "block" the Bears' volatile coach with a fine. Better yet, he ought to "take him out" with a suspension.