The rest of our work gang: Malone at center, Larry Bird of the Celtics at the other forward, and Paxson and Sidney Moncrief of Milwaukee at guard. "The thing all these guys have in common is that nothing has come easily for them," says Ramsay. "They've excelled through hard work, and they keep working hard because of a desire to stay on top."
"I expect the superhustle thing—diving for loose balls, whatever—from marginal players like Paul Mokeski or Charlie Criss," says Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson. "Those are the things they have to do to keep a job. I also expect it from any one of my players in a big game. But whatever the situation, Sidney is likely to dive for a loose ball. Each time he does, I shudder. What good would it do for him to get hurt and be lost for the season...in a game against Cleveland? But that's Sidney. The thing I try to impress upon him is to make good decisions. I don't say don't dive for loose balls or don't hustle. He'd look at me like I was crazy."
"I think hard work is something that can set you apart from other players," says Moncrief. "Knowing you paid the price makes you feel better prepared than the next guy. It makes you feel better, period. My mother—in fact, my entire family—emphasized it when I was a little boy. If you take out the garbage, take it all out. If you mop the floor, don't miss any spots. You go through years of that and it becomes ingrained in your personality. Some players have never really had to do anything in their lives, or they coasted. I can't stand doing anything halfway."
Neither can Bird, who despite recently signing a seven-year, $15 million contract, still plays like the hick from French Lick, Ind. "When I was growing up everyone I played with was bigger than me or knew the game better than me," Bird says. "But I realized that I could stay with them because of the extra hour or hour and a half of work that I was putting in when they weren't around. I lack the jumping ability, speed and other natural abilities of a lot of guys."
The Celtics took a cue from the 76ers in training camp by hiring an exercise instructor to help their players better prepare their bodies for the season. Some Celtics were less than enthusiastic, but Bird dutifully kept going. "That's the weird part of Larry," says Boston Coach K.C. Jones. "He rebounds and passes and shoots as well as anybody around, but he also dives for loose balls, and he's the guy patting teammates on the butt—or giving them the business if they don't hustle."
Fortunately for the NBA, Bird's outlook is becoming more and more prevalent, for several reasons. First, the players. "The quality of kids coming into the league right now is better than it's been in a long time as far as attitude about the game and cooperation with the coach goes," says Cunningham.
Then, the coaches. "I think the trend toward the work ethic comes from the bench," says Washington Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "They're setting the example. The majority of players won't do the work unless you stand over them. That's why you have coaches."
The coaches drive themselves, too. "There are times when we'll look at three hours of films of an opponent just to pick 10 minutes of tendencies to show our team," says Ramsay. Two seasons ago, before a Hawks-76ers playoff, Mike Fratello, then an assistant coach under Kevin Loughery with Atlanta, put together a 1½-inch-thick manual diagraming all of Philadelphia's plays, options and tendencies. That wasn't enough to beat Philly's superior talent, but Fratello believes in the work ethic. Named the Hawks' head coach in June, Fratello squirreled his staff away for three days in a suburban Atlanta hotel before the opening of training camp to prepare for the new season.
Another incentive is money. "Today's kid is a corporation; he's touching millions of dollars," says Dallas Coach Dick Motta. "He has to treat his body differently. In the old days there were a lot more beer drinkers."
Then there's the law of supply and demand. With the folding of the American Basketball Association and the subsequent merging of four of the six ABA teams into the NBA before the 1976-77 season, the number of jobs in major league basketball fell from a high of 360 in 1970-71 to 276 today. At the same time the number of pro-minded players coming out of colleges did anything but decline. As a result, players have had to work harder merely to get work.