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It's there whenever the Philadelphia 76ers' Moses Malone claws and bullies his way through opponents for another offensive rebound. It's there when Portland Trail Blazer Jim Paxson, working without the ball, zigzags from one side of the court to the other, tiring his defender, before cutting to the basket and taking a pass for an easy shot. And, despite what you might think, it's there when Philly's Julius Erving or Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins gracefully soars for a dunk. It is old-fashioned work, NBA-style. "You naturally think that gifted players do things easily," says Portland Coach Jack Ramsay, "but behind every dunk are hours of practice. There's no way to measure how many hours Julius spent on a playground as a kid, but that has to be counted as hard work."
Fans, though, see only the result—the apparently effortless game played by so many NBA stars—and not the preparation. As a result, many ticket-holders have tended to believe that hard work is an alien concept in pro basketball. Forward Dan Roundfield of the Atlanta Hawks can't understand why. "The more we do," he says, "the less they seem to like it."
Another perception of the public—unfair but still widespread—is that only the last two minutes of an NBA game are worth watching and that players fully exert themselves only late in a game. While that two-minute theory may well be a backhanded tribute to the drama inherent in pro basketball, Roundfield feels that dismissing the first 46 or so minutes is not only demeaning to players but also ludicrous. "If a player isn't working at the start, he'll never have to worry about the last two minutes," says Roundfield. "His team will be down by 27 points or he'll be on the bench."
Fortunately for the image-poor NBA, the time when the mention of the words "work ethic" and pro hoops in the same sentence would elicit snickers may fast be coming to an end. Of course, it's silly to posit that every player in the NBA has suddenly become a disciple of John Calvin's, or even that sweat will supplant talent as the prime reason for a team's success. It is true, however, that the league has begun to move away from the vision it presented of itself in the '70s: slam dunks, one-on-one showboating and halftime H-O-R-S-E contests on CBS. Mind you, the NBA front offices have had precious little to do with this change; rather, it has been the players, most notably that blue-collar, three-time MVP Malone, who have changed the public's view with the high level of energy they're now expending.
Center Jack Sikma of the Seattle SuperSonics, himself no slouch in the effort department, says, "Working hard is the quickest way to a fan's heart. You can do a 360 [degree dunk] and so forth, and that's instant gratification, but over the years you'll see the Philly fans more enamored of Moses for how hard he plays than for how pretty he is."
Malone's coach, Billy Cunningham, agrees. "Not only was I very proud of the way my team worked last season," he says of his champions, "but I also felt the league in general worked as hard as I've ever seen over an 82-game schedule."
It's in recognition of this new spit-on-your-hands-and-roll-up-your-sleeves spirit that we present the All-NBA Work-Ethic Team. But before naming our selectees, we should tell you that the coaches, players and management types interviewed on this subject disagreed markedly on what criteria should be applied in choosing our team.
"Guys who aren't supposed to make the NBA—and do—should be included," said K.C. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "Players like Ed Nealy, Kurt Rambis, Darwin Cook and Rory Sparrow."
On the other hand, Darrell Griffith of the Utah Jazz would not omit "the smooth player who is a superstar—a finesse-type player. He doesn't get noticed, but he works just as hard." In other words, a Dr. J—or a Griffith.
So, our team falls somewhere between "shouldn't be in the NBA" and "couldn't help but be there." For example, Round-field was selected at forward over Buck Williams of New Jersey because, although Williams is a very willing worker, he's blessed with more natural ability than Roundfield. Indeed, Roundfield's coach at Chadsey High in Detroit advised him to give up basketball because he "would never amount to much."