But, with former St. Joe's players Paul Westhead and Jack McKinney running NBA teams—L.A. and Indiana, respectively—and with another, Jimmy Lyn-am, working as Ramsay's assistant in Portland—Dr. J, as in Doctor Jack, may be the greatest influence.
The assumption here, obviously, is that the college game is—or, at least, has been—esthetically superior to the NBA's. The validity of that notion was brought sharply into focus two years ago when NBC began programming top college games on Sunday afternoons, directly opposite the NBA game of the weak—sorry, week—on CBS and blew the pros out in the ratings. Indiana's Knight may have best captured the indifference—and occasional outright contempt—that many viewers had come to feel for the basketball played in the NBA: "If I had the choice of watching a pro basketball game or two mice making love on television, I'd watch the mice. Even if the screen was fuzzy."
Last season, on Sunday afternoons, the league had an average Nielsen rating of 6.4, compared with an 8.2 average for college games on NBC and 7.4 for The Superstars on ABC. Things reached such a sorry point that the weeknight games of the league's championship series were shown, on tape, at 11:30 p.m. in most places.
The outcry about the television schedule was so great that the league and CBS compromised. In 1981-82, the NBA would start its season three weeks later than usual and CBS would guarantee to televise all of its championship games live. With the late start, that series will not begin until June, when the May sweeps—the important ratings period on which future advertising rates are based—are over. A less important, but significant, advantage to the later start is avoiding opening the NBA season during the World Series.
In a way, CBS's plans for pro basketball this season are an indication of the league's problems. Because CBS now has a big chunk of the college basketball package and raided NBC for analyst Billy Packer (after serious negotiations with Knight), it has plugged its college games into later and more lucrative Sunday afternoon time slots than those of the NBA, which is in the last year of its contract with CBS. If CBS doesn't choose to negotiate a new contract with the league after this season, the NBA will be in danger of losing network TV coverage, as the NHL did in 1975. NBC, however, which lost the NCAA basketball package to CBS, may be in the market.
CBS hasn't been entirely blameless in the decline of the NBA's fortunes. While college fans were getting the eccentric and sometimes delightful coverage of Packer, Dick Enberg and Al McGuire, CBS was giving us Brent Musburger and Sonny Hill, one-on-one halftime shows. Brent Musburger and Billy Cunningham, three-on-three celebrity shoot-outs, Brent Musburger and Mendy Rudolph, updates on shattered backboards from Brent in the studio. Brent cutting to courtside for slam-dunk contests, Brent talking to various "mountain men" and "big guys," Red on Roundball, Brent, Brent and, whenever possible, more Brent. This year, solid yet emotionally involved Dick Stockton will be paired with Bill Russell, while Packer will work with Gary Bender, last year's NBA play-by-play man.
And while the NBA was painting its face with all manner of three-point baskets and loose-ball fouls, the college game remained rooted in pure basketball and honest enthusiasm. And it may be that enthusiasm that is the colleges' greatest weapon against the NBA. "Strip away all the bands, the cheerleaders and the alumni [from the colleges]," says Washington Bullets Coach Gene Shue, one of the last of the old-fashioned "pro" coaches, "and everyone would realize how great the pro game is. We have the best talent, the best rules and the best officials. All that cheering and spirit looks great on television, but there's too much foul shooting and holding the ball in college."
Many former college coaches now in the league once looked down on the NBA for most of the same reasons laymen do. Westhead coached at LaSalle College for nine years before becoming a Laker assistant in 1979, and when Jack McKinney suffered a serious head injury early that season, Westhead took charge of what turned out to be a world championship team. "While I was at LaSalle, I was like a lot of people." Westhead says. "I thought the pro game was all run and gun. That's a misconception. I think it's a mistake to assume that all the team players are at the local colleges and that all the selfish stars are in the NBA. For every Lloyd Free in the NBA, there are 200 in the college game doing exactly the same thing. But I don't know how to change that image."
One way to do it may be through a technique that the pros are starting to borrow from the college game: recruiting—though in its NBA form the process has none of the excesses that have scandalized the colleges. It's not uncommon for an NBA team to set up interviews with college players it's interested in drafting, to get a feel for the players' personalities and enthusiasm. Before the NBA draft in June, the Lakers invited six potential draft picks to L.A. to meet the coaches and owner Jerry Buss. Westhead saw to it that all the arrangements for the visiting players' flights and hotel rooms were taken care of—just as he had when he was at LaSalle—and he even picked restaurants that he hoped would leave the players with a favorable impression of the Lakers' organization. "It wasn't until after I had had dinner with a couple of them that I realized I was recruiting again," Westhead says. "Except this time there was one important difference. Four years ago I would have had to worry whether the kid would go home and say he didn't like the restaurant, didn't like the hotel we put him in or thought I was a jerk. I told one of our guys last spring. 'I'm not recruiting you—you're recruiting me.' If I draft a kid to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, I know he's going to come."
The league has taken another step toward rehabilitating its image by changing some of its more puzzling rules. This year, for instance, the NBA will no longer award a free-throw shooter three chances to make two, or two to make one. Fouling in the backcourt will now be treated as a common foul, which should encourage that old college stratagem, the full-court press. In the eyes of many fans, a team that presses frequently seems more enthusiastic, more fun to watch.