Da Capo Press, 2007, 281 pp., $25
There have been times lately when I’ve wondered if nearly as many people are writing about basketball as playing it. In the first five months of this year at least five new books have appeared. Jeffrey Lane’s Under the Boards is subtitled “the cultural revolution in basketball”, which led me to wonder if there was something in Yao Ming’s background I did not know about. Another elides basketball and philosophy, still another basketball and civil religion, and a fourth charts the remarkable history of women’s basketball.1
All have points of merit, but the new book of most interest to me is Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by New York Daily News sportswriter Filip Bondy. Bondy sets himself an almost impossible task. Like Charles Smith’s four failed layup attempts against the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 Eastern Conference finals that doomed the Knicks title chances “forever”, Bondy just can’t quite finish.
Bondy’s premise is that the 1984 draft that contained Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and John Stockton was a tipping point for the NBA and changed the game “forever.” Forever is such a strong word, especially in sports. The greatest representation of a sports event that was “forever” is Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. Trying to find a comparable event in other sports is much more difficult. There are instead usually a series of tipping points, often decades apart, that shift a sport from one status quo to another, the latter often not recognized until well after the fact.
In the National Football League, for example, the forward pass changed the game of football in the sense that the structure of play was altered “forever.” Offenses were no longer just three yards and a cloud of dust. Yet even within the concept of the forward pass there came small shifts in the direction of the game over the years. The Green Bay Packers used it to set up their sweeps and running game. The Oakland Raiders loved the long ball. The San Francisco 49ers developed the short passing game known as the West Coast offense. Which innovation changed the game forever? The pass itself, or the way it was deployed tactically?
So, not surprisingly, Bondy encounters several problems as he goes about trying to support his “forever” premise in basketball. The first concerns Michael Jordan himself. There have been so many interviews, books, articles, commercials and movies involving Michael Jordan that there really isn’t anything of significance that we don’t already know about the man. We know he is ultra-competitive, likes to gamble on his golf game, had a paternity suit on his hands, and won six NBA championships with the Bulls. We even know the brand of underwear he wears (Hanes). What could Bondy possibly add?
A more serious problem is that Tip-Off lacks any historical perspective on the NBA. To assert that an event changed basketball “forever”, you have to understand what came before. But Bondy fails to examine any past tipping points in the NBA. Had he done so, his premise would have occupied a more modest but maybe more accurate context.
Having spent 33 years in the NBA over almost four decades as both player and coach, I can vouch for a number of events that changed the NBA game “forever” prior to 1984. Some are obvious, like the introduction of the 24-second clock in 1954. Without that clock the modern game would not exist. Had Jordan played in the pre-clock era, he might have led the league in scoring with a whopping 12 points a game, and no one would have cared what brand of underwear he wore.
Then there was the emergence of defined positions like center and point guard, which grew out of the success of the great Boston Celtic duo of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy in the 1960s. Their achievement, and that of their fellow Celtics, set in motion a formula for championship success that general managers have searched for in every draft and trade since. That basic formula still exists today, as made manifest in the NBA championships won by the San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Indeed, one of the reasons the Portland Trailblazers selected Sam Bowie instead of Jordan in 1984 was that they thought their lack of a dominating center was the main missing piece of the puzzle for their team.
Bondy also misses other critical precedents in Tip-Off. It is as if the game had been filmed in black and white until Michael Jordan came along. As great as Jordan was, he inherited his flight-time credentials from Julius Erving, who arrived with the merger of the ABA and the NBA in 1976. I happened to be playing with the Houston Rockets at the time (or, rather, had a great seat on the bench for many of the games) when Erving came to town for the first time as an NBA player with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Now, I had experienced an earlier Erving sighting in college, having played against him when his U. Mass team came to the Palestra in Philadelphia to play my Penn Quakers team. We were a top-ranked squad in the nation at the time, despite being a “mere” Ivy League team, and one of the best defensive teams in college basketball. Scouting reports were rare in 1969, and no one knew who the skinny 6’7” kid was who shredded us for 25 points—in just the first half. We went into our locker room at half-time muttering lines straight out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Who is that guy?
David Wohl dribbling during his college days
One play always stands out in my mind. Near the end of the first half, Erving got a steal and started down court for a breakaway layup. He was only a few yards in front of me and, up to that point, I had never found anyone I couldn’t run down from behind with that miniscule a lead in my entire basketball career. But a strange thing happened: Not only did I not gain any ground on Erving but, as Satchel Paige might have commented, the faster I went the behinder I got. This was in that ridiculous era when dunking was prohibited in college basketball, so I watched from directly behind Erving as he drove straight down the middle of the floor, soared upwards starting from around the foul line—his head blocking out the basket momentarily like some Afro-eclipse before he ducked under the rim as he flew past—and gently dropped the ball through the net. It was as close to a dunk as you could get in those days. But my Ivy League mind was already calculating the speed, elevation and lack of gravitational pull associated with what I had just seen, and I realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
Flash forward to 1976 as Julius Erving slammed through seven dunks on his first seven shots in Houston, each one more terrifying than the last. As each was replayed on the huge endzone screens on the upper level of the arena, not only was the crowd in a frenzy; even our own bench was mesmerized, slapping fives and looking at each other with awestruck “did you see that?!” expressions molded on our faces. Players had dunked before, but Julius Erving, with his surpassing grace and artistry, led the assault on the third dimension for all future dunksters. Suddenly the defense had to guard the air above the rim as much as below it.
Erving also brought a little sidekick with him from the ABA known as the three-point shot. Although Erving rarely shot them himself, just about everyone else tried to, including forwards and centers who previously had never been allowed outside the free throw lane under penalty of death. Try to imagine the NBA without the trey today. Bondy, however, barely mentions Erving or the three-pointer.
There were other “forever” changes before that 1984 draft, too. Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird of the Celtics in the early 1980s had not only revived the NBA with their passion, skill and competitiveness but also redefined what kind of package a point guard or a forward could arrive in. At the time, no one believed a point guard could be as tall as 6’9” and as heavy as 235 pounds and still run a fast break with such dazzling efficiency. I was a Lakers assistant coach during their run to three straight NBA finals in the 1980s, and there were times in practice when I would sneak a look and make eye contact with Pat Riley, the coach, or Bill Bertka, the other assistant, after Earvin (his teammates never called him Magic) had thrown some impossible pass from an improbable angle and turned it into a “gimme” layup for a teammate cutting full speed through a forest of players. We saw possibilities that had not existed before, which, when they became realities in actual games, changed the sport forever.
Larry Bird had a similar effect. Suddenly, between Johnson and Bird, there were no defined positions anymore. They were just basketball players, and the entire court was their playground. Magic stepped in at center for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 finals to help the Lakers win a championship. Bird was all over the floor. He could start the play, create it, or finish it, depending on the situation. High basketball IQ was suddenly back in vogue, rather than sheer athleticism.
Yet another subtle rule change at the end of the 1970s forever altered the landscape of the NBA: Hand checking was taken away from the guards on the perimeter and it had dramatic effects. Hand checking had been one of the great controlling weapons in a defender’s arsenal up to that time. That’s why there were very few small guards in the league prior to 1980. One step over half court and Boom—all that speed neutralized with a hand clamped onto your side like a relentless remora. That hand squeezed with the power of a python, while looking to the rest of the world like a gentle touch.
I remember my first exhibition game as a rookie in 1971. I dribbled the ball up court bursting with confidence. One step over the half court line, Stan McKenzie, a 6’5” 235-pound guard, placed a five-fingered vise on my right hip. I was making motions with my arms and legs like I was dribbling but I realized that I wasn’t going anywhere. Somewhere deep in the primal recesses of my brain, I knew that if I couldn’t get the ball more than a foot past half court, I was going to have a very short career as a point guard. Once the ban on hand-to-hand combat was put into effect, a plethora of small, jet-fueled guards came on the scene to run amok in the league, and change the face of the game “forever.”
So now we arrive at Bondy’s 1984 draft having already seen the game changed “forever” a half dozen times. The word begins to lose much of its power.
Much of Tip-Off is dedicated to setting up the draft that year—too much of it. Despite some interesting vignettes about the players, coaches and general managers involved in the draft, much of this material has been covered elsewhere. More important, the 1984 draft was only one spoke in a wheel that began to drive the NBA in the mid-1980s. It was but a part of a confluence of events about to intersect and propel the NBA in another direction, most of those events outside the white lines of a basketball court.
Even the single spoke of the 1984 draft was not as special as Bondy makes out. It was special in retrospect only because of Michael Jordan. Take Jordan out of the draft, and you simply have three other players—Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and John Stockton—who had terrific, Hall-of-Fame quality careers. But had Jordan never played, who would believe that Barkley, Hakeem or Stockton, good as they were, changed the NBA “forever” anymore than other excellent players before or since?
Bondy would have had more to tell players and fans had he delved deeper into the other spokes on the wheel. An incredible series of “perfect storms” were blowing and being swept into the vortex of the 1984 draft. Bondy sets the stage by reminding readers that in 1984 some teams were accused of losing games on purpose to get the first pick in the draft. But it doesn’t end there. A new salary cap was going to change how teams could sign their players the following season. At the same time, an 800-pound gorilla named ESPN was trying to figure out how to throw its weight around, and the concept of regional television outlets for sports was just around the corner. Nike was growing, and new NBA commissioner David Stern had everybody wondering how he would position the league to grow. All these “perfect storms” were on the horizon and would have a tremendous impact on the NBA going forward from the 1984 draft, but Bondy seems to hardly notice.
With hindsight, any NBA fan can see how Michael Jordan grew into a global icon as a player and how his exploits allowed the NBA to embark on a global marketing strategy. But the story of just how this happens remains a mystery that Bondy does little to explain. At some point, David Stern and his associates concluded that Michael Jordan represented a golden opportunity to prolong and extend the newfound juice the league was garnering with the Magic-Bird rivalry. At some point, too, Stern decided that the league had to go global, and he took it there. But what were his concerns and his strategy? What did he make of accusations that teams were throwing games to get the first pick in the draft? How was he going to fix it all in 1984? Stern should be a major player in Tip Off, yet Bondy keeps him mainly riding the pine.
We also know in retrospect that Nike became nearly synonymous with Michael Jordan. Yet Bondy barely mentions the company that turned sports fashion on its head, with Jordan leading the way. Without Nike, Jordan would never have had the marketing vehicle to bring in millions of dollars worldwide and influence an entire generation’s choice of what to wear on their feet, and how long they should wear their shorts. Nike certainly changed the way the NBA was perceived, not just in the United States but over much of the world. Without Nike, basketball’s global reach would be vastly different today; without Jordan, Nike would have been just another company selling running shoes.
How did Nike help solve one of David Stern’s most pressing concerns in getting the NBA hoisted up onto a global stage? Stern was waiting for the magic moment when he could amass enough bargaining leverage to get television to come knocking on his door, rather than the other way around. Jordan, riding on the heels of Magic and Bird, provided precisely that leverage. ESPN was in the process of developing a new program concept that would soon be come the last stop for every late-night sports fan, and Stern saw regional television on the horizon. As important a part of the 1984 story as this is, Bondy offers no insight into the industry’s thoughts, no hints at what television executives were looking for from the NBA. The business side of professional basketball is a cutthroat competition for the consumer dollar for the NBA and every other sports league. Without understanding what went on behind the scenes, nothing else really becomes clear.
For all its deficiencies as an explanation of what was really going on in and around the 1984 draft, Bondy does mine some great nuggets about the players and the draft process itself. I’ve been in 25 “war rooms” during the NBA draft: It is a time for land mines, disinformation, agent threats and farce, all crammed into six stressful hours that determine the fate of teams, coaches and general managers. I was in the Los Angeles Clippers draft room one year when the owner, Donald Sterling, brought in so many friends to party that Elgin Baylor, the general manager, and Andy Roesner, the team’s vice president, could not hear each other across a table as they were trying to review final salaries to make a trade. On another occasion, Lakers owner Jerry Buss stopped by during a mid-1980s draft session, ducked his head into the draft room as the tenth round approached, and asked Jerry West if we could draft his next-door neighbor’s son as a favor. “No problem”, said West. In yet another Lakers draft a scout referred to a certain player as “tougher than new rope”—one of my all-time favorite lines—proving that NBA basketball produces literary flair as well as great sport.
Bondy adds to Jordan’s lore. For example, he tells us about the day Jordan, his addiction to golf growing hour by hour, snuck into Davis Love III’s golf bag when he was just learning how to play. Jordan believed the only reason the seemingly non-athletic Love could out-drive him had to be the club. On his first swing with Love’s favorite persimmon driver, Jordan broke the club, launching the driver head further than the ball.
Another of Bondy’s stories illustrates Jordan’s competitive instincts. “On a basketball court, he’d impose his will on everyone”, current TNT broadcaster and former college teammate Kenny Smith relates. Jordan would argue incessantly over rules and fouls, but that is not particularly special. What was special is that after drills and scrimmages Jordan would write on the blackboard how many times he had dunked on each of his teammates.
Charles Barkley might have ended up at the University of Alabama instead of Auburn, if only Crimson Tide assistant coach Benny Dees had listened to his wife, a former basketball coach herself. She told him “to go out and recruit this kid who was even fatter than her husband.” Most observers and coaches dogged Barkley about his weight his whole career. In a game of speed and power, too many were blinded by the number on the scale, unwilling to believe what their eyes told them about Barkley’s on-court performance.
By far the most sympathetic character in Bondy’s book is Stu Inman, the Portland Trailblazers’ director of player personnel. It was Inman who made the call on selecting Bowie instead of Jordan in the 1984 draft. Inman’s gaffe reinforces the dark side that swirls through every draft room. Inman was experienced. His reasoning was sound. He spent the necessary time studying the two players. He asked all the right background questions. No stone was left unturned. Inman knew these two players as well as did their parents—maybe even better. But even the best—and Inman was one of the best in the NBA over his long career—are not immune from the occasional error. As Inman himself reflected, “We did a pretty good job with scouting but we never measured what the inside of a champion looked like.” Inman, who passed away recently, was dogged by that one question for the rest of his career: Why Bowie?
The 1984 draft was indeed controversial, and it was loaded with quality players, none more important to the global future of the NBA than Michael Jordan. If only Bondy had found a way to tie together all of the many factors that defined the 1984 draft, especially those outside the four corners of the court, Tip-Off would have been a swish instead of an air ball.
Jerry L. Walls and Gregory Bassham, eds., Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint (University of Kentucky Press, 2007); Craig A. Forney, The Holy Trinity of American Sports: Civil Religion in Football, Baseball and Basketball (Mercer University Press, 2007); and Pamela Grundy and Susan Shakelford, Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).