Tall Tales

crashing.jpgThere's no doubt that Harvey Araton loves basketball, especially professional basketball. He's been covering the game for the last thirty years as a New York sportswriter; grew up playing basketball and continues to share his enthusiasm as a fan with his sons.

His book Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost its Soul at Home is a reflection of both his genuine passion and keen understanding of the game. Unfortunately, the angry tone and polemical structure of the book mitigate the effectiveness of these attributes, which would have been much better utilized in a straightforward historical narrative such as John Taylor's The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball or, given Araton's personal history and closeness to the game, a memoir.

Instead, Araton's hook, that evil forces of greed have conspired to seriously undermine the pro game -- which may work for a newspaper column or magazine article -- simply doesn't hold up for an entire book. Not that there aren't evil forces of greed in the basketball world, in the form of unscrupulous agents, coaches, and colleges, along with amoral corporations with insatiable appetites for revenues and profits.

Araton is determined to blame these villains for all the perceived ills of the game. But like a basketball chucker desperate to score, he throws up two many ill-advised shots that are wide of the mark.

Criticizing National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern for an "insatiable zest for marketing," for example, seems peculiar, if not downright disingenuous. Promoting the league is the man's job, after all, and his enthusiasm is one of the reasons he's good at it.

Araton justifiably bemoans the NBA's virtual abandonment of the "real fan" who can barely -- or no longer -- afford the exorbitant ticket prices. But if corporations will pony up big bucks and the rest of the market will pay those high prices, what is the NBA supposed to do? Professional basketball is a business. Yet Araton professes to be shocked, shocked that "the game has been hijacked by the forces of self-interest."

Accusing the NBA of "surrendering more of its soul" for pushing back game times to satisfy network television scheduling is more of the same. While it's certainly regrettable that more kids can't watch playoff games, the NBA is hardly the only sports league to want to reach the widest possible audience. It would be nice if the World Series always ended before midnight, too, but it doesn't. It would also be nice if capitalism had a line on the balance sheet for social benefits, but it doesn't.

That doesn't mean that certain aspects of professional basketball can't be handled better, and Araton's vigorous advocacy of a desperately needed developmental minor league for young players is very much on target.

To his credit, Araton has been espousing the idea for a long time, and the NBA, responding to the accelerating trend of players turning pro after high school, has finally begun to act on it, sort of.

Then there are the really big issues, such as racism, which may be out of the league's hands (although Araton may disagree), but still pose vexing problems for the game.

A predominantly black league playing before predominantly white audiences has been an issue in professional basketball for roughly four decades now, and, as Araton reminds us, shows no sign of going away. He points to the infamous 2004 "Malice at the Palace" brawl between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, which culminated in black players punching white fans in the stands, as well as the simultaneous (some would say hypocritical) condemnation and exploitation of tattooed black players with an unapologetic street sensibility (hello Allen Iverson!) by both the league and the media.

Araton is right to castigate the NBA for sanctioning a video game celebrating players smashing backboards and ripping down rims. But following that logic, why is David Stern's repudiation of Allen Iverson's violent and profane rap songs such a terrible thing?

And whose fault is it if boorish white fans in expensive seats call black players "thugs," and worse? As Taylor reminds us in The Rivalry, fans in the good old days, and presumably paying much less money, routinely screamed truly vile racial epithets at players -- in addition to pelting them with eggs, coins, and other objects.

As a petri dish for American race relations, the NBA has been, and will continue to be, a fascinating experiment. In fact, right on cue, the rapidly increasing number of foreign (and mostly white) players in the league has injected yet another incendiary ingredient to an already volatile mix.

The foreign influx epitomizes the complexities facing the modern NBA, and Araton knows this part of the story as well anyone out there and better than most. One of the best sections of the book is Araton's carefully reported description of his travels to European basketball outposts in Italy and the Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union. Here he sees basketball in a sort of Edenic state of grace, where coaches and players devote themselves to mastering the fundamentals of the game for hours on end every day.

Once the Europeans come to the United States, however, things get complicated, as they get ensnared inn American racial politics. African-American players, who aren't thrilled to see the newcomers quickly lauded as model basketball citizens, turn out to be more than capable of freezing out teammates who don't look or speak the way they do, and who are also filling up scarce jobs.

In addition to being poster boys for globalization, the foreign players also embody the most sacred of old-school virtues -- fundamental skills and teamwork. But again, things get complicated. On the one hand, there's what Araton calls the "qualitative deterioration" of the NBA game, as shown by the "gradual breakdown of fundamental basketball skills." Araton is an astute student of the game, and he cites such knowledgeable authorities as Hall of Fame player Oscar Robertson and veteran championship coach Larry Brown, who also bemoan young players supposed inability to pass, dribble, shoot jump shots, play defense, and execute team-oriented plays. But on the whole, is that really true?

If you watched a tape of every NBA game on a given night, I doubt you'd find much evidence of those alleged sins. In fact, I think it's inconceivable that an NBA team could field a team filled with players who have those flaws. They simply wouldn't be able to compete.

Araton cites a decline in scoring in the late 1990s as prima facie evidence that the pro game was going to hell in a handbasket. But it could also be argued that that trend is an example of teams playing better defense, instead of excessively wild, undisciplined run-and-gun offense. The European model of intensive practice, concentration on fundamentals, footwork, crisp passing, teamwork and court awareness is justifiably held up as an admirable ideal and basketball's wave of the future.

So where has American basketball gone wrong? Sure, there are short-sighted coaches looking for the quick hit by leveraging raw but superior talent at the expense of more tedious and time-consuming fundamental development. Yes, it's not surprising that impressionable kids are mesmerized by, and want to emulate, the never-ending parade of spectacular slam dunks shown all day on ESPN, where replays of a key box out, screen, or move without the ball are served up with about the same frequency as ice cream in a snowstorm.

So is the problem really basketball's "chaotic universe of exploitation?" Or are the players themselves ever at fault? At a certain point, aren't they smart enough to figure out that the more completely you play the game, the better you'll be? If they're not, and they lose their jobs to foreign players who have more complete games, then so what?

Well-executed teamwork is, to be sure, basketball's Holy Grail. You simply can't win consistently, much less be a champion, without it, as Araton rightfully notes. And while he justifiably takes the NBA to task for hyping individual stars at the expense of exceptional teams, the fact is the league has always sold its stars, from the days of the famous "Mikan vs. Knicks" marquee at the old Madison Square Garden in the early '50s to the ubiquitous marketing of Michael Jordan in the '90s.

As Araton notes, national television viewership for recent championship series involving team-oriented squads such as New Jersey, Detroit and San Antonio were about half that involving championship series involving Michael Jordan.

Araton believes the league gave short promotional shrift to these highly skilled but relatively anonymous teams. That may or may not be the case, but it's hardly surprising that a mass audience doesn't respond to a major sports event devoid of well-known personalities.


Certainly no two players better epitomize the perennial individual verus team dynamic in basketball than Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

Chamberlain holds more individual records than anyone else in the history of the NBA; as a Boston Celtic, Russell has won more championships than anyone else. Chamberlain didn't seem to be particularly motivated by winning; Russell famously threw up before big games. Chamberlain usually had better statistics when they played against each other; Russell's teams more often than not won the games.

In The Rivalry John Taylor superbly weaves together the story of the two men and their vastly different approaches to the game with the story of the NBA in the 1950s and '60s as it grew from a small league with mostly white players playing in old industrial northeastern and midwestern cities to a major league with mostly black players playing in big cities all over the country.

Even though The Rivalry covers familiar ground, it nonetheless feels fresher and more exhaustively researched than Crashing the Borders, which often reads like a rehash of old columns and notebooks.

Taylor, however, writes a smoothly flowing narrative, often told from inside the heads of the participants, similar to the style David Halberstam. Heretofore the classic history of the early NBA has been Leonard Koppett's 1968 book Twenty-four Seconds to Shoot, but Taylor's update is a worthy successor. Even more impressive, considering how many times the Chamberlain/Russell and Boston Celtics stories have already been told, Taylor's version may well be the definitive work on the subjects.

The Rivalry also reminds us how deeply embedded the issues of race, commerce and collective versus individual values are in basketball history. Despite the NBA's rapid and relatively early integration, team owners were never entirely comfortable with the process, resulting in missteps and mistrust among the players. Taylor also reminds us that the league's long, hard struggle to outgrow its small-time past -- Chamberlain once wrote a famous Sports Illustrated article titled "My Life in a Bush League" -- helps explain its marketing mania and deep-rooted fear of falling too far behind professional football and baseball in popularity; which in fact, began to happen in the 1970s before the arrival of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

Indeed, those two stars illustrate the inevitability of promoting personalities in a team sport. While it didn't hurt that Bird played for the Celtics and Johnson for the Los Angeles Lakers, and that both players cared deeply about winning, the fact is that they were the stars who sold tickets and attracted television viewers beyond the "real" fans.

Araton argues that a questionable foul that referee Hue Hollins called on Scottie Pippen in a 1994 playoff game between the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks was a turning point in the contemporary game. Jordan wasn't playing that year, yet the Bulls played well that year and were on their way to beating the Knicks before the last second call handed the series to the Knicks. But if the Bulls had gone on to win the series and ultimately the championship, Araton argues, it would have been such a stupendous vindication of the merits of team play that the overwhelming mythology of Michael Jordan's dominance that so overshadowed the rest of the game, to its detriment, would have been shattered forever.

But after reading The Rivalry, it seems clear that Jordan's legacy and impact on the game would have been altered far more by a worthy rival than a disputed foul call. Competition, on both an individual and team level, lies at the heart of the game's appeal. Bill Russell said it best, describing his own rivalry with Chamberlain, at Wilt's funeral service. "The fierceness of that competition," Russell said, "bonded us for eternity." - Charles Paikert

paikert.jpg Mr. Paikert wrote the text for a history of professional basketball exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Philadelphia, The Village Voice, and other newspapers and magazines. He also writes a basketball blog, www.bouncepass.blogspot.com.