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The Good Ol' Days

May 27, 2012

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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By Ron Thomas

Ron Thomas became the director of the Morehouse College Journalism and Sports Program in 2007 after 34 years as a sports reporter. He is the author of “They Cleared the Lane: the NBA’s Black Pioneers” about the integration of pro basketball.

Which NBA is better, the past or the present? That comparison comes up every semester in the Sports Reporting class I teach at Morehouse. If comparing today’s NBA to the league I covered for the San Francisco Chronicle and USA Today from 1979-87, I vote for the past because that era had superior talent.

The league got extremely lucky when the 1976 ABA-NBA merger brought in seasoned superstars Julius Erving, Moses Malone, George Gervin, David Thompson and formidable players like Dan Issel. Then Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley arrived from 1979-1984, joining a few aging kings of the court like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Three 1980s Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals featured an incredible eight future Hall of Famers (Celtics Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Bill Walton; Lakers Abdul-Jabbar, Magic, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo), and the league’s depth was staggering.

Perfect example: The 1981-82 Golden State Warriors featured two players who averaged 23 points per game (World Free and Bernard King), Purvis Short’s 18 ppg., J.B. Carroll’s 17 ppg. and the league’s sixth-leading rebounder, Larry “Mr. Mean” Smith. They went 45-37, yet couldn’t make the playoffs!

Besides expansion from 23 to the current 30 teams, here are other reasons the 1980s produced better hoops.

  • Unlike today’s swarm of players who played two or less years of college ball, most 1980s players had arrived in the NBA after three or four years of college. Those extra seasons of polishing made a difference.
  • The 3-point shot wasn’t as prominent. Many of today’s players look for a crowd-thrilling “3” but haven’t mastered how to shake free for a higher percentage 12-18 foot jumper. Hence, in 1987 the Atlanta Hawks made 135 of 425 3-pointers, roughly 2-for-5 per game; last season the Hawks made 524 of 1,455 3-pointers, roughly 6-for-18 per game. Meanwhile, the NBA’s shooting percentage dropped from 48 to 46 percent, and teams’ scoring average dropped 10 points per game.
  • The 1980s produced more lock-down, all-court defenders. Who today equals Michael Cooper, Bobby Jones or Dennis Johnson on D?

Finally, I have a personal reason for favoring the 1980s NBA. Unlike today, when beat reporters sit partway up the stands or along the baseline, 25 years ago we sat directly behind team benches. I could discern almost every word Warriors coach Al Attles bellowed during timeouts.

We were almost part of the action. Before Boston’s Dennis Johnson entered a game, he would sit on the scorer’s table, dry his hands with resin, then turn toward reporters and clap. Resin dust would fly everywhere, sometimes choking us or floating into our eyes, but it was cool because it was Johnson’s impish way of acknowledging us.

Ahhh (cough, cough), the good ol’ days.

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