Former NBA star Lou Hudson showed up at a celebrity golf tournament last week and, competitive as ever, started lining up side bets even before pulling the travel cover off his clubs. A potential mark asked right away how many strokes Hudson was offering.
"Don't even start with that guff. I don't care what your handicap is; we play even or we don't play." Hudson said. "I come from a time when nobody gave you nothing."Like your grandfather talking about the Depression, everyone figures he had it worse. But stingy as defenders were in Hudson's day -- he still averaged 20 points a season between 1966-79 -- today's NBA players give up less of everything.
There is less room to operate, fewer chances of getting to the basket without getting smacked, and the perception at least, that fewer fouls are called. Without doubt, there are fewer points being scored. Teams averaged 91.6 points per game during the regular season, the lowest since the shot clock was set out in 1954.
League leader Allen Iverson's 26.8 point-per-game average was the lowest in 42 years. His 41.2 shooting percentage was even worse, the lowest in 49 years.
And now all of those ghosts -- defense by any means necessary, low scoring and poor shooting -- have come home to roost as the championship series between San Antonio and New York headed for Game 4 Wednesday night.
There has been so much less of everything, including a television audience for these finals, that commissioner David Stern locked some of the league's brightest minds in a room in New York for nearly six hours Tuesday and told them not to come out until they had a plan to restore some grace, movement and scoring to a game that once had an abundance of all three.
"Basketball has to get out of a rut, and it's a rut of our own doing," recently hired Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "Something has to change in the style and form of the game."
Jackson admitted watching games during his season away from the NBA. Judging by the declining ratings, he saw things pretty much the way everyone else did.
"Nobody wants to watch a guy backing down another guy for 15 dribbles while everyone else stands around and watches," he said.
Credit Jackson with this much: It took guts to criticize players who make their living slam-dancing, especially since one of them, Shaquille O'Neal, is supposed to help Jackson keep his job.
But unless Jackson and his counterparts are committed to both the spirit and the letter of the new plan, it doesn't have a chance. Coaches suffocated the game once. It doesn't matter where you lay blame -- with Chuck Daly (who oversaw the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons), Pat Riley (with his thuggish Knicks, and later Heat, teams) or even John Thompson (whose Georgetown Hoyas majored in intimidation). Coaches did it -- and they can do it again.
Despite plenty of speculation the dimensions of the court or the lane would be changed, the 16-member committee touched neither. Instead, it concentrated on several other areas: having referees enforce rules against pushing, shoving, grabbing and impeding progress already on the books; forcing players to keep the ball for only five seconds below the foul line; and changing both the shot clock and illegal defense rules.
The changes the committee hoped to effect were simple: fewer double teams, more possessions and more movement of the ball and the players. They will be field-tested in summer leagues and if judged successful, put into play next season. While the coaches won't be involved at first, ultimately they'll be responsible for their success.
The artist that lurks in every NBA coach would love to have a team that plays with brilliance on both ends of the court. But the pragmatist that resides within also recognizes the talent that enables teams to do that is in very, very short supply. And the most successful coaches, as always, will be the most imitated.
Jackson, who figures to win right away, is at one end of the spectrum. He is already committed to a wide-open style and he arrives in Los Angeles sold on the triangle offense, which places a premium on ball movement, More important, he inherits a team with enough talent to fill it out.
Riley is the other extreme. Once he left Showtime and the Magic Johnson-led Lakers behind, he began relying on defense because it was easier to teach and he filled out his roster with bouncers and punks because they were easier to come by. But his success has been hard to argue with.
League officials will have their fingers crossed, hands stuffed deep into their pockets. But it won't be tough to guess who they're rooting for.