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Ex-Jazz player says the NBA has gone soft

Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood (5) pulls in the ball as Dallas Mavericks center Andrew Bogut (6) reaches in during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.
Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood (5) pulls in the ball as Dallas Mavericks center Andrew Bogut (6) reaches in during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.
Ravell Call, Ravell Call

SALT LAKE CITY — His look was more surprised than angry. Jazz guard George Hill was only marginally close to any of the Dallas Mavericks. But eventually during last Wednesday’s game, he drifted near Andrew Bogut, a hard-hat player if there ever was one.

As Hill half-turned, Bogut nailed him with a forearm to the neck. It didn’t knock Hill down, but it drew a technical. There was no mistaking the intent.

That’s what you get from the son of an auto mechanic.

Don’t relax yet; more punishment could be dead ahead. This week the Jazz will be on the road at Miami, where they could collide with a still bruise-worthy Udonis Haslem. Later in the year it will be Omer Asik in New Orleans, a player as no-nonsense as his name. Memphis has returning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and longtime tough guy Zach Randolph. Nick Collison is winding down in Oklahoma City, but he can still cause a pileup. Teammate Steven Adams was named in a Los Angeles Times survey of coaches as one of the league’s five dirtiest players.

However, none of them compares to the bruisers of the past, says former Jazz forward Blue Edwards; the NBA’s rules have rendered physical play passé.

If Edwards sounds like another ex-player revisiting the “Golden Era,” (hello, Charles Barkley) there’s a reason. When he played, a drive to the basket was hazardous work. There was no such thing as a nonstop flight to the rim. Bill Laimbeer would rather just flatten someone. Karl Malone’s elbows were as high as his scoring average. Rick Mahorn could reroute traffic with a glare. Hakeem Olajuwon once said the player he most dreaded was Mark Eaton.

“When we played the game, it certainly was much more physical,” Edwards said last week. “And when you’d leave the game you knew you competed and that was fun. Now it’s a free-flowing game and, to me, I don’t like it.”

He admits players such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant would have done just fine among players of yesteryear. Great and graceful talent shines in any age. But the difference, he claims, is in the degree of difficulty. In the 1990s, getting to the rim was like slashing through a rain forest. Malone would remove his jersey to reveal scratches, welts and deep bruises across his chest, back and sides. Edwards says the strategy against Michael Jordan was to repeatedly funnel him to the paint and work him like a prizefighter.

“By the fourth quarter he was worn down,” Edwards said. (Apparently that didn’t work during the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals.)

Edwards once drove the baseline at the Delta Center with Patrick Ewing looming in the paint. As Edwards rose to dunk, he put out a knee to protect himself. Ewing countered by doubling his fist and punching him in the stomach.

“It took my breath from me,” Edwards said. “I thought several times about going to the basket again, but all of a sudden, that part of my game was taken away.”

Edwards says he isn’t dismissing today’s biggest stars; he knows players like Stephen Curry and LeBron James are transcendent talents. But in the old physical game, “it would have changed the way they play.” He has known Curry for decades, and considers himself a knowledgeable source on the Warriors star.

“But there is no way, no way he would have shot 15 threes against a Jazz team,” Edwards said. “It would not have happened.”

Jerry Sloan — the all-time roughneck — would have put an early end to it.

“Jerry would use that farm logic. You know what? If I were guarding that guy in the middle and he would have made two shots in a row, Jerry would have said, ‘Let’s see if he makes two shots sitting on his (rear).’”

In that light, today’s player stats “would be just a little bit less, because of the physical grind.”

Their highlights might be as pretty ever. But oh, what a price in pain.

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