“Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”
— Julius Erving
The words of the legendary Dr. J resonate more than ever when you look at today’s NBA. It’s too bad they are not being heeded, however.
What am I talking about?
This disgraceful and disgusting pattern of star players being “rested” throughout the season repeatedly by various coaches around the league.
Back in my day working in the NBA (in the 1980s), the thought of something like this was simply incomprehensible. Players and coaches alike felt it was their duty to put the best team possible on the floor every night.
If a player was legitimately injured, that was one thing, but to even consider holding out any player to let them rest was unthinkable.
As Michael Jordan, who always insisted on playing even in preseason games in smaller cities, once said: “The people may only get once chance to see you play, so you want to give them your best.”
This was back when pride still mattered. It sure seems like a long time ago now. In the NBA of 2015, it is more like the easy way is the right way. It really makes my stomach turn.
This issue has been bothering me the past few seasons as the likes of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and others have engaged in a pattern of continually denying the paying customers the best possible show. Holding out the likes of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and other stars because it is the second night of two consecutive games or some other nonsense.
These guys are some of the best, most well-conditioned athletes in the world and they can’t play two nights in a row?
I reached out to some folks who were associated with the NBA for many years to get their opinions on this subject and came up with some interesting and pointed feedback.
“I am amazed there hasn’t been more editorial and fan outrage expressed by the outrage orchestrated by copycat coaches (of Popovich) in a copycat league,” said Hall of Fame writer Peter Vecsey. “I am astounded by (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver’s acceptance of this disservice to paying customers.”
I could not agree with Vecsey’s comments more. We hear all about how it is a new era under Silver, following the retirement of former commissioner David Stern, but how about starting by making sure the fans get value for their money?
“Imagine saving up for a game vs. New Orleans in Philly,” Vecsey states. “Take your kid. Your team sucks. Now the opponent rests two of its stars. Hawks rested (Jeff) Teague and (Al) Horford, I believe. New Orleans rested (Jrue) Holiday and (Anthony) Davis. Philly cash customers got screwed three times over. More in fact.”
Coaches who enjoy long and successful tenures (like Bill Belichick of the NFL’s New England Patriots) develop what I call “superiority complexes.” The longer they are in their positions, the more emboldened they become, to the point where they dare people to challenge them.
These guys think they are invulnerable and push the envelope right to the very edge. This is a very regrettable attitude for the leaders of young men to have.
Because others see it and think it is acceptable behavior.
Former NBA coach Bob Hill, who piloted the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics during his long career, can’t believe what he is seeing.
“The only time I ever rested a player was Game 82 (the last of the regular season) my first year in San Antonio at Minnesota and I was warned by the league not to be resting anyone on purpose,” Hill stated.
He then broke the issue down to its most salient point.
“The fans are being cheated for sure,” he commented. “Things have really changed.”
I don’t know what is more pathetic, the coaches who employ this strategy or the players who go along with it.
I took a look back at the playing records of some of the all-time greats and saw that year after year, unless they had a serious injury, they took the floor in almost all of the games their teams played.
Jordan, as one example, played the full 82 games nine times in his 15-year career. In the years when he was not injured or returning to the NBA from baseball, he had seasons when he played 81, 80 and 78 games.
In the six seasons the Chicago Bulls won the NBA title with Jordan, the superstar missed a grand total of six games. In four of those seasons he played the full slate of 82 contests.
In Jordan’s final season, when he turned 40 while playing for the Washington Wizards, he played in all 82 games.
The record is almost the same for other Hall of Famers like Wilt Chamberlain, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Malone played 19 seasons in the NBA. Discounting the 1998-99 season that was shorted by a strike and an injury in his final year (2003-04), the power forward missed a total of nine games. That’s right, nine games in 17 seasons.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I followed the Warriors. Hall of Famer Rick Barry was my favorite player.
I can still remember his last season with the team (1977-78), when I was a junior in high school. During Easter break I convinced my mother to take me to see the Warriors play four home games.
Barry, at the age of 33, played in them all. I was absolutely thrilled.
But now we are seeing guys (like Golden State’s Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala) who are only 30 years old being held out of games when they are physically able to play. It’s a joke.
Joe Bryant, who played with Erving on the Philadelphia 76ers and is now the coach of the bj-league’s Rizing Fukuoka, was on target when I asked him for his take.
“That’s the difference between good players and great ones,” Bryant said. “The great ones play in all 82.”
Bryant points out how different it was in his time.
“In my day if you were a little hurt you had to play,” he said. “If you didn’t, somebody would be there trying to take your job.”
Bryant believes that labor matters have factored into the outlook the players now have.
“The players union wasn’t as strong when I was in the league,” he noted. “Now the guys have more security with the amount of money being paid and the guaranteed contracts, so they can sit out more easily.”
Bryant, who has coached in several different countries, admits that the subject is a tough one.
“It’s a slippery slope from the perspective of the fans,” he stated. “Of course when you are winning titles like San Antonio, it’s tough to argue with the results. I think it is up to the discretion of the coach and knowing his team.”
Back when Bryant played, NBA teams did not have all of the accessories of today. They did not have their own planes. They traveled on commercial flights often packed with regular customers.
Vecsey, who covered pro basketball for more than 40 years with the New York Post, points out the hypocrisy of players sitting out for no real reason.
“When you paid to see the Big E (Elvin Hayes) and Wilt and Kareem, you saw them unless they had legit injuries,” he recalls. “Today it’s stars resting. When life could not be easier and they could not be more coddled and catered to — charters, five-star hotels, massage therapists, hot tubs, latest medical equipment, foamed runways on their feet.
“Yet players need rest! How about stay in at night — alone.”
We hear talk about how Silver is improving conditions for the players (e.g. more days off at the All-Star break), but how about those for the fans, the true backbone of the league?
The NBA is on a big roll now with league revenues at an all-time high largely due to the astronomical TV contracts it has landed for the rights to air its games. The values of the teams are soaring and the players are making phenomenal amounts of money.
That’s all well and good, but Silver and his colleagues better remember that everything in life is cyclical. The time may come when fans who attend games and watch them on TV get fed up with the inferior product being presented and take their cash and attention elsewhere.