What if GeneralRobert E. Lee, after all those terrible months in the trenches at Richmond, hadgone off to surrender at Appomattox only to find that his troops would not quitfighting? Well, after four years under constant siege by the rebel AmericanBasketball Association, the National Basketball Association has finallycapitulated and agreed to merge. At least, the NBA owners have agreed. Theirplayers have not. After all, the hostilities turned them into some of history'smost generously rewarded war profiteers.
Today, the mergerthat seemed so near last spring is still incomplete. But for the fans, the daysare now past when clamor about player raids, interleague intrigues and othernonbasketball brouhaha can detract from the game itself. Beginning with theseason-opening tip-offs last week, basketball is back.
Sometime in thenext few months Congress will act on the battle between owners and players, butwhatever the final decision it will have little effect on the face of the game.If the players win—and theirs is the stronger philosophical position—the bosseswill grouse for a time, a franchise or two may fail and then the front offices(perhaps those in baseball and football as well) will adjust to the hardreality of doing business in a free-market economy. Should the owners win—andthat also must be considered a possibility since Congress is often responsiveto those who appear before it with the most money and influence—the playerswill grouse awhile, continue to compete as hard as they do now and watch theiraverage salaries slowly decrease.
If the noticegiven the opening round of Senate hearings earlier this month is a trueindicator, fans will have to subscribe to the Congressional Record to find outhow the owner-player battle fares. But most basketball buffs will be too busyenjoying the sight of Kareem Jabbar, stronger and better than ever, trying topropel Milwaukee to another championship, or Julius Erving, very likely thebest rookie in either league, doing his thing for Virginia.
Defense isanother aspect of the game well worth watching. Scoring in the NBA has droppedsteadily over the past few seasons, and the once point-happy ABA is certain tobegin following the trend now that the talent and size of its players arereaching NBA proportions. Ten seasons ago five NBA players averaged at least 30points per game; last year only Jabbar among all pros reached that level. Inthe 1961-62 season the average NBA team scored 120 points a game; in 1970-71the mean was 112.
Jerry West, a topscorer throughout the past decade, says, "Defenses all around the leagueare more sophisticated. This has necessitated a change in all players. The daysof four or five guys averaging 30 points are gone. There are more complex zonetypes of defenses now. They have the appearance of man-to-man but work on zoneprinciples."
Match-ups, likethe ones pictured on the preceding pages, are the key to good defense,particularly for teams without a huge, shot-blocking center. Coaches routinelyrespond to opponents' substitutions with lineup changes of their own,attempting to gain an edge in speed at one position or in height at another.For a coach, the ultimate tactical triumph is a mismatch in his team's favor, asituation in which the fine balance of talent has gone awry and put theopposition at a defensive disadvantage.
There will beplenty of interesting new match-ups this year involving the largest group ofgood young players ever to enter the pros in one season. Aside from regulardraftees like Portland's Sidney Wicks and the two giant, defense-orientedcenters, Artis Gilmore of Kentucky and Buffalo's Elmore Smith, there areseveral even younger rookies who have reached the pros a year or more beforetheir college careers were due to end. Erving, Cincinnati's Nate Williams andGeorge McGinnis of Indiana are among those who left school as a result ofwartime raids or because of the decision in the Spencer Haywood case whichobliges the leagues to permit special "hardship" cases to play evenbefore their college eligibilities have expired. The presence of thesepremature pros will make this spring's draft a monumental nonevent. The talentin the present college senior class is now considered so thin that at least onescout will be staying home most of the winter. Atlanta's Gene Tormohlen willspend less time viewing college games in order to remain with the Hawks andgive individual coaching to 7'2" hardship draftee Tom Payne, who was asophomore at Kentucky last season.
The youngerrookies, most of whom play in the ABA, will help the newer league move morerapidly to equality. There are other signs of approaching balance: the ABA'ssurprising record in interleague exhibitions (8-15), its success for the firsttime in matching the NBA in signing college seniors and the fact that it wasthe NBA which moved franchises and made more major trades during the offseason.
The two leaguesare not equal yet, but within each of them tight races, far more exciting thanthat dreary battle between the players and owners, are at hand. Scoutingreports on the NBA and the ABA start on the next page.