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Home, sweet home is sweeter than ever

The home-court advantage has always been a big plus in the NBA, but this season it's a whole lot bigger. The main reason is a different kind of schedule. Other factors are deeper benches, more frenzied crowds. It can add up to a 10-point edge

Of the strange phenomenon known as "home and away," an obscure philosopher—perhaps it was Lenny Bruce—once said: "I violate you at my place. You violate me at yours. What could be fairer than that?"

Lenny would not have said "violate," but you get the picture. Which is that in the National Basketball Association the buses are slow, the planes are late, the gates are far away, somebody took a hatchet to the suitcases, there aren't any cabs, there are 99 steps to the hotel lobby, the room is small, the bed is hard. the food is miserable, old playground buddies demand comps, the backboards sway, the scorekeepers cheat, the ball bounces the other way and assorted maniacs scream for blood. In short, in the NBA nobody wins on the road anymore.

One would think that the pros, who are creatures of habit, would be unaffected by exhausting travel, emotional uprisings and the peculiar directions of their old friend. Mo Mentum. However, through nearly the first two months of the season the NBA home-team winning percentage hovered around 73%, up 8% from last year. Teams such as Portland and Denver were undefeated in the friendly confines, Milwaukee was un-victorious on the road and the hilarious Seattle SuperSonics nearly managed to be both at the same time. During this period, Seattle was in the process of running its home winning streak to 29 and its losing streak on the road to 14 (both figures over two seasons).

As a point of comparison it should be noted that in baseball the world champion Cincinnati BR Machine won 65% of its away games and in football the Super Bowl-bound Raiders and Vikings took II of 14 road contests. On the other hand, through the end of the year the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics had won only seven of 18 road games (two in overtime) while the four division leaders—Philadelphia, Houston, Denver and Portland—had a breathtaking .387 winning percentage on the road. The other 18 pro teams boasted a pathetic 85-220 record on foreign courts.

Among the more curious home and away exchanges have been swings of 39 points in two games between Houston and Milwaukee, 43 between Portland and Philadelphia and 53 between Kansas City and San Antonio. The Kings defeated the Spurs by 28 (130-102) at home in Kemper Arena, then lost to them by 25 (129-104) at the Hemisfair in Texas.

At home, the Sonics whipped the Central Division-leading Cavaliers, holding them to just 78 points, while in the course of another defeat on the long and winding road, they permitted the Central's fourth-place Spurs 138. Currently, Seattle's home and away records are, respectively, 14-2 and 4-14.

Sonics Coach Bill Russell has been asked again and again why Seattle imitated Attila at home and Holly Hobbie away. "Hey, Big Bill, hey, you figured out a reason?" reporters asked him following a tough loss at Boston. Russell folded his arms, raised his bearded visage and glared over the tops of his inquisitors' heads. Seconds passed. More seconds. And more. Was Russell contemplating dinner at Jimmy's Harborside? Increased rates for L-o-n-g D-i-s-t-a-n-c-e? The number of reporters he could pound into the concrete? Russell just kept glaring. He never did answer.

The disparity in the SuperSonics' record is often attributed to the fact that the team's all-so-obvious game plan of Get The Other Team As Confused As We Are works better in familiar surroundings. Yet despite Russell's silence, there are other reasons why the home-team tilt has been so pronounced throughout the league.

Home Attendance and Officiating. Fourteen teams are averaging more than 10,000 home spectators, pushing league attendance and, more important, enthusiasm to the highest pitch in years. This is one benefit of the expandomerger and the transfusion of new ABA faces and styles among players and coaches. Denver, Philadelphia, Cleveland and the New York Knicks are drawing better than 13,000 a game. "You'd think we were playing without pants on," says Nugget Coach Larry Brown. Portland and Seattle are often sold out. And the Knicks' fans—thrilled by the acquisition of this year's Christmas savior. Bob McAdoo—have not yet begun to bet, er, fight.

Increased attendance means more noise and fury. Visiting teams have trouble concentrating on the foul lines and keeping track of the shot clock as well as maintaining composure and tempers in the face of such insults as recently greeted Portland's Jack Ramsay and Dave Twardzik in Phoenix. "Hey, Ramsay," one transplanted Sun fan yelled at the former Buffalo coach. "We don't like Twardzik for the same reason we didn't like Buffalo. Too many Polacks!"

While Seattle was going down to its 138-114 defeat in San Antonio, not a few Spur partisans serenaded the Sonics with "We had a name for turkeys like you in the ABA. It was 'Virginia Squires.' "

As for officiating, though league statistics reveal that home teams shoot just two more foul shots per game than visiting teams, one or two important calls are enough to affect the outcome of most games and these always seem to be in the home team's favor. In support of former ABA coaches' claims that they get murdered on the road, the New York Nets' Kevin Loughery took a formidable early lead in the technical foul derby, even though his team has the NBA's second-best away record. 7-10. Detroit's Herb Brown says the refs regard him as a "whippersnapper" away from Cobo Hall. Los Angeles' Jerry West compares the situation to a prizefight. "Winning on the road is like beating the heavyweight champion," says West. "You got to score a knockout to get a decision."

Considering everything, wise heads at courtside claim a guest team must be about 12 points better in order to win by two. And this does not include the occasional havoc wreaked upon visitors by the clock operators. "I would never accuse anybody or name names," says Phoenix GM Jerry Colangelo, "but when the home team is behind in some cities, time seems to stand still."

Physical Parity and Psychological Barriers. The old saw about "on any given night..." is about as boring as any. Yet this year most teams are sufficiently close to equality in talent that a home-court advantage can be the determining factor. "We've never had such balance in the league," says Portland's Ramsay, "nor such a high level of competition."

The key here may be overall bench strength. There are about 63 players from last year's ABA rosters in the NBA, many of them reserves. This has created instant depth and stronger benches. Because as a rule home team substitutes wipe out visiting subs on motivation alone—shining on for the wife, kid, girl friend, agent, bill collector or owner—this is a significant edge.

Moreover, because teams play each other in only four games at most—sometimes two months apart—players are dependent upon scouting reports and are vulnerable to surprise. (Last year each team played its divisional rivals six or seven times and other conference teams five times; outside the conference, everybody played everybody else four times.) "In Portland Maurice Lucas was new to us," says Washington Bullet Coach Dick Motta. "The Bullets are full of household names and he was the new kid on the block. He wanted to put out a little more. He killed us." What Lucas did was score 30 points and take down 13 rebounds as well as drive Elvin Hayes to the bench on fouls.

Mentally, teams always have been screwed up on the road. Valhallas such as Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden still take their toll, as evidenced by Denver's first trip east. After winning their first eight games the Nuggets were absolutely awed during defeats in Boston—"I spent my whole life wanting to play on the funny squares here," said Dan Issel—and New York. "You know, when John Condon announced my name in Madison Square Garden. I...geez," sighed Denver Coach Brown.

Visiting teams bemoan the vicious-sounding fan clubs in San Antonio, the ceiling side lights in Buffalo, the altitude in Denver—"I can't breathe there. I gasp," says the Knicks' Earl Monroe—the low-ceiling acoustics in Chicago, the pastel blue backgrounds in Washington, the tight rims in Seattle.

"What altitude problem?" Cavalier Coach Bill Fitch asked before his first game in Denver. "We brought paper bags full of good Cleveland air." Then the Cavs breathed heavily, shot seven free throws to Denver's 39 and were beaten by 10 points, the team's fourth straight defeat on the road.

Bullet Coach Motta says the worst thing about playing in Seattle is the exit to the locker rooms. "It's way off in a corner and so narrow you feel like you're walking right into the crowd," he says. "I got hit by a cup of beer there once. Rick Barry got in a fight there. I'm nervous just walking through at halftime. Sometimes I wonder if the refs aren't influenced by worrying about leaving through that narrow little exit."

But Chicago Center Tom Boerwinkle thinks the home-away difference is all psychological. "You just feel when you go on the road, you're not going to win, and that in turn makes you feel you've just got to win at home. It's all self-perpetuating."

Scheduling Disasters and Miscellaneous Horrors. On 11 different occasions the Detroit Pistons are scheduled to play three games in three days. The Suns were forced to play their first six games on the road (they lost five). Over the holidays, the Celtics were in the midst of a 10-straight-road-game stretch, covering 22 days including Christmas and New Year's. West Coast clubs regularly set out on 40-day, 40-night excursions to the North Pole and back.

In a way, these forays pall beside individual hardships. Seattle's Bob Wilkerson says fellow rookie Dennis Johnson "hates New York, he's scared to death of taxis." San Antonio's Mark Olberding says the Forum in L.A. got to him because "I kept looking for movie stars, but I only saw Jack Nicholson." And Indiana's Billy Knight finds fault with road-trip cuisine because "I can't eat meat with any red. Just a little pink. That's a problem some places."

Of course, there are exceptions to the home-road equation, teams that make the trend-spotters go mad. Teams like the New York Nets, who have won seven games away from home but only five in the Nassau Coliseum, mainly because Nassau may be the unfriendliest court they play on. And teams like the Atlanta Hawks, who seldom win or draw friends anywhere.

After the Hawks swiped three consecutive victories on the road in early December, even their own families were stunned. But when they returned home to a rousing welcome from all of 2,500 people—who saw the team get back on the track by losing to Phoenix—nobody was surprised.

"We don't exactly fill the arenas up with rabid partisans," said Coach Hubie Brown. "When we go on the road, other teams have to get people off the street to come watch us."

You get some off the street at your place; Brown will get some off the street at his. But 2,500?