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Original Issue

The scarlet letter is Z

The zone may be illegal, but everybody in the league is using it, rule or no rule

Unless you are a coal miner or Cheryl Tiegs, you may be as alarmed as everybody else at the newest four-letter monstrosity that is rampaging through the newspapers, giving off enough evil connotations to get the entire sport of basketball thrown into jail. Unlike some of its predecessors—p-i-l-l, for instance, d-o-p-e, or even s-e-x—the word has not yet been banned in every God-fearing American household. But it is getting there.

As a matter of fact, the epithet in question, "zone"...Whew! There it is. Doesn't it even sound ugly? Z, as in zit. O, as in oaf. N, as in nasty. E, as in eccch. Historically it has been as dirty, as abominable and as strenuously to-be-eschewed a basketball term as a coach could utter. A zone defense always has implied that you are weak and lily-livered. A zone says you are afraid to match up with the other guy fair and square, head on, face-to-face, like, oh, you know, like a real man. A zone is a gimmick, a trick, an outrage against truth, fairness, art and Peter Pan. Put that fellow from San Clemente on a basketball court and you know he would immediately go into a zone.

Why, even in the college branch of the game all the wonderful legendary mentors of yesteryear piously claimed they avoided the zone defense like the plague. UCLA's John Wooden said he never used one. Ho, ho. (Don't ask Artis Gilmore how the Bruins stopped him and Jacksonville in the 1970 NCAA championship game.) And the late, always great Adolph Rupp, sly Baron that he was, fabricated a polysyllabic disguise for it when the Kentucky Wildcats went into what suspiciously resembled a stationary deployment of their defensive troops. "Now, boys, that was no zone," Adolph would drawl. "What you-all saw out there was the old stratified, transitional, hyperbolic paraboloid."

A fortnight ago at the ACC tournament, North Carolina Assistant Coach Eddie Fogler defended his team's much-maligned (for slowing the pace) "four corners" offense by verbally fast-breaking to the opposite extreme and cutting to ribbons none other than the zone defense. "The single biggest slowdown factor in basketball is the zone," Fogler said. After which, naturally, North Carolina went out and used it some of the time and lost, and Duke used it practically all the time and won.

Of course, the zone defense is illegal in pro basketball. Say what? Say illegal. Then, too, the speed limit is 55 mph on our highways. And snorting the ticket stubs is not permitted at our rock concerts. Also, children under 18 are not allowed to see The Betsy unless accompanied by parent or adult. In reality, the ordinance against zone defenses in the NBA is the most trampled-upon sports regulation since somebody ruled that hockey players should not open up heads with their sticks.

The NBA rule is written plainly enough, right there under "Fouls and Penalties, 12A, Section 1." The rule states flatly that a zone defense is not permitted, a zone in the pros being when a defensive player stands in the key area more than three seconds or when a defender is more than six to eight feet away from his man. Moreover, says the rule book, "the offensive team must prove the defensive team is not adhering to the rule as written by sending a player or players through the defense." If no defender follows these players, a zone is obviously being used and a violation should be called.

In the NBA's Russellian era, there was less open-floor activity than now and few centers ventured far from the basket. This made it possible for Boston's esteemed Bill Russell—titular defensive specialist that he was—to camp inside and protect the hoop as well as reject the advances of opposing pivotmen, because they were seldom more than two feet away, let alone six feet. The Celtics funneled everybody into Russell to be gobbled up like so many helpless flies detoured into a spider web. But make no mistake about it: Bill Russell played a zone.

In the current pro game, featuring more mobile big men, faster and quicker ball movement, smarter and bolder coaches and, especially, the influx of ABA-inspired pressing and trapping defenses (which referees, if not Joe Fan, seem to have a hard time distinguishing from zones), it is easy to understand why the scarlet letter Z has come into such vogue. And easier still to see—and hear—how the rule is broken.

•In Oakland, Golden State GM Scotty Stirling sends a film of a Warrior-Laker game to Norm Drucker, the NBA's supervisor of officials, which shows Rick Barry angling through the defense to the basket time after time without accompaniment. So little attention is paid him by his defender that Barry might as well be strolling off to his hair weaver. But the Lakers are issued only one zone warning all night. Stirling says he heard that when the league's competition committee took a look at the film, all someone said was, "The Warrior bench didn't bitch enough."

•In Philadelphia, the 76ers quintuple-team Kareem Abdul-Jabbar so completely that he seldom gets off a thought, much less a shot. Afterward Abdul is queried about the strange defense and says, "Well, if that wasn't a zone, the 76ers should have at least been given some parking tickets."

•In New Jersey, Coach Kevin Loughery holds up five fingers, and the Nets go into their Dis-co, Disco Duck alignment, wherein Bernard King finds himself guarding three men on the same play and 6'0" Kevin Porter finds himself checking a 7-footer. "Zone?" Loughery says, under intense questioning at precinct headquarters. "You must be seeing things, officer. What we do is trap."

•In Atlanta, Coach Hubie Brown explains how his team does not play a zone: "We are overmatched at four positions, usually five. We can't let you bring the ball down, back us in low and shoot in our faces. So we press and trap and double-team. We work hard at staying within the rules. We do not stand around." Brown's audience is too properly mystified to ask why, in the game moments earlier, Brown was screaming at his confused Hawks, "Stay, stay, stay! Dammit, just stay there!" as the opposition guards drifted through Atlanta's pressing, trapping, double-teaming and non-standing-around defense.

•In Los Angeles, the Times' Ted Green, who covers the Lakers, is asked if that team ever employs the infamous zone. "I think their regular defense is a zone," Green says. "I can't remember the Lakers playing man-to-man. I know they never get six to eight feet close to anybody." Jerry West, the coach, is asked the same thing. "Hell, yes, we play zone," he says. "The best one, too."

So what we have here is a failure to delineate. Placing all the cards on the table now, face up, it is safe to say that at one time or another everybody in the NBA uses a zone defense. When Bill Walton of Portland floats around the key pretending to be searching for his man when he really is looking for a bit of cucumber extract, that is a zone. When the Washington Bullets pack their front-line monsters inside and shut off access to everything but the Belt Parkway, that is a zone. When the Denver Nuggets abandon their own people to gang-attack a single man as if he had just accused John Denver of being a mass polluter, that, too, could be construed as a zone.

Weak teams use the zone to cut the clock and keep opponents out on the perimeter. Strong teams use it to protect their valuable players when they are in foul trouble. Middling teams use it to alter the flow and style of a game. Everybody tries to use it at the end of a quarter, to force a rushed shot from way outside.

"So why not permit it?" says Pete Newell, the former college and pro coach, who now scouts for the Warriors. "We have the best players and coaches in the world, but we confess we don't play a total game when we have to outlaw a part of basketball which is excellent strategy. People yell 'defense,' they know and appreciate what it means to prevent points being scored. They never yell 'offense.' I say allow all defensive tactics to make this an even better game."

Richie Powers, the senior NBA referee, evidently agreed with Newell on March 1 when he instructed both New Jersey Coach Loughery and Atlanta Coach Brown that he would take no notice of zones (he would not warn them, nor call technical fouls against them) in a game at Piscataway, N.J., which the Nets won 97-95 (SI, March 13). For his action Powers was suspended for three games and fined $2,500, a small price to pay if Powers' act has anything to do with influencing the rules committee either to strengthen legislation against zones or, better, to wipe it off the books.

"That rule is like a beard that I've been tripping over for 20 years," says Powers. "I'd like to see the zone allowed in exhibition games, just to see if it is the 'eating-up-the-game' piranha that the owners think it is. I don't believe it. The 24-second clock was put in to circumvent offenses from holding the ball. Zones would speed up the defense and force the offense to work harder. They would make everything balance out."

Of course, no lawman can take the law into his own hands, but in Powers' landmark test case, Atlanta shot 40.7%, made 29 turnovers and still only lost by two, on a technical foul at the end when the Hawks called a time-out they didn't have. "The so-called zone defenses had no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the game," said Brown.

Drucker points out that zone warnings are up all around the league, but that only about 20 technicals have been called (on the second warning) for using the zone. That's not even a full week's screeching for Loughery.

"We are working on rewriting the rule to put the onus on the defense to show they are not using a zone," says Drucker. Which makes about as much sense as anything else that the NBA has come up with. In essence, a team will be guilty of breaking a stupid rule until it proves itself innocent. Terrific.

"Language will not mitigate the problem," says Powers.

The league will have to come to some better resolution on this matter by next season or continue to be a laughingstock. The Kansas City Kings recently took a vote on which team has the best zone in the league and one player wrote. "They all do." Houston Coach Tom Nissalke suggests a $5,000 fine for offenders. Denver Coach Larry Brown, again waving the torn-to-shreds ABA banner, insists a 30-second clock and three-point baskets would waste the zone immediately.

Then again, there is always the question of how really mammoth in importance the subject is anyway. Aside from perhaps helping Hubie Brown become the odds-on favorite for Coach of the Year, has the zone determined division leaders or transformed the balance of power or changed the face of the NBA? "I never saw a team that was winning use a zone," says George (Ice) Gervin, answering everything. "I really ain't paid no attention to none of this."