Publish date:

Starring, but not starting

In picking the NBA's All-Bench Team, the author says these subs are super

Kevin McHale whiles away his idle hours on the Boston Celtics' bench by telling jokes and cracking wise with teammates. Michael Cooper of the L.A. Lakers sits on the sidelines with his legs crossed demurely, patiently awaiting his coach's call. Houston's Calvin Murphy, on the other hand, maintains such a sharp state of readiness that Rocket Coach Del Harris says that when he beckons Murphy, he "leaps off the bench so quick he scares the guys around him."

McHale, Cooper and Murphy are talented enough to start for most NBA teams but, like a select number of other players, they have become too valuable as reserves to be thought of as anything quite so common as starters. There are 115 players who start for the 23 teams in the NBA, but there are perhaps fewer than a dozen who can come off the bench and consistently make an impact. The best subs have the capacity to deliver a burst of instant offense, and some of them, notably Cooper and McHale, can produce spectacular defense. "If I had Kevin on one of those teams they say he could start for," Boston Coach Bill Fitch says, "I still wouldn't necessarily start him, because he's too valuable as he is. He can do a very difficult thing, which is to go effectively from a dead start into a game that's already in motion."

No one has ever performed that role as well as John Havlicek did for half of his 16 seasons in Boston. One player who came close to matching Havlicek was Billy Cunningham, the Philadelphia 76ers' sixth man before he became a starting star. "It's unlike stepping in in any other sport," says Cunningham, now the Philly coach. "In football, a backup quarterback gets to throw on the sidelines before going in. A relief pitcher has the bullpen. But in basketball you're thrown in the midstream and you're expected to fit in right away." Herewith six subs who have performed swimmingly this season, our 1981-82 NBA All-Bench Team.

THE FORWARDS. Over the past three seasons Milwaukee's Junior Bridgeman has led all NBA non-starters in scoring (16.6 points per game). Though hampered by injuries so far in 1981-82, he has been the Bucks' third-leading scorer behind starter Sidney Moncrief and sub Brian Winters. Bridgeman was set to start in 1977, but the Bucks drafted Marques Johnson and that was that. "Being the sixth man has its own kind of distinction," says Bridgeman, a 6'5" swing-man. "It seems when you have that title you're looked at as having a more important role with the team."

Though he's just 6'7", Detroit's Terry Tyler has led the league's forwards in blocked shots three years running and is among the leaders again this season ranking tenth with two a game. He has rejected as many as nine shots in a game. His team-record 290th consecutive game played was a 108-107 victory over the Atlanta Hawks last week, and Tyler's performance in it was only a bit better than usual: 8 for 8 from the field, 2 for 2 from the free-throw line, 18 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots in 31 minutes. Tyler is an animated, handslapping player. "Fun, that's my game," he says.

CENTER. Atlanta Coach Kevin Loughery says McHale is already "one of the top 10 players in the league," and who could disagree after McHale's outstanding rookie season in 1980-81 and his clutch performance in the playoffs? McHale is 6'10" and has long arms even for his size, but it's his splendid timing that makes him potentially the second-best white shot-blocker in NBA history, surpassed only by Bill Walton. He's currently sixth in the league with 2.16 blocks per game, as well as eighth in field-goal percentage (.561). But in Boston he sits while Robert Parish, Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell start up front. "To tell the truth," McHale says, "I kind of like being on the bench. I've had my taste of starting, and I don't need it. I don't consider myself any less an efficient player because I don't start."

GUARD. Seattle's aging Freddie Brown is still a delight when his quick-release cruise missiles are falling. "Start with Downtown," says Fitch in naming super subs. "Now he's a shooting specialist, but he played third guard on that team when he was better than either of the starters, [Dennis] Johnson or [Gus] Williams. He had to accept that role and he did." Brown once scored 58 points in a game as a starter and, at age 33, is still capable of all sorts of moves. One favorite is to wait until an opponent is lined up for a free throw and then walk across the lane in front of him.

Murphy and Brown are the only two active players who have been with the same team for 10 or more years, and that longevity is testament to their worth. Murphy is beyond his best years, but he's as tenacious as ever and still rolls up impressive numbers on occasion, as he did last month when he scored 31 points against Golden State and then had 33 against Seattle two nights later. Murphy is an excellent free-throw shooter—his career mark, .890, is best among active players—but that's one department in which, he says, being a substitute has hurt him. "It's much more difficult being a consistent free-throw shooter off the bench. You might go a week or 10 days without ever trying one, then come in cold and have to shoot one in the first 30 seconds."

SIXTH MAN. Michael Cooper has become, quite simply, the best player off the bench in pro basketball. A third-round draft choice who was almost cut by the Lakers two seasons ago, Cooper earned a spot on the roster with his defense and then he went out last summer and got himself a jump shot. Now the second leading shooter among the league's guards (.541). Coupe de Ville, as he is called by his teammates, has become a virtual cult figure among Laker fans, who breathlessly await each new Coop-a-Loop. That is an alley-oop, sky-slam play that Cooper has made his trademark this season. "We've been called a circus," Cooper says, "and while the fans come to watch the other guys, I show 'em my act. I'm just a sideshow right now, trying to get to the main tent."

There are other bench noteworthies, of course, players that no self-respecting All-Bench contingent should be without. Washington's rookie center-forward, Jeff Ruland, has been the find of the season, and Philadelphia would be less of a threat without the amazing arsenal of Guard Andrew Toney. But it's a six-man team and, hey, not everybody can start. On the NBA All-Bench Team it's not just how you play that counts, it's how well you wait your turn.


Those who not only sit and wait but also excel are, from left to right, Brown, Bridgeman, Murphy, Cooper, McHale and Tyler.