Time to turn the question on its head. Could today's NBA player—first-class airline passenger, Fortune 500 candidate, a man incapable of buying groceries without lust calling a meeting of his 10-man advisory staff—have played in yesterday's NBA? Strap him into the Way-Back Machine, and the player of the '90s would have to adapt to:
•Crude conveyances. During the 1940s, players throughout the league dreaded the marathon train trip to Minneapolis, and not merely because they had to play the mighty Lakers upon disembarking. Even a short trip had its perils. A typical swing through the Northeast in the '50s consisted of a Friday night game in Philadelphia, a Saturday morning bus trip to New York for a name that night and an overnight train to Syracuse for a game Sunday afternoon. "When we Hew on DC-3s, we thought we were doing well," says Dolph Schayes. (The 1960 Lakers might have thought otherwise after once making an unscheduled landing in an Iowa cornfield on a DC-3.)
•Half-court offenses with no clock. The 24-second clock wasn't introduced until 1954. Before then, quickness was of some value, but speed was a largely wasted skill, particularly in frontcourtmen. "Many of today's players are only effective in the transition game," says Elgin Baylor, the Minneapolis/L.A. Lakers' star from 1958 to 1972 and now the general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers. Which is another way of saying that today's players might have been mere show horses in the '40s.
•No gimmes. Today, in addition to Charlotte, Miami, Minnesota and Orlando, the schedule includes such de facto expansion teams as the Clippers, the Sacramento Kings and the New Jersey Nets. "Expansion has added players who couldn't have played in my era." says Jerry West. Adds Bob Cousy, "In my day the NBA had nine teams, and the old clichè about 'On any given night' held." If Cousy was facing Minneapolis's Slater Martin or Syracuse's Larry Costello, he knew they had his every tendency down and would devote all their energy to Stopping him.
•The prevailing suck-it-up attitude. "You didn't miss a game." says Bob Pettit, who played through hand, ankle, knee, back, groin and stomach ailments. "I broke my hand one night and played the next day. I remember another time spraining my ankle, dressing on my back and playing that night."
•Champions who really defended their titles. "Today's player will work every bit as hard as yesterday's to reach the top of the hill once," says Cousy. "But he won't work nearly as hard to stay there. With the no-cut, guaranteed contract, compensation isn't predicated on production. I know, today's jock says, 'Hey, I've got pride.' But there's got to be some reason there wasn't a repeat champion for 20 years [between the '69 Celtics and the '88 Lakers]."
•Skinflint owners. The modern player insists on a guarantee up front, and then—usually while citing some affront to his "dignity" or limit on his "freedom"—often asks for a renegotiation of that guarantee. Not so once upon a time. "Veterans would have one-year deals, and management didn't want to hear about contract extensions while the season was going on," says West. Not until 1954, when a radical named Cousy formed the Players Association, did the players' lot slowly begin to change. "If I were black, I'd be H. Rap Brown," Cousy had said back in the '60s. "No, I'd be dead."
Today's NBA player knows all about H. Rap Brown. He's the guy on MTV weekday afternoons, right?
H.G. WALKER/LIFE MAGAZINE (BUS)
Kevin McHale and mates might balk at a bus trip.
NATHANIEL BUTLER NBA PHOTOS (MCHALE)
[See caption above.]