The Game changes so fast. Elgin Baylor becomes Julius Erving,
who becomes Michael Jordan, and it all happens so seamlessly
that we hardly notice it. Somewhere along the line the layup
gives way to the dunk, Bob Cousy evolves into Magic Johnson, the
skyhook becomes the Shaq Attack. And kids who used to buy
trading cards are accessing http://www.nba.com.
Most of us take it all for granted. Or we would, if this year
wasn't the 50th anniversary of the NBA, a milestone that makes
us stop and survey the distance the game and the league have
traveled in the last half-century. On Nov. 1, 1946, the New York
Knickerbockers defeated the Toronto Huskies 68-66 in the debut
of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), the forerunner
of the NBA. The best seats at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto that
night cost $2.50, a bit more affordable than the $1,000
courtside seats at Knicks games in Madison Square Garden today.
The average player salary that first year was about $4,500, or
roughly the amount that some of today's players spend on a suit.
Teams traveled by bus and train in the early years; now
customized chartered planes are all the rage. Nine Toronto
businessmen paid approximately $100,000 for the Huskies
franchise, which folded after the first year; 49 years later,
the expansion Toronto Raptors franchise cost $125 million.
This will be a season to marvel at the transformation the NBA
has undergone not just in 50 years but also in a single summer.
Perhaps you don't remember George Mikan in a Minneapolis Lakers
uniform 48 years ago, but you surely recall Shaquille O'Neal in
an Orlando Magic jersey six months ago. Both images belong to
history now. Maybe you don't miss the old Providence
Steamrollers of 1946-47, but surely you will notice the absence
of the old Phoenix Suns of 1995-96, who don't look much like
they did a season ago.
After a wild summer of free-agent spending and trading, the
league's salary structure has been permanently altered. On some
future NBA timeline, this year will be prominent not just
because it marked the league's golden anniversary but also
because it was the beginning of a new era, with the signing of
the first $100 million free-agent contracts, by O'Neal ($120
million) with the Los Angeles Lakers and by two players who
re-signed with their teams, forward Juwan Howard ($105 million)
of the Washington Bullets and center Alonzo Mourning ($105
million) of the Miami Heat. It may also be remembered as the
year it became more acceptable for players to head straight from
their high school proms to the NBA draft, as 17-year-old guard
Kobe Bryant (selected by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the
Lakers) and 18-year-old center Jermaine O'Neal (chosen by the
Portland Trail Blazers) opted for the pros over college. These
are ominous changes for the NBA; paying obscenely high salaries
and providing an incentive for teenagers to skip college are not
the best ways to endear yourself to fans.
Appropriately enough for a league that has reached middle age,
several of its teams have undergone radical face-lifts. With
forward Charles Barkley having joined fellow All-Stars center
Hakeem Olajuwon and guard Clyde Drexler on the Houston Rockets,
the Hall of Fame might want to consider opening a branch office
in southeast Texas. The team Barkley left, the Suns, received
four Rockets in return (guard Sam Cassell and forwards Robert
Horry, Chucky Brown and Mark Bryant), who will provide Phoenix
with depth and versatility. The Knicks, old and impotent when we
last saw them, are now younger and more powerful offensively
thanks to the off-season additions of forward Larry Johnson (in
a trade from the Hornets) and free-agent guards Allan Houston
(late of the Detroit Pistons) and Chris Childs (the New Jersey
Nets), making them the Eastern Conference team with the best
chance of forcing the defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls to
break a sweat. And when O'Neal decided to consolidate his
basketball and entertainment careers by moving to Los Angeles,
he at once turned L.A. into a contender and Orlando into a
There are so many familiar faces in new places that it may take
until the All-Star break for fans to readily attach a player to
his new uniform. Center Dikembe Mutombo, previously the most
recognizable Denver Nugget, is now an Atlanta Hawk. Guard Kenny
Anderson is in New Jersey...no, Charlotte...no, Portland...
that's it, Portland. In August forward-center Kevin Willis
signed with Houston, his third team (after Miami and the Golden
State Warriors) in six months.
"It's all about change," O'Neal said when he announced his
signing with the Lakers. That's as good a motto as any for this
NBA season. O'Neal also said change is good, which is sometimes
true (24-second clock, three-point shot, alley-oop) and
sometimes not (TV timeouts, trash talk, Dream Teams). But change
is certainly unavoidable, especially in this era when signing
free agents has replaced the draft as the preferred way to
reconstruct a team. The most prized possession other than a
championship ring has become salary-cap space. Some $9.5 million
of it allowed the decrepit Knicks to rebuild in a heartbeat,
since they were free to spend the loot to lure Houston (at $56
million over seven years) and Childs ($24 million over six
years) and to deal for Johnson, who has nine years and more than
$70 million left on his contract. Those additions should be
enough to vault New York past Eastern Conference rivals Orlando
and the Indiana Pacers. The Magic will still be formidable
without O'Neal, but the only championship Orlando fans can
realistically hope for this season is the scoring title, for
which point guard Penny Hardaway could battle you-know-who, now
that Hardaway is the focal point of the Magic offense.
But no one in the East has reached the level of the Bulls, one
of the few teams that changed very little in the off-season.
Chicago simply re-signed Jordan, forward Dennis Rodman and coach
Phil Jackson, all for one year, and its only significant
addition was 43-year-old third-string center Robert Parish. If
the Bulls stay healthy and Rodman stays interested, Chicago
should make another trip to the Finals, where it once again will
meet last spring's foe, the Western Conference champion Seattle
SuperSonics. The Sonics, with their defense and depth, should
have enough to hold off the Lakers and the Rockets, the latter
being Seattle's likely opponents in the West finals.
But the same two teams reaching the Finals does not mean this
season will be a repeat of the last. The Bulls and the Sonics
have a radically altered league to deal with. And if they meet
again in June, the circumstances will be different then as well.
Chicago will arrive after having won "only" about 65 games,
instead of last season's record-breaking 72. Seattle will be far
more confident than it was entering last year's Finals, which is
why at least a few observers will pick the Sonics to win the
series. Jordan simply will smile and make sure the Bulls prevail
in Game 7 for their fifth title in seven years.
Some things never change.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS The Ringmaster Former Celtic Bill Russell shows off a handful of the loot he amassed as the most prolific winner in the NBA's first 50 seasons [Bill Russell holding NBA championship rings--T of C]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ICONS BY MICHAEL CUSTODE [Drawing of basketball shoes and basketball basket]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Rookies Kobe Bryant, CLass of '96, and Al Brightman, Class of '46--a year when everyone was a rookie [Kobe Bryant]
B/W PHOTO: AP [See caption above--Al Brightman]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL BAPTIST/NBA PHOTOS The Knicks' Johnson is one of this season's dizzying array of new faces in new places. [Larry Johnson]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER In the Finals, Hersey Hawkins and Seattle will try to avoid being floored again by Jordan. [Hersey Hawkins and Michael Jordan grappling for basketball]