Recently, Charles Oakley sounded off about the modern NBA, letting us know that he did not think the game has progressed to his liking since he retired about a decade ago. Oakley’s complaint is that the modern players lack something: “I don’t know what it is. They just roll you out there like a basketball. That’s why … you see the same teams in the finals or winning 55 games. Strong teams, strong-minded coach. Just the players, they don’t think it, they don’t know how to play together. So that’s one of things I see the weakness is: Communication, the guys don’t love the game. They play the game, but they don’t play with their heart.” Oak also declared today’s games less watchable because the players are not as “strong” as they were.
Now, there is more than a little bit of irony that anyone who played in the 1990s, particularly with brutish Pat Riley Knicks, would be complaining about the watchability of the modern NBA. In fairness, I actually enjoyed watching the old Knicks and like Oakley’s style quite a bit. Still, his assessments don’t pass the straight face test. Those old Knicks/Pacers/Heat wrestling matches were entertaining but not a sustainable long term model for the NBA, as many others, notably Kelly Dwyer, have ably explained.
What interests me is not the substance of Oakley’s comments but the fact that they exist at all. Am I really old enough that players I watched as a kid are already bitching about the olden times in non-specific terms? Apparently, yes. Also, what is the deal with retired vets insisting that their times were the best?
It is natural for the old guard to extol the virtues of its era(s). In some ways, our self-worth is tied up in recognition that things were done better back in the day. I remember all sorts of complaints from old-timers about the modern NBA back when Oak was playing and just rolling my eyes. Cue the shrill old man voice and look at a sampling:
-Wilt Chamberlain from “Tall Tales” in 1992: “I watch today’s players and I see all these 360-degree dunks and other hot-dog moves and I think, ‘We never did that garbage.’ Not because we couldn’t do it. Don’t you think that Wilt Chamberlain or Elgin Baylor could do some incredible dunks? All you had to do was see us practice. But there was a code of conduct about the games. Yes, you dunked, buy you didn’t dunk to show up an opponent.”
-Bill Russell from “Mr. Basketball” in 2007: “The league is bigger today, players make a lot more money, and the league is successfully selling the sport all around the world. But we had better teams when I was playing, and I believe the average player was better than the average player today.”
-Oscar Robertson in a 2011 interview responding to whether Michael Jordan was the best player ever: “The problem today is you get some people [who] have never been around basketball. The media now has anointed Michael Jordan the greatest of all time. Is he greatest of all time? No, I don’t think he is. I think he is a great player. There have been other great players as well, great players before I played.”
The bottom line is that the NBA has probably steadily improved over time. The training is better (both on the coaching level and with regard to physical preparation), more people play basketball than ever before (the population larger and the talent pool is much deeper), and the money is much better (who could forget the old days when Paul Arizin retired to work for IBM, rather than move to California to play with the Warriors?). All these factors, point to improvement in the craft. Putting aside general improvements, rules and style of play also matter. Wilt could average 50 points per game when all the teams were running at a prolific pace and Oakley had more value when you had more leeway to bludgeon your opponent. These facts don’t make today’s game better or worse, just different. (As for the Big O, he was a great player but his implication that he was better than MJ if off base).
We shouldn’t denigrate the players of the past but the fact is players today, on a whole, are better. But let’s not be as reflexively dismissive of the old-timers as all bitter guys or lacking pragmatism. It easy to find plenty who sees things more reasonably:
-In Wayne Lynch in 2002’s “Season of the 76ers” (about the 1966-67 excellent Philly team), Matt Goukas noted that his team’s offense wasn’t up to modern standards when watching tape of an old Wilt-Russell game from 1968: “[Our offensive s]pacing was brutal, but nobody even knew the concept then.”
-Dolph Schayes in a recent interview: “Today’s players are incredible athletes compared to our day. We played more of a passing game then it is today but the rivalries were unbelievable, like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, which was one for the ages.”
-Larry Bird in a recent interview: “I think the game’s changed for the better. We had some great players back in my day, but they’ve got some really great players now. Players that could play in any era and I love watching them play.”
In the end, we are really observing human nature. The validity of basketball from different eras doesn’t rest upon denigrating other eras. I guess the lesson is, in basketball and life, take a detached point of view and try to observe things objectively. But if you run into Oakley, don’t tell him the message was from me.