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Blog #13: The NBA Line of Demarcation and the Top 30 NBA Players of All Time (Part 1)

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The history of the National Basketball Association is broken up into three very distinct eras in my opinion. The Alpha Era is the beginning, the creation of the league itself. On June 6, 1946 in New York City, the Basketball Association of America was founded. Merging with the National Basketball League after the 1949 season, the eight-team National Basketball Association was official, with teams in smaller cities moving to larger cities and playing in larger arenas. The quality of play was said to be at or below independent teams such as the Harlem Globetrotters and top NCAA basketball teams, but it was an important foundation.

The Growth Era was ushered in by premier talents such as George Mikan, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The quality of play rose to be the best in the world by far, and the popularity as well as the attendance started to increase, though it was still behind Baseball, Boxing, Horse Racing, Football and even Hockey in the hearts of American sports fans. In Boston, for example, the basketball Celtics played in a half full Boston Garden during most of its championship run in the 1960s, while the hockey Bruins weren’t nearly as successful on the ice, but they packed the Garden to its rafters on a nightly basis. Chamberlain’s iconic 100-point game was not played in Philadelphia, but the Warriors played that game in front of less than 6000 people in an old gym in Hershey, PA. The game was not televised, and actual footage of that legendary game does not exist. Still, Russell, Chamberlain and others early legends such as Bob Cousy, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West grew the game significantly.

During the mid-1970s, the league took a big step backwards in the eyes of the American Public. Many perceived the Association to have a drug problem, which was bigger that the fact that it actually did have a huge drug problem. Just as damaging was that the NBA was being defined as too Black, and that had the effect of hurting attendance and ratings. It got so bad that games during the regular season were rarely on television, and even televised playoff games were pushed to weekends. In a telling blow, the NBA World Championship Series were actually tape delayed until after the late local news nationally on CBS during weeknights. The Association was in danger of becoming an afterthought or, even worse, nonexistent in the eyes of the American Public.

Three men combined to forever change the scope and the trajectory of the Association. The fact that they crossed paths was serendipitous, and history has confirmed that they were the right men in the right place at the right time with the unique talents and makeup to lead this lost league out of the wilderness.

David Stern was a graduate of Columbia Law School in Manhattan in 1966 and he joined a law firm that represented the NBA after passing the Bar. He quickly became the Lead Attorney for the NBA at the firm before joining the Association as General Counsel in 1978. Commissioner Lawrence O’Brien promoted Stern to Executive Vice President for Business and Legal Affairs in 1980, and that put him in charge of marketing, television and public affairs. His first move was to solve the league’s drug problem by instituting the first Drug Testing Policy in the history of North American Team Sports. It helped clean up the NBA’s image problem, as well as mitigating the problem itself. An even bigger focus for Stern was to put the spotlight on individual players, which was a bold departure from team sports focus in that era. He recognized that the NBA was uniquely suited to that focus due to the close proximity of fans to players along with faces not covered with protective equipment or even hats like other sports. The recipe for success was being refined; all that was needed was the right ingredients.

Larry Bird was raised in French Lick, IN, where he had to endure his parents divorcing and his father committing suicide before becoming a star basketball player at Spring Valley High School. He received a basketball scholarship from Indiana University, but he left Bloomington after just one month. After a year off, he enrolled at Indiana State University, where he capped a stellar three-year career with an undefeated run to the NCAA Finals in his senior year, where he and the Sycamores were defeated by Michigan State in 1979. He was 6 feet 9 inches with a shooting range that was unlimited as well as uncanny ball sense and court smarts, and he had the added benefit of being White, which could draw in fans who might not otherwise be as interested in the NBA. Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics recognized Bird’s potential by drafting him before his senior year by using the Junior Eligible rule that no longer exists, so Bird know exactly where he was heading next, to one of the two bedrock NBA franchises.

Earvin Johnson grew up in Lansing, MI, dreaming of the eventual opportunity to play basketball for Sexton High School, which was mostly Black. He was crushed when he learned that he was to be bused to the mostly White Everett High School, where his older brother was kicked off the basketball team and encouraged him not to play. After overcoming some earlier obstacles, he became one of the best players ever to come out of the State of Michigan. When he scored 36 points and added 18 rebounds and 15 assists in a game as a sophomore, a local reporter gave him the clearly appropriate nickname of “Magic” which obviously stuck. Magic eventually led Everett to the state championship in his senior year. At 6 feet 9 inches and possessing nonpareil ball handling skills and court vision, he chose to accept a basketball scholarship from Michigan State University over the University of Michigan among many others, and he led the Spartans to the 1979 NCAA Championship in his second year. He decided to declare for the draft after his very successful sophomore season, and the Los Angeles Lakers made him the first pick in the NBA Draft that year. His towering achievements combined with his magnetic personality made him an instant superstar going to the other bedrock NBA franchise. In hindsight, Johnson credits going to Everett instead of Sexton as the reason he became so relatable to a wide swath of the American Public. Right ingredients, indeed.

Johnson and Michigan State’s victory over Bird and Indiana State for the 1979 NCAA Basketball Championship was perhaps THE seminal moment in all of basketball history. It was, and it still remains the highest rated basketball game ever televised, but even more important, greatness was confirmed for not one, but two ready-made superstars that would join the two signature NBA teams on both coasts. The blue-collar Bird would be in New England just a stone’s throw away from the largest media market in the country and the Financial Center of the World in New York City, and the flashy Johnson would be in Southern California in the second largest media market in the country and the Entertainment Capital of the World in Los Angeles. David Stern could not have contrived a better setup if he tried, and when Johnson’s Lakers won the 1980 NBA World Championship Series with a scintillating Game 6 performance from him and Bird’s Celtics did the same in 1981, the popularity of the Association exploded. Combined with popular holdovers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Bill Walton and others, as well as other college superstars arriving in James Worthy, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, the 1980s ushered in a whole new day for the NBA. The Crown Jewel was Michael Jordan, who was drafted in 1984 by the franchise in the third dominant city in the middle of the country, Chicago. It was the same year that David Stern replaced O’Brien as the Commissioner of NBA, and he renamed the clunky NBA World Championship Series to the more appropriate and simple The Finals, a catchy name more in the line of The Super Bowl and The World Series. While Johnson and Bird’s popularity was extensive, Jordan’s popularity and reach was worldwide, even before he went on his championship run. The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost of the NBA lifted the Association to heights that lasts until the present day, and it is now clearly the second most popular sport in the United States closely behind the National Football League. Stern’s 30 years as NBA Commissioner was the most successful run of any in the history of sports, and in his final act he left the Association in very capable hands with his hand-picked successor, Adam Silver. The beat goes on.

In the eyes of this humble writer, there is a clear demarcation between the NBA before both Johnson and Bird arrived in 1980 and after, it also coincides with this writer’s viewing of the sport. I started as a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers as a 10-year-old in 1974 because I liked the name Happy Hairston, a forward in his last season with the Lakers. Little did I know that it would lead to a 42-year association with a team that won ten championships during that time. It helped that Dr. Jerry Buss bought the Lakers in 1979, and he went on to be the best Owner in the history of North American Team Sports. The association ended with the retirement of Kobe Bryant in 2016, and because the pull of the only hometown professional franchise this writer would ever have in the Oklahoma City Thunder was much too strong. The titles begun in 1980, and so did the dawning of a new and clearly defined era in the NBA. This era is so far above previous eras that it might as well be another sport in my opinion. Adding the fact that the three-point line was imported from the defunct ABA in 1980, and the sport’s metamorphous was compete, thus the Modern Era began.

Continued on Part 2


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