The National Basketball Associations (NBA) regular season opens tonight. For some years now – since Michael Jordan’s second retirement, anyway – all but hard-core basketball fans or those with a particular rooting intrest have generally taken the attitude, "wake me up in April, when the real season begins." That is, the playoffs. Others didn’t bother to pay attention until the Finals.
Things seemed to change last year. One could actually sit down and watch a NBA game from beginning to end, although the college game was still better. Rule changes – cutting down on physical contact – have helped. Foreign players continue to bring strong fundamentals and shooting skills. Teams like Phoenix and Dallas actually like to pass and are very good at it, even if Steve Nash does handle the ball too much sometimes (sorry, thats not just my opinion – friends in the coaching profession tell me that). Some of the incoming American talent, including Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, seem to get it or are getting there. I thought that NBA Commissioner David Stern was whistling in the dark when he insisted that the game was cyclical, that the retirement of Larry and Magic and Michael did not mark the end of basketball as we know it. He may have been right. I hope so. In any case I will watch tonight. The Phoenix Suns (assuming Amare Stoudemire is healthy) and the Cleveland Cavaliers are trendy expert picks to break through and meet in the Finals. The general managers like the Spurs and Heat. Well see. It is a long way until June, after all.
One general issue to follow – besides the controversial new basketball (slippery when wet) – is the health of key players on Team USA, which again failed to bring home the gold medal in this summers World Championship. The plans of USA basketball managing director Jerry Colengalo and Coach K to keep a core group together through the 2008 Olympic Games could come into question if Wade and others – who are already complaining of fatigue from playing year around – begin to back out.
The start of the season is overshadowed by the death of Arnold (Red) Auerbach, who was associated with the Boston Celtics for over fifty years as coach (1949-1966), general manager and team president. Red was not to everyones taste, especially if you lived in Los Angeles or Philadelphia and had to endure that obnoxious victory cigar. Red was flamboyant, arrogant, abrasive and old-school petty. Hot water in the visitor’s locker room in the old Boston Garden ran cold, while the furnace stuck on high in June. He chased referees into the dressing room. He was undoubtedly kicked out of more games than anyone in the history of professional basketball. He was even kicked out of an All Star game.
Set all that aside. He and Vince Lombardi were the dominant professional coaches of their generation – in style as well as substance – and Auerbach was arguably the best front office executive in sports history. He won nine NBA championships as a coach and seven thereafter. He was one of the true Founding Fathers of the NBA and he remained very much part of the basketball scene until the very end. He was a disciplinarian but also a players’ coach and an unparalleled motivator. As with Lombardi, his oversized personality sometimes obscured the fact that the man was a great coach and teacher. He stressed physical conditioning that allowed the Celtics to play an up-tempo style and pressure defense, anchored by a shot-blocker in the back line. He used the sixth man as a strategic tool rather than as a mere substitute. He was a pioneer of the modern fast break and yet incorporated a disciplined half-court offense with set plays that endured in the league long after his tenure.
Auerbach was a pioneer in more ways than one. He drafted the first black player. He used the first all-black starting five, at a time when coaches were told informally to play "two at home, three on the road, and four when you are behind." He hired the first black coach in major American professional sports. All this in a city that was, how shall we say, often less than enlightened about racial matters (not to pick on Boston). But in Boston, Red was more important than black and white.