Tuesday, January 03, 2006

NBA Players: Heroes or Genetic Freaks?

I once worked with a man who hated the NBA because the players are tall. He said you don’t have to be good, just tall. He called it a game for genetic freaks.

He’s an idiot. First, you could say the same thing about football and lately baseball. Those men are big. 98-pound weaklings don’t play offensive guard. Oh, wait -- that’s steroids, not genetics.

Golf is probably the only major professional sport that could be played by a person with an average body. Ben Hogan, one of the best who ever played, was 5’7”, 140 lbs. Maybe a baseball infielder or a tennis player could have an average body. It’s hard to know if someone who has been playing a game since he was three years old has superb reflexes and hand-eye coordination because he was born with them or because he has worked those capacities like a demon all his life. Someone who sits in his room reading all his childhood will look on a basketball court like he was born with no natural talent.

There is a lot more to the NBA than just being tall. There are seven-foot tall guys who lumber like Frankenstein and can’t jump six inches. They’re called white centers. (Just kidding.)

Seriously, there are legends of urban kids with phenomenal jumping ability who could not make it in the NBA because they didn’t have what it takes upstairs. Their heads were messed up. Usually drugs and alcohol were involved in their failure. Some didn’t have the discipline to show up at practice. Some just did not want it bad enough.

I read about one kid who, after a slam dunk, could sit on the rim. Granted, he probably pressed on the rim with his wrists to lift himself up, but still… that’s an amazing ability to go vertical. That kid never made it to the big time. Headcase.

Michael Jordan is 6’6”. What made him better than all the other guys his height? Will. The man is a competitor. Apparently, if you play golf with him, you’d better be on your game because he plays seriously. He wants to win at everything he does. He worked his ass off to become a great defender. A lot of great shooters never go that extra yard.

I have an old neighbor who has been watching basketball since the 1940’s. (I love talking to these old guys. The stuff they’ve seen is amazing.) My neighbor says Laker center George Mikan is the first player he ever saw take a jump shot. Before Mikan, according this old guy, they just stood flat-footed and shot. I don’t know if my neighbor is right about Mikan, but he might be. According to this history of the NBA I found,

The jump shot was a radical notion, and those who took it defied the belief of many coaches that nothing but trouble occurred when a player left his feet for a shot.
Now, Mikan was 6’10”, which was extraordinarily tall for that period in the NBA.

It's hard to believe today, but until the 1940s basketball was considered a sport better suited to shorter men than to taller, less nimble players.
Mikan changed the game. Before him there was no rule against goal tending because no one thought it possible for a human to do such a thing. Mikan parked himself under the opposing basket and swatted away any ball that came near.

He was taller than everyone else. He didn’t have to jump when he shot, but he did. What made Mikan jump? Will. He was more than just a tall man; he was one of the fiercest competitors the game has ever seen. In the 1950-51 season,

For the first time since Mikan had begun playing professional basketball, his team did not win a championship. Minneapolis fell to Rochester in the Western Division Finals, three games to one, largely because Mikan hobbled through the series with a fractured leg. "The doctors taped a plate on it for the playoffs," Mikan told Newsday in 1990. "I played all right, scored in the 20s. I couldn't run, sort of hopped down the court."

The dude played with a fractured leg. But he was just a genetic freak, right?

On both ends of the court Mikan's style of play could be categorized as hard-nosed, as evidenced by the 10 broken bones he suffered and the 16 stitches he required during his playing years. As another sign of his rugged play, Mikan earned a place in the NBA record books by retiring with the most seasons (3) in which he led the league in personal fouls.

Mikan developed a practice technique that has come to be known as the Mikan Drill. Here is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s explanation:

"Along the way, George developed his own drill, in which he would stand close to the goal and shoot the ball off the backboard with his left hand , then with his right hand, then switching between his left hand and right hand again, back and forth, over and over again until he was scoring with either hand in one fluid motion."

He was taller than everyone else, but still he worked so he could rebound and shoot with both hands. Strange behavior in a genetic freak.

Some people, like that man I once worked with, just want to see the clay feet of any hero. They can look at Dr. J soar through the air and remain unmoved. Well, if they want to go through life saying “Pfui,” that’s their business.

When you look at a basketball hero, you see a tall man (or woman in the WNBA), yes, but you also see someone dedicated to achievement. That is, if you care to look.

1 comment:

farlane said...

I love your profile of Mikan. Reminds me of a book I read when I was a kid about Pistol Pete Maravich and his relentless improvisational drills. Great post!