Kurt Rambis streaked down the right side of the floor and caught a cross-court chest pass from James Worthy. The bespectacled, mustachioed Laker took one dribble, gathered the ball with his right hand and took off. The Celtics’ Kevin McHale, a half-step behind Rambis but running with him down the Great Western Forum stage stride for stride, saw the play developing and knew what he had to do. Boston was on the road, behind on the scoreboard, and trailing 2-1 in the NBA Finals. This wouldn’t stand.
As Rambis leapt, McHale – now almost fully caught up to his familiar, gold-clad foe – swung his left arm down and hard across his body into the neck of an airborne Rambis. The impact sent Rambis down to the hardwood with force, his body contorted mid-air so he landed fully on the square of his back. Boo-boos and even legitimate injury be damned, Rambis sprung immediately to his feet and went after McHale.
“You knew this was going to happen,” TV play-by-play man Dick Stockton said immediately after the collision. “You could see it coming.” Benches emptied, words were said, shoves were shared. But then it was over. Larry Bird helped Rambis to his feet, Jess Kersey and his officiating crew restored order, and the game went on. Just moments later, former peacemaker Bird and the normally mild-mannered Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nearly came to blows, but that too passed. No ejections. No suspensions. Not even technical fouls. Nothing but a hard, extra physical foul that happened to change the tone and course of the entire series.
Boston came from behind to win game four in overtime 129-125, and even the series at two games apiece on the way to winning the 1984 NBA Championship in seven games. Basketball’s greatest rivalry and that rivalry’s greatest series were forever changed by the result of a play that was unquestionably dirty, and history is far better for it.
But today that wouldn’t have happened, and instead of the first Bird-Magic, Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals being remembered as a seven game epic that marked the beginning of the game’s golden age, it would have been marred by ejections and suspensions to key players on both sides.
Such is life in today’s NBA, where a disgruntled look merits a technical, screens can be flagrant fouls, bumps are worthy of suspension, and a flailing elbow keeps a player from his team’s first six playoff games. And while styles are different, players are bigger, and free agency carries more weight than ever, nothing screams “2012 NBA” quite like how the league office polices its players to create a facade of clean play, camaraderie, and grade-school sportsmanship.
Long gone are the days where a foul like McHale’s is just another foul, the Bad Boy Pistons publicly and proudly flaunt the “Jordan Rules,” the Knicks and Bulls recklessly wrestle on the Chicago Stadium floor, and Jeff Van Gundy hangs on for dear life to the ankle of Alonzo Mourning amid a bench-clearing scrum. It’s been NBA Commissioner David Stern’s personal crusade since the Malice at the Palace in 2004 to make sure none of that happens anymore, as he’s added page after page of Soviet-like legislation to the rulebook that go toward preventing such acts.
And while the game is safer for players and certainly more family friendly, the NBA’s overall product has suffered as a result. Look around the league – where are the rivalries? Where’s the bloodthirst? Where’s the unabashed physicality that was a hallmark of the league in the 1980s and 1990s? Basically, where is the proud hate between opposing teams that’s still so obviously prevalent in professional football, baseball, and hockey?
There are obviously other factors at play contributing to the NBA’s lack of real animosity and antagonism, player movement and the rise of social media chief among them. But these aspects were still at play in your father and older brother’s NBA, genuine friendships between on-court adversaries like Bird and Magic, Jordan and Barkley, and even Russell and Chamberlain the most famous examples. Those guys, though, grew up in and came to help define a league where there was a fine, wide line between basketball and everything else. The game was a separate entity, and what took place on that 94 feet of hardwood for 48 minutes always took precedent.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Amare Stoudemire tried the only way they knew how to convey a similar attitude throughout Miami’s round one win over New York last week. But look no farther than those star players’ interaction and inaction on the floor and in the media, and it’s clear today is different. James and Anthony should not have been exchanging wry smiles between plays. Wade should have publicly lambasted Stoudemire for extinguisher-gate. And both sides should have taken cues from the Heat and Knicks teams of the 1990s.
But they didn’t, and what could have been the re-genesis of one of the league’s classic rivalries was instead a casual 4-1 Miami victory lacking even the present-day bravado and posturing that’s replaced hard fouls and fights. Would it have played out differently if the league didn’t wield such a heavy hand when it comes to technical, flagrants, fines, and suspensions? Unfortunately we’ll never know, and the worst part is that we knew going in that no matter how chippy or competitive this series would be it couldn’t possibly hold a candle to Miami-New York of fifteen years ago. The rules – while ensuring a fun, lucrative, and PG-rated product – speak to directly preventing it, and that’s no doubt a sobering thought to the life-long NBA fans who remember the days of yesteryear.
Let’s not overreact, though. This season – seemingly destined to disappoint as a result of the lockout, Chris Paul to Lakers fiasco, and a lack of competition at the top – was a clear success, and we’ve already been treated to two game sevens and countless down-to-the-wire finishes in the postseason’s first two weeks. The NBA isn’t broken. Far from it. But one wonders just how much better it could be if the league allowed players and teams the discretion, freedom, and physicality afforded to them in the days of Magic, Bird, Barkley, and Jordan.
Would Metta World Peace face retaliation for The Elbow? Would Reggie Evans’ receive this technical foul? Would Stern feel compelled to address flopping? Would players like James, Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard want to lead teams of their own instead of seeking superstar teammates?
The questions and answers that arise from discussion of more leniency from the league and its officials are endless and far-reaching, and obviously worthy of debate on whatever side you stand. But we can likely all agree the game is best when the players simply play, and through that lens it’s clear the nature of the ‘80s and ‘90s prevails over the nurture of 2012.