Phil Jackson, president of the NBA’s New York Knicks, singles out Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James in a general lament about the state of the game:
I watch LeBron James, for example. He might [travel] every other time he catches the basketball if he’s off the ball. He catches the ball, moves both his feet. You see it happen all the time. There’s no structure, there’s no discipline, there’s no ‘How do we play this game’ type of attitude. And it goes all the way through the game. To the point where now guys don’t screen—they push guys off with their hands.
Jackson makes a valid point. The thing is, he could have been making this same point 30 years ago about Michael Jordan, Jackson’s own superstar when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls. I was certainly saying these things about Jordan at the time, and about Laker Magic Johnson when he came into the league several years earlier.
This was the early ’80s, and I was a huge Laker fan at the time. I loved Magic and “showtime” basketball. It was fun and exciting. Magic revolutionized the game, and drew many new fans to the game. He also played a key roll in destroying the game, for purists like me anyway.
Magic was something special, a 6’9″ guard who could see over shorter players and whip the ball anywhere on the court, with either hand, at any moment. Combine this with his ability to push the ball up court before the defense had a chance to get set and Magic was virtually unstoppable. Unless you were “there,” it’s hard to describe just how apt the nickname “Magic” was as he took the NBA by storm and created the famed Laker dynasty of the ’80s.
But in the midst of all that, most people overlooked the fact that Magic routinely “palmed” the basketball. The rules say you have to keep your hand on top of the ball as you dribble, limiting the amount of control you have over it. Magic had huge hands and would consistently cup the ball at an angle as he dribbled. This would allow him to get his fingers below the the ball’s “equator” then roll the hand into any position he wished to give him the control to deliver the ball when and where he wanted. In short, what he did was illegal, and he did it just about every time he came down the court.
Younger players naturally started emulating Magic, and now “palming” or “carrying over” has become part of the game. Every player does it, on just about every play, and no one notices.
A few years later, Michael Jordan arrived on the scene. He was a different kind of superstar, with incredible body control and the ability to seemingly dance in air. He too revolutionized and brought many fans to the game. And he too helped to destroy the game for purists like me.
The rules says when you stop dribbling, to pass or shoot, you are allowed a “one-two rhythm” — two steps of continuation with your feet — before the ball must leave your hands. If you take more than two steps, you’ve “traveled.” The ref is supposed to blow the whistle, stop play, and reward the ball to the other team. Well, Jordan did so many amazing things that it was nearly hypnotizing to watch him attack the basket, and I guess the refs were as hypnotized as the fans were, because they routinely let him get away with taking an extra step (three, instead of two) on the way to the hoop.
Just as Magic “palmed” the ball just about every time he touched it, Michael Jordan traveled just about every time he went to the basket. And just as the kids emulated Magic, they emulated Jordan. So we had a new generation come up where pretty much every player palms the ball and travels. It’s become part of the game, and one or the other of these infractions can be seen on just about every highlight clip you see. It’s part of why I stopped watching NBA basketball many years ago.
For the record, star players have always gotten away with things. Julius “Dr. J” Irving — one of the most amazing athletes I’ve ever seen — comes to mind. He played about a decade before Magic, and if you haven’t seen him, check him out on Youtube; he was one of a kind. He got away with a lot too.
But to my mind, Magic and Jordan are the ones that changed the game and made these illegal practices nearly universal in the NBA. (Probably the increased TV coverage that began during their tenures had a lot to do with it.) LeBron and the current crop of players are simply carrying on a long standing tradition.
This new “style” of play is more exciting, and more individualized (as Jackson notes later in the article), and may in fact be good for the game. But, as I say, I’m a purist. As much as I loved Magic and my Lakers “back in the day,” I began to miss the old teamwork-centered game. For that, and a few other reasons, I don’t find the game as interesting as I once did.