When the Game Is Finesse vs. Force, the Rules Must Change


Let’s try to reduce the discussion to its simplest terms: The incorrect way to treat the Mona Lisa is to try to rip the smile off her face. It seems to me the same logic should apply to Michael Jordan, another work of art.

The Philadelphia 76ers disagree. These are the guys who never saw a painting they did not think could be improved with a spray can. They are not after art. They are after putting their own signature on it, and that signature is often the bottom of a sneaker on somebody’s neck.

Pro basketball is not pro wrestling. It is not indoor lacrosse. It is not a tractor pull. It is not even a presidential campaign. It is fan-tastic, though, and, in its best form, it is something like another well-known contact sport, ballet. I know that because I saw it on one of those fan-tastic commercials, although I bet you the only thing Baryshnikov ever dunked was a doughnut in his coffee. On the other hand, you know Jordan could tour en l’air all night long.

I love to watch tour en l’air Jordan, and who wouldn’t? Well, the 76ers, I guess, or any other team forced to play against him. In their series against Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, the 76ers have declared a no-layup rule, meaning that if you come to the basket, you have a better shot of getting laid out than of a layup. The idea is to scare Jordan and the Bulls, a finesse team, out of their game.


Rod Thorn, director of operations for the National Basketball Assn., has warned the 76ers against hard fouls. Charles Barkley, a hard foul waiting to happen, put his spin on the directive.

“Rod Thorn said he didn’t want us to hurt anybody,” Barkley said. “He said he didn’t want us to maim anybody. But he didn’t say he didn’t want us to hit anybody. You can hit someone without hurting him.”

You can. I could hit Barkley all day, and he would never notice unless I picked up a hammer. But when Barkley, or his slam-dance partner, Rick Mahorn, hits someone, the person tends to remember.

You have to love Barkley. He is a great player and a funny guy. You can like Mahorn, too, even if he plays like a thug. He is a bright guy with a great sense of humor who has made himself a career out of winning by intimidation. They both play by the rules; it is the rules that need changing.

What makes the game special is the play in the lane, the dunk that turns your head, the spinning drive to the basket that makes you shake your head. One was handed down from Dr. J. to Air Jordan, the other from Earl Monroe to Kevin Johnson.

Whatever rule changes the NBA enacts are generally to enable players to get to the lane. That is why the zone defense was outlawed. The purpose of the three-point shot is to spread the defense, giving players more room to operate. Clobbering a guy on the drive, conversely, is designed to shut down the lane. It is the same principle as placing land mines--to discourage movement in a certain area.

“It’s not clean basketball,” Jordan said.

He went on to say that this form of defense was the latest in high technology and he would adjust. Actually, it’s the lowest technology, which is just plain old brute force. Why not suit up Lyle Alzado?

So, what do you think happened Sunday? The 76ers did all the talking, and the Bulls, not to be intimidated, provided all the muscling. In the fourth quarter, Barkley went down hard twice, looking like a bull on the wrong end of a rope. He took a swat in the face from Ed Nealy and frowned real hard. Earlier, Bill Cartwright had tackled Hersey Hawkins. Mahorn tried to hold up his end, but it was too little, too late.

But now you have to worry as Game 5 looms Wednesday that the 76ers, after watching their star get mugged, will go after Jordan in earnest. Maybe, if they do, you will see a rule change.

Once, the Lakers were solely a finesse team. That was until the Boston Celtics beat them up in an NBA final, with Kevin McHale’s clothesline foul on Kurt Rambis the clincher. The Lakers knew they had to get tougher, and no one is saying pro basketball should not be a physical game. But now the Lakers, who have not been able to control Kevin Johnson, are trying to keep him out of the lane by making him pay a toll for entering. That is not the way the game should be played.

The NBA has virtually eliminated the dangerous foul on a breakaway by legislating against it. If you foul a player on a breakaway, the player gets two free throws and his team keeps the ball. That was enough. Unnecessarily hard fouls can be treated the same way--two free throws and possession.

That is not to say a player cannot try to block a shot and, in the process, knock somebody down, or even out. But you know, I know and the officials know when a player simply knocks someone down for effect or hits someone gratuitously. Just because a player is attempting to shoot a ball should not, at the same time, make him a free target. Let’s have a price to be paid in both directions. Or do you really want to see someone someday shoot a high-flying Jordan right out of the sky?