A voice keeps whispering in Carlos Arroyo's ear as he dribbles upcourt. C'mon. Make a move. Score. The sleek point guard tries not to listen, but he has played this way all his life. Quick and instinctive. Shoot first, ask questions later. And the cynics out there might be nodding their heads, figuring he sounds exactly like a child of basketball's new generation, raised on Air Jordan sneakers and a constant diet of ESPN highlights, all those crossover dribbles and slam dunks. But then another voice beckons, his coach calling from the sideline. Stop. Pass the ball. Set a screen. Run the offense. That was how Jerry Sloan played in the National Basketball Assn. three decades ago, back when you sacrificed for the good of the team.
Sloan took over as coach of the Utah Jazz in 1988, and molded the offense around a decidedly old-school guard, John Stockton. When Stockton retired, Sloan went looking for a replacement and, for better or worse, picked Arroyo. Over the last season and a half, the 25-year-old Puerto Rican star has shown flashes of progress, remaining patient, making good decisions. He has also suffered lapses, arguing with his coach, exiled to the bench for days at a time.
The change has been tough because, Arroyo says, "My game is like that . . . flashy." Sloan insists in his folksy way, "I believe you still have guys out there who want to get on that old yellow school bus, take a ride and get off and play together. They may not be as good as some of the high fliers, but I still think there are players who will perform in the team concept." Think of Gene Hackman as the grizzled coach in the film "Hoosiers," leading a tiny high school to the Indiana state championship by demanding his players make the extra pass. It is a romantic notion, with practical underpinnings. You can win with less talent, for one thing, and fans seem to love it. The sport was its most popular in the 1980s and '90s, when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and other superstars used their all-around skills to get teammates involved in the game.
No one argues that today's players work hard and are physically talented, running faster and jumping higher than their predecessors. But a growing chorus of voices--team executives, coaches, even some players--are calling for a return to the game's roots. They believe fundamentals and teamwork should trump individual expression, one-on-one moves, soaring dunks that make the highlight reels.
The Detroit Pistons offered a glimpse of old-time basketball last June. A team without a superstar upset a Laker squad built around Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Then came the Summer Olympics, at which a roster of NBA stars finished third to foreign teams that had greater cohesiveness.
NBA Commissioner David Stern calls it "a challenge to our basketball culture" that reaches down through the college and youth ranks. Yet in Denver today, the league will cap a weekend of individual shooting and dunking contests with an all-star game in which the best players alive will strut and spin and shoot to wow the crowd, and won't bother to play much defense. Even Arroyo, enamored as he is with "flash," says: "The U.S. still has the reputation of having the best players in the world, but something has to change."
basketball is not a science, just 10 guys running around in shorts, so there are no immutable laws concerning how it should be played. Still, those who have devoted their lives to the game can get fairly worked up about it.
Mike Dunleavy, coach of the Clippers, wonders if young players "spend a whole lot of time perfecting their style on how they dunk as opposed to spending that time on their jump shot or their ball handling." Danny Ainge, a former all-star guard and now an executive with the Boston Celtics, senses a standard by which "you just don't get much credit for setting screens or making a pass." And don't get Bill Walton started.
Anyone who has followed Walton as a player or in his current role as broadcaster knows the big man never met an opinion he hesitated to express. He ranks among the best all-around centers ever, winning two championships at UCLA and two more during a long, if injury-plagued, NBA career. Agile at 6-foot-11, he could score with the jump hook off either hand but never defined his sport by size or skill. "I liked the little, skinny, scrawny guy who looked at these brutes and said, 'I'm going to beat you. I'm going to win with my mind and my heart.' " This perspective drove him to become a consummate rebounder and outlet passer.
Now he sees this attitude in short supply. Even outside shooting is on the wane. It is an art tied directly to scoring--and, thus, personal achievement--yet it requires endless repetition and attention to detail. Good shooters talk about the need to move without the ball, to create open space. They toil over footwork, squaring up to the basket, launching the ball with the same stroke every time.
If basketball is declining, which Walton believes it is, the game must look to its youngest elements. He recalls his first coach at Blessed Sacrament Elementary School in San Diego, whom he recalls as "a volunteer . . . a fireman during the day . . . a saint." He says: "We're talking about a selfless individual. Who do kids learn from now?"
The landscape of youth basketball has changed dramatically over the past two decades. It works like this: Shoe companies such as Nike and Adidas spend multimillions each year looking for an emerging superstar to endorse their products, the next Michael Jordan. This search extends down through college to high school and even younger. Many club teams are now sponsored by shoe companies and can attract all the best teenagers with promises of new uniforms and travel to tournaments nationwide. Traditional school teams have become increasingly marginalized. Some worry that club coaches, reliant on shoe money, have more incentive to nurture stars than to teach the basics. The same can be said for the summer all-star camps, where talented youngsters perform before stands filled with college recruiters and pro scouts.
"You go to those camps and they're teaching individual moves," says Doc Rivers, coach of the Celtics. "You don't see a lot of team camps."
The point is driven home to Walton if only because his son, Luke, a highly skilled player, is languishing on the Laker bench and might not survive in the NBA because he is not deemed athletic enough. The elder Walton reminisces about Blessed Sacrament and his years with legendary UCLA coach John Wooden. The sport he learned was based on understated talents, what he calls "the true brilliance of the team game."
"What's the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song?" he asks. "Teach your children well."
thirty years past his prime as a power forward for the houston rockets, Rudy Tomjanovich still has rugged features and a hulking physique. The coach--who sat down with a visitor several weeks before he unexpectedly left the Lakers' sideline--does not want to be counted among the chorus of pessimists. "It's just that people want to bash the way the game is," he says.
Rather than bemoan a decline in fundamentals, Tomjanovich prefers to talk about athleticism. Laker star Kobe Bryant ranks among the most entertaining, if controversial, players in history. When the coach looks around the league, he sees unprecedented talent. "We've got 7-foot small forwards," he says. "Seven-foot and he's crossing over, shooting a three."
Watching film of vintage games during a recent summer, he mentally superimposed today's stars--Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett--onto the action and figured they would have looked like aliens. So big, so quick. More important, he noticed changes in the way basketball is played. For decades, NBA rules mandated that defenders play man-to-man, sticking close to their opponents. When offenses "lifted" three or even four men, stationing them to the side, defenders had to go along. The court was left open for the remaining offensive player to work one-on-one.
Not all teams operated that way. The Celtics of yore were known for crisp passing, and the "Showtime" version of the Lakers, in the 1980s, was relentless in its fast-break. Still, Tomjanovich detected an uptick in team play in 2001, when the NBA legalized zone defenses. Adopted by teams to varying degrees, the zone allows defenders to stay at home, covering specific areas of the court, making the "isolation" play harder to run. Tomjanovich believes offenses have become more complex.
"The defenses are so sophisticated now," he says. "You've got to have spacing and a weak-side game."
Sticking up for basketball in this way, the coach knows he is placing himself squarely in the minority. It's all there on film, he insists. Anyone who wants to criticize should look. "The ideal that people are talking about," he says. "I don't know if that exists."
just mention the ongoing debate about basketball in this country and, before you can ask the first question, Sonny Vaccaro confesses. He is the man most often credited with--or blamed for--introducing shoe money to the sport and thereby changing it forever. "I'll admit I'm part of that," he says. "I put my hands up."
A onetime Las Vegas gambler and lifelong hoops devotee, Vaccaro spent much of the 1960s running the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, an annual Pittsburgh tournament that attracted the nation's high school elite. In the late 1970s, while pitching a new kind of shoe to Nike, he and the corporation's executives fell into a conversation about the best way to promote sneakers. Sports apparel was a comparatively low-key business at the time, with competitors paying pro athletes to endorse their products. Vaccaro and Nike hit upon the idea of going after a younger crowd.
Hired as a company rep, Vaccaro flew around the country cutting $2,000 checks to sign college coaches as "consultants" and providing their teams with free equipment. Thus began the so-called "shoe wars," rival brands spending lavishly at all levels of the sport, including youth teams and those all-star camps. In this heightened atmosphere, shoe reps cozy up to teenage phenoms and a high school superstar, LeBron James, commands a $90-million endorsement contract when he jumps directly to the NBA. Vaccaro does not argue with the suggestion that the lure of cash has altered the way kids view the game. Like Dunleavy says, teenagers are perfecting their dunks, hoping to become the next mega-star. But Vaccaro believes shoe companies and youth basketball are only part of the equation, saying: "The whole system has broken down."
Look at the advent of 24-hour sports networks, the popularity of nightly highlight shows with their Top 10 plays of the day. "Kids watch that," Vaccaro says. "The [club] teams and the all-star camps . . . we're not failing kids. We're mimicking what we see." Besides, he wonders, what's so wrong with the sport becoming flashier?
His argument is pure evolution, dating back to the 1970s, when the NBA was dead in the water, a league no one much cared about. Along came Magic and Bird, not only reviving the old Lakers-Celtics rivalry, but also bringing star power and television ratings. Jordan soon followed, combining uncanny talent with an ability to market himself to corporate America. Remember, this is a sport where fans can sit inches from the action, where players are not concealed by helmets or bulky pads, no ball caps tugged down over their faces. Basketball is given to personality, making it only natural for shoe companies to build signature lines and massive ad campaigns around a handful of stars. The NBA and its broadcasters have played along too, accentuating individuals every bit as much as teams. The recent Christmas Day game between the Lakers and the Miami Heat, for example, was hyped as a showdown between former teammates Kobe and Shaq.
The cult of personality comes with a price. "It's dangerous because of the expectations put on the stars," Ainge says. "Sometimes the star actually believes in the expectations . . . there's so much pressure on guys to be all that." Which, in Ainge's estimation, leads to a generation of NBA players who would rather shoot than pass.
Vaccaro looks at it from a different angle. "Kobe, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady . . . were there three flashier, born-great players ever?" he asks. Why shouldn't the sport celebrate extraordinary talent? In baseball, pitchers can intentionally walk a home-run hitter. In football, teams can run the opposite direction of an all-pro linebacker. In basketball, he says, "we see 48 minutes of athleticism . . . your skill against my skill." Vaccaro, for one, isn't bemoaning the possibility that subtler, team-oriented skills have been overshadowed by what he sees as the sheer artistry of the individual.
"This isn't 'Hoosiers' anymore," he says. "The game has changed and no one wants to admit it."
so why fight it? why swim upstream against what some see as inevitable?
Walton waxes philosophical. "What messages are being promoted? Are they messages of team? Of fundamentals? Of selfless sacrifice? Or is it greed? Is it waste? That's the battle we fight every day." Others speak of basketball as ballet, five players moving in harmony. They argue that, even now, the best teams are the ones most imbued with traditional values. Celtic Coach Doc Rivers adds one more point: Why can't we have it both ways?
Rivers realizes that some fans consider today's players selfish. He prefers to think of them as ultra-competitive, if inexperienced. Talented young stars, determined to win, think, "Well, I like my options better than passing to that guy." In Boston, for example, guard Paul Pierce is criticized for not moving without the ball. "He's not selfish . . . he's the exact opposite," Rivers says. "Paul Pierce wants to win as much as any guy I've been around. My job is to show him, teach him. If the ball's moving, if he's moving, the defense can't load up on him." Which leads to one of Rivers' favorite topics.
In the years since the NBA lost a 1971 Supreme Court case that opened the draft to underclassmen, the league has grown progressively younger, more players leaving college early, if not jumping straight from high school. While these rookies might be fabulously talented, they arrive without benefit of life experience and a few extra years of coaching. "I think we get frustrated because we look at salary instead of age," Rivers says. "We look at years in the league instead of maturity. I can be in the league six years and only be 24 and I still haven't matured."
This can affect team play, which is based on trust and a certain amount of wisdom. Basketball people put it this way: Before a player will give up the ball, he must believe that his teammates will do likewise. Introduce one selfish element, the equation falls apart.
During his years as a Celtic player, Ainge shared the court with Hall of Famers Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. But "even though you knew who the marquee players were, you never felt like you weren't a big part of the success." Newcomers who did not assimilate were shipped off. Ainge recalls that Dennis Johnson, who arrived with a reputation for being a "bad chemistry guy," quickly realized "our team was bigger than any individual could be."
Twenty years later, Chicago Bulls Coach Scott Skiles is talking about the same thing when he describes the ultimate player who can put up big numbers while still sharing the ball, an unselfishness that "spills over and creates that kind of winning atmosphere."
Ainge, now executive director of basketball operations for a rebuilding Celtic franchise, has hired Rivers to create such an atmosphere, to bring back passing and an up-tempo offense. Rivers finds himself returning to the same essential concepts over and over. Pass to the open man. Cut to the basket. Again, it is a matter of teaching trust, getting players to understand that by learning the subtler skills, they will either get a better shot for themselves or create an easy score for a teammate.
"We just have to be patient," he says. "I think we have a bunch of individual talent that is starting to learn the team game. When those two things meet, it's going to be one hell of a collision that's going to make our league amazing."
it doesn't seem fair, dragging Michael Jordan into all this. We're talking about a player who was cut from his high school team, who dedicated himself to perfecting his skills, whose future greatness owed to a combination of natural ability and a nearly obsessive work ethic--exactly what traditionalists espouse. But the fact remains that when the Chicago Bulls won a string of championships in the 1990s with Jordan, a very good Scottie Pippen and a rotating cast of characters, a precedent was set. In hindsight, executives around the league say they began to follow a treacherous path: Spend all your money on one or two superstars and ride them as far as they will take you.
It worked for the Lakers with Shaq and Kobe. Not quite so well for the Philadelphia 76ers and Allen Iverson. Not at all for the Toronto Raptors and Vince Carter. And it did nothing for the idea of teamwork. As Ainge says: "We started to rely on the one-star system."
Then came the Detroit Pistons.
Five years ago, the team made Joe Dumars its president of basketball operations. He had been a sharpshooting guard for the franchise's championship squads in 1989 and '90, the so-called "Bad Boys" who seemed to win on sheer determination with the likes of Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and a young Dennis Rodman. Dumars did not set out to change the league, only to re-create what he knew. "The Pistons teams I was a part of would not have stood for selfish play," Dumars said in an e-mail interview with The Times. "I was never interested in putting a team together that could only win if one guy played well."
Detroit entered last season with no superstars. Instead, the Pistons had an ensemble cast that included Ben Wallace for defense and rebounding and a tireless backcourt of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. At midseason, they added Rasheed Wallace for scoring punch. If Rasheed had a reputation for going his own way, he changed under tough-minded coach Larry Brown. "To me, kids want to be coached, and sometimes a lot of us shy away from doing that, and they're the ones who suffer," Brown told reporters earlier this season. "I truly believe they all want to play the right way."
Lots of people agree, but few expected his approach to actually work, especially not in the finals against the Lakers' juggernaut. Detroit's victory, by four games to one, sent shock waves through the NBA. Dumars tries to downplay the significance--"I don't think it's wrong to have a team that has a superstar, I just don't happen to believe that is the only way"--but others around the league recognized what had happened.
In Chicago, Skiles tells reporters that he was impressed with the way the Pistons "scrambled around and helped each other defensively and moved the ball on offense." In Indiana, where Bird is a team executive, coach Rick Carlisle says: "The fact that they won it playing with a team that had a lot of star players but no mega-stars . . . it's exciting because it really puts the emphasis back on team." Bernie Bickerstaff, coach of the expansion Charlotte Bobcats, predicts a ripple effect: "The one thing I know about the NBA, it's a copycat situation. Whatever wins, people will go for it."
But for all the optimism generated in Detroit last spring, there soon came a reminder of the game's woes.
the u.s. men's basketball team entered the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens with a historical record of 109-2, those two loses coming against the once-mighty Soviet Union in an era when the Americans were limited to using college players. Since the 1992 Barcelona Games, the first of the so-called "Dream Teams," NBA-stocked rosters had pretty much swept through the competition.
Still, there was a sense the world was catching up, a reality that came crashing home last summer when the U.S. lost to Argentina, 89-81, in the semifinal round. Granted, some of the NBA's biggest names had withdrawn from the team because of post-Sept. 11 security concerns, but the Olympic roster included Iverson, San Antonio Spur center Tim Duncan and Laker forward Lamar Odom.
The Argentines--with a few NBA players of their own--employed a motion offense that quickly exposed an American deficiency. Though the NBA plays intense defense, much of that effort is devoted to double-teaming and sliding to the open man, and players have become lax in basic footwork. A steady decline in shooting prowess was equally apparent, the U.S. unable to keep pace with a foreign opponent who fired away from the three-point arc.
Laker center Vlade Divac, a veteran of the Olympic Games with the former Yugoslavia, saw something important in Argentina's win. It was a victory for "the right way," a blow to the American basketball ethos in which "everything is the big star . . . everything is happening around the star."
"To be honest," he says. "I don't like it."
There is an irony here. International players, once an oddity in the NBA, now represent a sizeable chunk of the league--and a reason for hope. Take Divac, for example. He learned the game in classic European fashion, training with national teams--"A really good system. The coaches are very tough." At one time, the game overseas was considered too methodical, if not plodding, but that changed with the advent of satellite television. Kids abroad watched the NBA, mimicking what they saw, adding open-court moves to their repertoire. By the late 1980s, Divac and his Yugoslavian teammates displayed an impressive blend of individual and team skills.
Around that time, international players began pouring into the league. As Dunleavy says, "we were getting guys who were fundamentally sound. They had a regimen." Divac was in that first wave along with Drazen Petrovic, a budding star for the New Jersey Nets who died in an automobile accident. Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic arrived a decade later. In 2002, Pau Gasol of Spain became the first European player to be named rookie of the year and the following season a French point guard, Tony Parker, guided the Spurs to a championship.
At the start of this season, there were 81 international players on NBA rosters, according to the league. That includes bona fide stars such as Nowitzki, Stojakovic and Houston Rockets center Yao Ming. Rivers says they--like the Pistons--are a good influence. Walton adds: "At least, that's what we hope." But Divac offers a warning.
Basketball is still an American game and the U.S. still leads the way. Kids in his native country watch games on satellite television, dazzled by what they see. "They do the crossover and the dunks," he says. "Everyone is watching the NBA, learning from the NBA. Actually, that might be a negative thing."
maybe the game is cyclical. Maybe the pendulum already is swinging back. Stern talks about a healthy debate taking place and a recent trend by which veteran free agents have accepted less money to join playoff-caliber teams. "They realize that outstanding individual achievement is good, and it's rewarding, but it isn't necessarily going to do the job alone if you're not in the context of a team playing it the right way."
At the all-star break, Detroit is winning, as are the Seattle SuperSonics and Phoenix Suns, two young squads that move the ball as a team. Scoring is up league-wide and LeBron James looks like a throwback, ranking among the leaders in points, assists and steals.
The first half of the season did not go as well for Utah, despite Arroyo's after-practice work with Gordie Chiesa, an assistant coach whose photo you might see if you looked up the definition of "hoops junkie." A sprite of a man, Chiesa will talk basketball for hours in a thick New Jersey accent. Having coached future Hall of Famers and consummate team players Stockton and Karl Malone for more than a decade, Chiesa knows the rudiments of the sport, which he divides into four categories: Passing, moving, screening, spacing. He says: "These are the basic fundamentals that the players, unfortunately, many of them don't know."
The list grows even longer for a point guard, the quarterback of the team. "Don't penetrate early in the offense," Chiesa says. "Good NBA point guards understand the shot clock and they are aggressive with five seconds left."
Another thing. "Absolutely critical--what he does with the first pass. He can't make the first pass until all four of his teammates are organized and in position. He has to wait. Unfortunately, his teammates aren't in position all the time. So how does he get them there? By waving. By eye contact."
These precepts run contrary to every instinct in Arroyo, his inclination to drive to the basket, to go at breakneck pace. It's so much easier to take matters into his own hands. The Jazz were asking him to adopt a more cerebral style. Chiesa calls it "the great tug of war" and would like to believe similar struggles are taking place in gyms across the nation, not just in the NBA, but at colleges, high schools and recreation centers. "At what point do players understand the fundamentals and take their individual games into a team game?" he asks. He sees this transformation as essential to basketball in America. "The process is painful," he says. "That's OK."
The pressure on Arroyo to conform only increased when the team's best player, forward Andrei Kirilenko, was injured and the Jazz began to lose. Arroyo attempted to toe the company line--saying of the NBA, "too much one-on-one, too much 'myself' before 'team,' "--yet he kept hearing that other voice in his head. After practice one day, standing outside the locker room at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, he said: "I'm trying to be patient, but flashy is good too. I'm trying to do both."
The last month or so, Sloan lost hope in his grand experiment. Arroyo was back on the bench. Late in January, the Jazz traded him to, of all teams, the Pistons.