Is Pro Basketball Getting Too Rough? 1964

[The blog has run into some technical difficulties, and the frequency of posts likely will be much slower than usual this week. But this, too, shall pass (hopefully sooner than later). 

Over its 75-year history, the NBA has sought to strike the right balance between the game’s crowd-pleasing skill and athleticism and all the rough stuff. It’s been a Goldilocks process that, thanks to some shrewd rule changes in the early 2000s, has led to our current era in which undersized, highly skilled players like Steph Curry can shine without getting roughed up on a nightly basis. To me, that’s a good thing, although I do look back nostalgically to the days when the big men ruled the NBA roost. 

This article, from Pro Basketball ’64, checks in on the too-rough debate a few years after Wilt Chamberlain got so manhandled that he retired after one NBA season. Journalist Chet Krone, whom I know nothing about, starts out talking about two especially rugged NBA games between the Celtics and Lakers. Interestingly, newspaper accounts of both games make no mention of the rough stuff, suggesting the beat reporters had become desensitized to it. They literally rolled with the punches. Krone writes with a nice voice, and his article is definitely worth the read, now roughly 57 years later.]

During the month of February and last year’s NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers met the champion Boston Celtics in two of the most important ball games of regular play. The first, held in the modern Cobo Arena in Detroit before 11,000 screaming fans, ended with Boston romping to a 120-93 win. The second, played before a sellout hometown crowd at the Boston Garden, ended with a smashing 134-128 Laker victory. 

This two-game series was important for a number of reasons. First it was shown that, despite the press, Boston was still the team to beat. Second, it was important for division standings. Third, it was a “dress rehearsal” for the 1962-63 playoffs. And fourth, it set the style for pro basketball in the future. What was that style? It can be summed up in one word: brutal.

To give some idea of how rough a two-game series it was, here are some of the highlights not to be found in the yearly statistics. In both games, the fierce rebounder Bill Russell ran into stray elbows and was knocked on the business end of his beard. Shoulders, fists, and forearms accounted for three more ballplayers being stretched out on the court like seven-foot rugs. Elgin Baylor gave Tom Sanders’ gut a working over with his elbow that would have made Giant linebacker Sam Huff scream to the bench for help. (At the time Sanders had the wind knocked out of him, he was holding onto Elgin’s pants and undelicately bringing down his 200 pounds on the Laker star’s ankles.) Big Tom Heinsohn and Dick Barnett collided with such force they left each other unconscious. Three individual fights broke out (the one between Barnett and Frank Ramsey being the most interesting from heavyweight boxing standards), and the benches emptied twice for a free-for-all. Basketball fans have seldom witnessed a bloodier struggle than these two games. 

Yet this kind of game is becoming more frequent and will probably get even rougher. Why is pro basketball becoming meaner every day? What effect is this going to have on the game?

Perhaps the most important reason for basketball turning into an ever-rougher game is the fierce team competition that has developed throughout the league. Another way of saying the same thing is that everyone wants to “knock off” the Celtics. Champions of the league for many years, they are regarded both with respect and sheer envy. Because they draw top money and sellout crowds, every team in the league must “gun” for them. When the Celtics are in town, you can expect a rough game. 

Another reason for pro basketball mayhem is the size of the players. A ballplayer under 200 pounds is now a rarity in the NBA. If it is true that the bigger they come the harder they fall, then it is also true that the bigger they grow, the harder they hit. The condition and strength of almost every ballplayer in the NBA is far greater than is generally known.

Take a closer look, for example, at Wilt Chamberlain. Along that seven-foot frame is 220 pounds of sheer muscle. How strong is the Stilt? Bill Russell, a pretty tough ballplayer in anybody’s league, has said, “Chamberlain is so strong that he’s liable to put you and the basketball through the hoop if you get your hand on the ball while he’s dunking.” 

A third reason for increased brutality, according to many ballplayers, is the increasingly heavy schedule and traveling. Tensions naturally build up and tempers are frayed when ballplayers close to mental and physical exhaustion are slugging it out night after night. This is particularly true toward the end of the season when playoff berths are being fought for tooth-and-nail.

But the most important reason for heating up the game is the most obvious one of all—money. Winning ball games means higher salaries for players, more personal advertising endorsements, and the big playoff pot to be cut up. Just as baseball pitchers who throw at opposing batters’ skulls will tell you in rare moments of candor, “Every opposing batter is taking the bread out of my kids’ mouths,”  so every basketball player feels hostile about a high-scoring opponent. There’s no doubt that Chamberlain, Baylor, West, Russell, or Pettit can beat you single-handed on any given night. If you can’t stop him from throwing in buckets like a drunken machine-gunner, then you better figure out a way to get him out of the game.

The way to do it? Simple. Rough him up so hard that he can’t play. If you are too naive to believe that this is exactly what happens, listen to Wilt Chamberlain sounding off some time on the subject of assault and battery that the league practices on him. Twice the greatest drawing card in the history of the game has threatened to quit the NBA if the referees didn’t start calling fouls against ballplayers “gunning” for him game after game. 

The reaction to Chamberlain’s charges has been varied but predictable. One Knick, who naturally prefers to remain anonymous, looked disgusted when he said, “Wilt’s a big blankety crybaby. He’s breaking every scoring record there is, taking home more loot than any two ballplayers combined, and still wants to be treated with kid gloves. What the hell does he expect from us? Should we just stand around the court with our hands on our hips while he racks up 75 to 100 points? We’re trying to make a living, too.”

Another player, now with Cincinnati, says more honestly and to the point: “Of course we’re told to go after Wilt. With him out of the ballgame, the Warriors are a cellar team. But that’s basketball. If I had his scoring average, they’d be after me.”

This brings us to an important point. What can be done to clean up the game? The most obvious method to cut out the rough stuff would be to increase the penalty shots. But there are drawbacks to that, because the extra penalty calls might slow up the game considerably, and if there is one thing pro basketball doesn’t need, it’s ways of slowing up the game. As it is, many pro basketball fans are being driven away or toward the college games and the fastbreak. Obviously, increased penalties might have the same effect as throwing away the baby with the dirty bathwater. 

Another method of cleaning up the game would be heavy fines and suspensions. But this, too, has its disadvantages. How many fans do you think would come to a ballgame if their favorite ballplayer was suspended because of roughhouse playing? Besides, the teams would pay the fines (the coach, after all, gives orders to get someone) as they do in Major League Baseball when an umpire fines a pitcher for trying to separate a batter’s helmet from his noggin. Who knows? An owner might even pay a player a bonus for getting rid of a big scorer such as Chamberlain. 

If nothing can be done about increasing brutality in pro basketball, should anything be done? For many rabid fans, including this one, the game is improved rather than spoiled by rough play. We’re not advocating dirty play, mind you, and Wilt Chamberlain might object to this observation, but a lot of the excitement and color of pro basketball lies in the bruising body contact between big men in action. Fans know they’re watching professional athletes, not amateurs, when they attend an NBA game. They expect professionals to take some risks. If they want to watch amateurs treating each other with courtesy and polite words, they can watch a tennis match.

In every sport where the money is good and the excitement high, be it pro football, major league baseball, hockey, auto racing, or riding thoroughbreds, there is always an element of danger. Whether the overly sensitive observers like it or not, this risk, combined with extraordinary skills, is what fills the seats with cheering spectators. 

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