Jerry Levine: It Takes Three, 1967

[While doing research on a previous book at the Library of Congress, I stumbled across a couple of mid-1960s newspaper articles by a reporter named Jerry Levine. I know little about Mr. Levine. But he sure liked to vent in 600 words or less in the ill-fated New York World Journal Tribune about all the weird stuff taking place in the NBA.

Today, as we vent from time to time about our weird NBA stuff (the creative flopping, bail-out calls, flagrant fouls, incessant video reviews), here’s some of what stuck in the craws of fans a few generations ago when Chamberlain, Monroe, and Robertson were all the rave. I’ve got two brief Levine vents, starting with a cry for a third referee. It ran on January 27, 1967.]


Any resemblance between professional basketball today and the way it was a decade or so ago is purely intentional. The players are bigger and faster and better; the scoring more varied, and the scores much higher. The map is an ever-changing one, and the fan is more responsive and more knowledgeable. With it all, however, there are dangerous undercurrents in the sea of profits. 

The men who were steering the “good ship NBA” are living in a never-never land and their shortsightedness in doing something about the gremlins that are at work under the deck defies belief. There is a double standard procedure in operation which so favors the so-called superstars of the league that it is disheartening to the so-called ordinary player, who, it should be added, it was merely a great in his own right in his college days. 

If you’ve ever seen a professional basketball game, you’ve seen what we mean. There is a permissive attitude on the part of the officials to be more tolerant of a suspected violation when the perpetrator is one of the “name” players. This situation has done as much as their talents to elevate them to prominence. The winking at rules has given the stars and their teams as much of an advantage as, say, if baseball were to allow Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays four strikes each time they came to the plate. 

To be able to put the picture in focus, you must remember two things. First of all, the referees aren’t at fault. Second, neither are the players. Athletes are entitled to seek whatever advantage they choose in the quest for victory. Anything they can get away with puts just that many more eggs in their basket. 

Blame must be placed at the doorstep of several fat-cat owners for not altering the battle plan to fit the soldiers. The owners wanted the game to change, to make the product more exciting and more productive. They begged for a rule that would step up the game’s tempo and got the 24-second clock. They demanded that the referees allow more contact among the gladiators. The result was that the moving pickoff play became the modus operandi of all clubs. The rebounder who worked with elbows out, teeth gritted, knees flailing was encouraged. 

Then, as the defensive specialist came to be born, another difficulty came to pass. What to do about goaltending? That, and all of the preceding, fell into the officials’ domain. Decisions . . . decisions . . . and almost all of them impossible. What to look for and where to look? Where does a man start?

What recourse for the poor official, asked to do more than was possible? In his zeal to do the right thing, he found that he had to cut corners, to start making allowances to once in a while guess about an occurrence. What better way than to assume—logically, of course—that the man who didn’t push or didn’t goaltend or didn’t travel or stay in there three seconds was the man least likely to bend the rules . . . the superstar. 

We should—we must—have an additional official posted under each backboard to relieve some of the workload of the poor referees. Let the man call three-second violations . . . goaltending . . . stepping out of bounds. 

Anything, but let him do something.

[Levine also wasn’t too keen on all the rough stuff. Here’s a little more of his grump from the New York World Journal Tribune on March 18, 1967.]

The handbook is very closely guarded, available only to general managers and league officials. Some nosy reporter wants to see it, he has to promise to return it in five minutes. Throughout the black-and-white pamphlet are allusions as to how the National Basketball Association must be vigilant if it is to maintain the image of pro basketball not being a contact sport. 

There are things in it such as beware of flying elbows, the intentional foul, when it is charging, and when is it blocking. Look out for errant knees and vicious uppercuts. If you are one of the believers and subscribe to what they would have you swallow—that the only contact permissible in the National Basketball Association is “incidental,” then it’s time for you to apply for the circus strongman’s job. 

The way they play now, it is almost like driving your compact car down a craggy mountain. It is all muscle and blood, bruises and abrasions, fractures and dislocations, pushing and jabbing, clipping and tripping . . . The pick-off play, the single most important maneuver in pro basketball, has developed into a brutal caper. The rule says the man setting the pick is not allowed to move from his station. They must be kidding. Just watch next time the man with the ball runs his defender into a shifting 250-pound, 6-foot-10 performer. 

The [injury] list isn’t complete because someone, somewhere in the NBA is always coming up with pulled ligaments, a broken nose, a dislocated shoulder, water on the knee, teeth knocked out, a fractured wrist, damaged eye, cut lip, jammed fingers, wrenched knee, bruised thigh. 

But such things have happened this season to Tom Sanders, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry, Larry Costello, Johnny Green, Dave DeBusschere, Don Ohl, Gus Johnson, Nate Thurmond, Zelmo Beaty, Dave Gambee, Lennie Chappell, Butch Komives, Emmette Bryant . . . and too many more. 

In a game where performers are so precise in movement and their aim is to put a ball in a hoop just inches larger in circumference from distances of 20 to 30 feet, it seems illogical that the relaxation of rules should permit arms and legs to be weapons. 

Nothing should ever happen in this “non-contact” game that could trigger a temper. There is no reason for any dereliction of the rulebook to be allowed, for one man to react so violently to a situation that he should take a swing, break a nose, perhaps maim someone for life. 

Did you say that hasn’t happened yet?

Do you remember when 6-foot-7 used to be considered a giant?

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