Bill Sharman: There’s Too Much Grabbing, 1976

[Bill Sharman was an extremely-influential figure in the development of the pro game. Not everyone knows that, or just how valued his profound insights were taken up until his final years. In this article, published in the magazine Popular Basketball/Special Playoff Edition, the great Bill Libby talks to Sharman and several other big names from the mid-1970s about all the rough stuff plaguing the “non-contact” sport of basketball. As with a lot of Libby’s articles, the tone is stiff, but the sourcing and content are definitely worth the read, especially if you lament today’s emphasis on the three-point shot.]

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Bill Sharman is one of many observers who are distressed by a trend toward rough tactics in professional basketball. He observes, “Every week in the NBA, you see increased use of hands. There is more pushing, more shoving, more grabbing. The skill factor is diluted when great players like Jabbar, McAdoo, Cowens, Lanier, and others must fight merely to get clear.”

Sharman pointed out, “Pro basketball isn’t supposed to be shuffleboard, but it shouldn’t be football and hockey either. The game is getting dangerously away from the officials.”

The only man ever to win coaching championships in the NBA, ABA, and old ABL, Sharman was hanging on in Los Angeles during a bad year and feeling uncharitable toward referees, but his point was well-taken.

The officials were not enforcing the rules. They fear the game will deteriorate into a free-throw contest. But is it better for it to deteriorate into tag-team wrestling? Columnist Melvin Durslag of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner observes, “In all probability, football, more than hockey, has exercised an influence on basketball. Good wide receivers must fight for their lives these days to get past the scrimmage line. They are held, jostled, and checked, all as part of what has become routine defense.”

The great Pittsburgh receiver, Lynn Swan, observes, “It’s a fight for your life out there. Defenders do everything but stick a gun in your ribs and tell you to give up the ball.”

However, hockey observers feel it is even worse in their sport. Super-scorer Phil Esposito, the former Bruin now with the Rangers, observes, “I feel like I’ve got one or two guys on my back all the time. I can’t go anywhere on the ice without being hugged, and the guys aren’t making love to me either. Rough play is ruining the knees of super players like Bobby Orr and Brad Park. That’s a high price to pay.”

Bill Sharman

Former NBA star Jerry West says he quit partly because of rough play. “It was time for me to get out anyway, but I always figured I’d get out when it wasn’t fun for me anymore, and the rough play had taken the fun out of it. Defenders started with their hands on me. Then they pushed and pulled, grabbing my jersey or pants. They do it all the time. I’m not the only one who suffered. I see a lot of players suffering today. 

“It may be getting out of hand in hockey and football, but those are contact sports. Basketball isn’t supposed to be a contact sport. I realize the players are getting so big that when you get 10 of these giants onto that small, confined court, you’re bound to have contact. But what’s happening today is more than that. It’s mayhem. 

“People are going to have to face the fact that it’s a different game than it was designed to be and is believed to be. If they’re going to play it and officiate it the way they are, they might as well allow bodychecking. But it’s a shame, because it’s becoming a brawling game instead of a beautiful game.”

Some feel expansion is partly responsible. The talent has thinned out among a lot of teams. There are starters today who would have been subs yesterday. The superstars are as good as ever and, to keep up with them, the lesser players resort to rough tactics.

Veteran NBA star Rick Barry says, “There or a lot of players playing out there today who probably shouldn’t be there. The things they do to you are criminal. They not only pull you this way and that, but they grab your arms or hack you. I’m supposed to be a crybaby because I complain. But the refs aren’t respecting the rules. 

“It’s sad because we’re cheated of seeing the gifted stars do the things they do best,” he concludes. 

Clearly, the graceful, stylish player is becoming passe. The rugged scrambling sort is taking over. “I’m not dirty, but I have to play tough to make it,” concedes Jerry Sloan, the rugged scrambler of the basketball Bulls.

Artis Gilmore of Kentucky, the ABA’s star center, says, “Sometimes, the whole game seems to be one long shoving match.”

The shoving for position between basketball centers is constant. Nowhere is this rough play more prominent than in the pivot. Bill Walton broke into the NBA thin and agile. After getting pushed around, he put on weight and became aggressive. Soon, he was mixing with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and getting thrown out of games. 

Jabbar elbowed him so hard at one point he knocked Walton flat. “You run out of patience with the sort of stuff you’re subjected to after a while,” Kareem admitted.

Normally emotionless in action, Jabbar has become increasingly impatient and emotional. As dominating as he is, foes seem willing to do anything to cut him down to their size. Last season, he was so tormented, he took his frustration out on the backboard, punching it, breaking a bone in his hand, and winding up on the sidelines for a while. 

Obviously, this is not the answer to the problem. “After one game,” observes Sharman, “Kareem threw down his glasses and broke them. After another, he smashed a soda pop bottle against the locker room wall.”

Notes Sharman, “We have had a lot of fights and a lot of near-fights this season. When players hang on each other, elbow each other, and harass each other during the early part of the game, they are setting up a sure-fire beef later. 

“It isn’t visible to all spectators, but these things are slow-coming in a game. You torment a guy long enough, and you are going to see fists.”

Of course, Sharman played in an era when a man could dribble, pass, and shoot without being fouled repeatedly. If he was fouled, the foul was called and he got a free throw. This was the stylish period of the sport, following its rough beginnings, before form was established, when a lot of mayhem went on.  

Now, the sport seems to be reverting to its bush-league beginnings, and the stars such as Bob McAdoo, Dave Cowens, Walt Frazier, and others who try to play with style, emerge from these roughhouse contests bruised and sometimes bleeding. 

Cowens comments, “People marvel at the way I move, but I sometimes feel that if I stopped, I’d get caught and torn limb from limb.” His durable Boston teammate John Havlicek adds, “You have to keep moving, or you’ll be wrestled down.”

Of course, there are plenty of fouls whistled and plenty of free throws called. But not nearly as many as there should be. An NBA official, who prefers not being named, notes, “The game has grown into this rough style of play and, if any one of us started to call all the fouls, the players would be spending all their time shooting free throws, and we’d be driven out of basketball. 

“If there is to be any change, there has to be a meeting of management, players, and officials who agreed to a change. Attention has to be called to it. Then all the officials can see that the change is enforced at the same time, without anyone acting surprised. Maybe then we could get back to the game the way it was supposed to be played.”

Sharman suggests officials start calling fouls early in the game before the emotional buildup begins. Durslag points out that once the hostility starts growing, it’s hard to reverse. It seems logical that players should be thrown out as soon as they fight, too, as is done in football. It is not done in hockey with the result that there are fights in almost every game, sometimes several. 

However, it is the cause that must be removed, rather than the effect. The tough tactics that destroy the style of the stylists and produce fights have to be outlawed. Sharman suggests other solutions to the problem, primarily with the physical makeup of the sport. He thinks the boundaries of a basketball court should be extended by three feet at the ends and sides. 

“The players are much bigger and faster than they were when the size of the court was established. They are so big and fast today that they need more room in which to maneuver. The traffic that forms under the backboard has to be thinned out,” he observes. 

He also suggests that the NBA adopt the ABA’s three-point basket, in which players who sink shots from beyond a circular line 25 feet or so out get an extra point. “I’ve always liked this rule. It puts a premium on the outside shooter, who often is a little player. It lets you play the game all over the court and opens up the court,” he says. 

He is not so radical as to suggest, as others have suggested, that the basket be raised. But the game was designed when the average player was less than six feet tall. Today, the average player is not only above six feet, but maybe close to seven feet. 

This would restore some of the importance of the quick, clever little man and reduce some of the importance of the slow, rough big man. In any event, Sharman concludes, “It doesn’t make sense to let a game of quickness, grace, and finesse degenerate to alley fighting. We are losing sight of what this sport is all about.”

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