Friday, April 07, 2006

2.29.84: Extinct Bird

This was a fine regular season game from early 1984, Knicks at Boston. When I watch these old battles, I am usually doing two things: enjoying the game and constantly evaluating the players of that era against the players of today. Cross-era sports comparison: it's an obsession for me.

Truly, the game has changed so much in these last twenty years that comparisons are kinda pointless. First of all, as BJL and Kissel have reminded me, steroids changed basketball just as dramatically as they did baseball, but nobody seems to care. At some point in the mid-90's, the average NBA physique went from long and lean (Sidney Moncrief) to buff and swollen (Tim Hardaway). Plus the game itself changed. Defense improved by gigantic leaps. Carrying the ball became legal. The hop-step travel was suddenly not a travel. Plus, dudes got three happy over the years. In 1984, the average team made 49 three pointers all year, compared to 459 last year. I can't think of a statistical change that large in any sport over such a short period since...maybe the forward pass became part of football?

Whatever about all that, I have long conceded that the only way to compare players is against their peers, the players of their own era that they played against. In other words, if Bob Pettit was among the top players in 1962, then weight-trained, modern-skill-enhanced Bob Pettit would be similarly dominant today.

So when I watch Larry Bird play in 1984, I should assume that a modern version of Larry Bird would be killing modern players in the NBA. But that's just a cop-out, isn't it? A more interesting question is, if you took doughy, pasty, slow-ass 1984 Larry Bird and plucked him out of his era and plopped him, unmodified, into the current NBA, would he succeed? If so, to what degree?

That was the question I had on the back of my mind as I watched this game. If you took '84 Bird and put him in the Pistons lineup in the '05 Finals, repacing Tayshaun Prince, who's a slightly better than average 2005 basketball player, what would be the net effect?

Making my study slightly more challenging and far more stupid, I was using only one game to reach my conclusion.

The verdict: doughy white Bird would have been enough to give the Pistons the 2005 title. He would be an all-star today, but not the best player in the league.

This wasn't his best game, but it was probably representative of a typical night for him, which was actually more useful. My findings:

1) Dudes gave Bird way too much room to shoot. That was true in general of 1984 NBA ball, tons, TONS, of open 15-footers. The game was wide open and defense was something that your good defensive players played. Everybody else kind of waved their arms around and shuffled their feet and tried not to foul. It was better that way. Bird had kind of an off-shooting game, made a bunch, missed a bunch, but what impressed me was his ability to get his shot off. Very smooth, very easy, and since he didn't really elevate too much, it allowed him to throw some devastating head fakes.
2) Speaking of fakes, Bird came around the FT line on a curl n the 4th quarter, took a pass, and faked a jumper. Two Knicks -- King and Cartwright -- had followed him around the pick and they both bought the fake and went flying. Bird took a dribble into the lane, drawing another defender (his 3rd) and then went up in the air as if to shoot before dumping it off to McHale for a layup. One of the best plays I've ever seen. Brilliant.
3) Bird, massive, slightly racist cliché though it may be to say it, was a tremendous below-the-rim rebounder. He was actually pretty strong (at least compared to Louis Orr) and he had great hands. He also pursued every rebound with gusto. Very impressed by his rebounding.
4) His passing was tremendous. Not just his assists, but his ability to spread the ball around and draw people to him before kicking it to the open man. His impact on the rest of the team was huge. It all started with him.
5) His D wasn't so good.
6) Overall, he was a unique player. One of my favorite underrated superheroes was Wonderman (D. Lee disagrees, but whatevs). In addition to being able to fly and possessing superhuman strenth, Wonderman saw the world in slow motion, allowing him to react with otherworldly quickness in situations that called for it. I always thought that was cool, and watching Larry Bird play reminded me of Wonderman. Through some special gift, he was able to slow the game down to the exact speed he wanted it, the speed at which he was the best player on the court. I bet he could do it today, too.

Other notes on this contest, which the Knicks won by like 4 points.
1) Eric Fernsten: In February of 1984, I had only been watching basketball for a couple of months, but I already recognized the humor and pathos of the pasty white dude with no talent. Eric Fernsten was a great example. And check out this cliché-ridden racist banter between your announcers Marv Albert and Butch Beard:
Butch: And Marv, he's not only a crowd favorite here, he's become a crowd favorite in New York. People like to come out and see Eric Fernsten do his thing. I even like to see him do his thing.
(What exactly was his "thing"? Scoring 1 of his 2.6 points per game? Grabbing 1 of his 2.7 rebounds? It's not like dude was coming off the bench and pumping in eight straight jumpers or dunking from the free throw line. He came in, stood around, then sat down. How could anyone like seeing that? Maybe there was an Eric Fernsten Dance that I have forgotten. That would have been worth watching.)
Marv: He plays smart basketball.
(You didn't just say that, did you Marv? Please take it back. I'd actually say Bernard King, scoring 26 ppg and shooting 57%, plays smart basketball. Eric Fernsten? What does he do that's so smart? I guess he doesn't come in and jack up five straight forty footers for the hell of it. What a wily player.)
Butch: He does. He does. he really does. He gives you 100 percent, he gets the most out of hs ability, and that's all you can ask for.
(Wow, Butch, you are the absolute master of the meaningless cliché. I can't really argue that he didn't get the most out of his ability, but I might be able to argue that he had no ability. That would have been a more interesting statement, wouldn't it, Butch? "Eric Fernsten gets the most out of his ability, which isn't saying a hell of a lot?")

No offense to Eric Fernsten, who seems like a perfectly nice guy. I hope he has gone on to find success. I just have a strong suspicion that there were plenty of black dudes out there who deserved an NBA roster spot more than he did, and I think he became a "fan favorite" based on skin color alone, which isn't right.

2) I enjoyed seeing Hubie Brown talking shit with some obnoxious Celtics fans behind the Knicks bench. I enjoyed it even more because they were dressed like leprechauns.

3) Bernard was completely unstoppable again in this game. He had scientifically broken the game down to its simplest level, and nobody had a clue what to do with him. He was the co-host for this episode of "Knicks 101" and he analyzed his own game eloquently. One thing he mentioned: he tried never to use more than one or two dribbles, because after that the secondary man can come strip the ball away. What an efficient approach. Too bad he couldn't dispense this advice while Greg Anthony was still playing.

4) Trent Tucker played 9 years in nyc and made no impact at all, save for a couple of lucky heaves. Has that ever happened before? A guy is a really high draft pick (#6 overall in Tucker's case), he turns out to be pretty much a bust, yet he stays with that team for NINE years? I guess it's a testament to Tucker's good attitude and beautiful outside shot.

5) People in 1984 were ridiculously ugly, every crowd cutaway was like a freakshow. Yuck.

6) This game featured Marv Albert saying, "Grunfeld putting the move on Wedman..." That seems funny to me for some reason.

7) McHale was deadly. Tremendous all-around player.

8) At one point in the 4th quater of this close game, the Knicks lineup was: Tucker, Grunfeld, Fernsten, Marvin Webster and Darrell Walker. That lineup would finish 6th in the Ivy League today.

9) Overall, the game was much more fun then. Teams pushed the ball at every opportunity. The Celts kept trying that baseball pass after a made basket thing. And guys got open shots and made them. What a concept.