By Jared Max
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“How many times are we going to pass before we shoot? Four! How many? FOUR!”READ MORE: 2 Dozen Members Of Military Begin Serving As Pandemic Reinforcements At Newark's University Hospital
One of the strongest themes of my favorite sports movie, “Hoosiers,” is one which, sadly, seems lost on too many of today’s NBA superstars: teamwork.
“Five players on the court function as one single unit. Team. Team. Team. No one more important than the other.”
While the newest version of the New York Knicks — led by team president Phil Jackson and coach Derek Fisher — is trying to instill this mantra, many players have been strongly molded to believe otherwise. Selfish basketball is reinforced every day when players watch themselves on highlights shows. They know they’re more likely to become famous — to appear in a top-10 segment — if they show off individual scoring talents rather than initiating a mesmerizing, around-the-horn passing attack.
Several decades before Carmelo Anthony was anointed a basketball god, the Knicks won two NBA titles. Hall-of-fame sportscaster Bob Wolff, who was the TV voice of the 1970 and ’73 championship teams, points out what was different back then: “People would applaud the pass that led to the basket. Not the basket.”
I asked Bob Wolff’s son — noted sports psychologist Rick Wolff — to help me understand why today’s “look-at-me” NBA does not seem as exciting to watch. Rick said that it’s all about teamwork.
“The sum is greater than the parts,” he said. “You look to Jeremy Lin’s few weeks with the Knicks and all of a sudden the Knicks were transported into this unbelievably fun team — a team in every sense of the word. They were lifted to a higher level. But, then the clock struck 12, and Cinderella was gone.”
Ah, but who kicked Cinderella from the ball?
Even though everybody and their mothers could see that it was more fun to watch the Knicks during the brief Linsanity period, the team made a conscious decision that it would rather try to sell tickets to see a high-priced superstar (who the Knicks had committed to financially and from a marketing standpoint). Dismissing the fact that Knicks fans and players hadn’t been so engaged in the game in years, management felt a need to highlight Carmelo over Linsanity. Why did “Look at me” defeat “Watch us”?
Rick Wolff said the Knicks decided to go the Melo route because they figured, “He’ll put fannies in the seats. He’s the face of our franchise. And Jeremy Lin is just a one-note wonder.”
Ugh! Shortsightedness. Fear of admitting a terrible mistake. A willingness to deny a positive direction. An opportunity missed to teach young fans how the game should be played. A blatant disregard for what made us fall in love with Coach Dale in “Hoosiers.”
“I’ve seen you guys can shoot. But there’s more to the game than shooting. There’s fundamentals and defense.”
Or, as I have said many times, “There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there’s plenty of ‘Me’ in Melo.”
While the Knicks are being trained to run a system that won several NBA titles for Jackson with the Bulls and Lakers, fans need to remind themselves that great change takes some time. The Knicks showed signs that they can succeed operating a team-first mentality (30 assists on 36 field goals in their second game of the season vs. the Cavaliers). But on Wednesday night, New York looked like the same team it has been since Carmelo arrived.
It was the same story during the previous game, too.
As my radio colleague Tom Stephens announced on WCBS 880 Tuesday night, “8-for-23 is great — if you’re Derek Jeter. Not Carmelo Anthony.” One night before losing on the road against the lowly Detroit Pistons, the Knicks got dumped at home by 15 points by the Washington Wizards. On Tuesday, the Knicks had two scorers who reached double digits. The Wizards had six.
Last night, we learned why there is a saying, “old habits die hard.” Despite not having the touch, Anthony attempted six more shots than any of his teammates. He finished 5-for-21. As Rick Wolff pointed out, “Even a lifelong Knicks fan like myself — we know Carmelo is extraordinarily talented. But that’s not the issue.”
My reasoning for talking about Carmelo Anthony here is because I have been trying to discover for months why the NBA — a league I was addicted to as a child — has bored me for years.READ MORE: NYPD Narcotics Detective Wounded In Shooting On Staten Island Hailed As Hero For Protecting Fellow Officers
I called Rick Wolff because I wanted to discuss the affects on sport and society when athletes are deified. This thought was probably planted from a line that Barbara Hershey’s character spoke in “Hoosiers,” a movie based on a true story from 1954: “Gods come pretty cheap nowadays, don’t they? You become one by putting a leather ball in an iron hoop.”
Wolff told me, “Kids today figure, ‘If I’m a star, then that’s going to get people to look at me. maybe I’ll get some media attention. Maybe I’ll get a college scholarship, whatever.’ But, that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to becoming a championship team.”
I called Rick to talk about LeBron James, mainly. I wanted to know if there is a connection between one being deified — a living, active sports legend never seen before — and a professional basketball game that appears increasingly less interesting to watch. I asked Rick if there’s a connection between the creation of an unrealistic hero of a man and a society of youth destined for doom because its role models are the wrong guys for the job. Also, I wanted to know how these men who, somehow, became societal gods could negotiate reality from make-believe.
Regarding the importance of teamwork — to both players and fans — Wolff verbalized why watching the Knicks often leaves viewers deflated: “If the ball’s brought up the court and he (Carmelo) gets it and everybody sort of clears out, and he does a one-on-one with the defender, that’s not exactly entertaining. That’s sort of just a one-on-one situation. That is pretty much how the game has sort of evolved.”
I believe that watching selfish basketball is like playing on the same team as a ball hog. If we are continuously not included in the offense, we lose our interest — our sense of ownership. As fans, we are as uninterested to watch a guy who mistakenly believes he is the be-all, end-all as we are to play with somebody like this. When Linsanity struck, Knicks players were engaged. They felt like they could contribute to the success of a team — opposed to say when, um, that other guy came back. That’s when the other players and fans became less engaged.
Rick Wolff explained why.
“The reason why people go (at the very basic) to watch a professional, college or, even a high school team play is because they say they want to be entertained, and they want to see a team effort,” he said. “If you ask a fan, would you rather you see your team win because one guy shot the ball all the time? Or would you rather see a team effort where we the results aren’t guaranteed, but it’d be pretty interesting to see the ups and downs? The team effort is what people really begin to embrace. They’re fans of the team — even though a lot of the big-name athletes are marketed as the headliners.”
Headliners have always been part of the NBA. From George Mikkan to Bob Cousy, from Wilt Chamberlain to Bill Russell, from Julius Erving to Magic Johnson, from Larry Bird to Michael Jordan, from Kobe Bryant to LeBron James. This marketing style is as old as the NBA. But sometime between “The NBA is Fantastic!” and “NBA Entertainment,” the game became less entertaining. Why? Was the individual star made to be too important? When did this change occur? Is everybody trying to be the next Jordan instead of Magic or Bird?
Many have argued that the three-point shot has contributed to a boring league. There is probably merit to this. Three-point shot attempts are like scratch-off lottery tickets. Sure, everybody will hit once in a while. But, in the end, it tends to be a sucker’s bet.
The three-pointer played a role in the Bird-Magic era, which revived the NBA. But it did not have the predominant role it does today. In researching statistics, I was amazed to learn that in the 1984-85 NBA Finals — a seven-game series — the Celtics and Lakers attempted to shoot 41 three-pointers combined. Ten years later, the seven-game Finals between the Knicks and Rockets produced a combined 226 three-point attempts. Earlier this year in the Finals, the Spurs and Heat attempted a combined 234 shots from behind the arc. It was only a five-game series.
While Jordan seemed to be blessed with more individual talent and physical greatness than any player I have seen, he was merely one piece of championship teams. Four other players were attached. Jordan didn’t win his first NBA title until Bird’s back was busted and Magic was nearing his end. Like Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers, each team was rich in supporting actors who specialized in specific weaponry. McHale, Parish, DJ, Ainge, Wedman, Walton. Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy, Cooper, Wilkes, Rambis, Scott. As much as it was Bird and Magic, it was all about the team. It was not the Celtics and Lakers, only.
Passionately, Rick Wolff explained why it is that I believe that the NBA is failing today — despite the league’s financial success.
“I grew up in an era where I adored and admired the championship Knicks and the fact that they were the essence and personification of team play,” Wolff said. “As my dad (Bob Wolff) points out, with those teams, these were all superstars. But I don’t think any of the Knicks of either of those teams were ever in the top-10 in scoring of the league. So, they weren’t superstars. But they were unbelievably smart in terms of being team players. That, of course, to me has always been the goal. That’s what you want to be. It wasn’t The New York Knicks with Willis Reed or Walt Frazier. It was just the New York Knicks. And, that’s why I think today’s kids — particularly folks who like the Knicks grow up and say, ‘Well, that’s Carmelo Anthony, and he’s a superstar and averages 30 points a game.’ But the Knicks don’t win anything.”
Back-to-back losses led by a crummy Carmelo should not make Knicks fans throw their towels in. Yet. Wolff is optimistic: “Let’s see what happens with the triangle offense and see if that actually begins to settle in because that will change the dynamic of the team.”
But, Rick, what about the rest of the game? Does the league know its game is not as exciting as it would like its consumers to believe?
“Don’t discount the NBA,” Wolff assured me. “Adam Silver and his entourage are pretty smart cookies. They get it. The question is, ‘How do they reinvent themselves?'”
The answer to this question rests with the league — not the players. Coach Dale in “Hoosiers” told us why many play the game: “Most people would kill to be treated like a god, just for a few moments.”
Jared Max is a multi-award winning sportscaster. He hosted a No. 1 rated New York City sports talk show, “Maxed Out” — in addition to previously serving as longtime Sports Director at WCBS 880, where he currently anchors weekend sports. Follow and communicate with Jared on Twitter @jared_max.
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