Saturday, February 8, 1997
NBA greats find today's game grating

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CLEVELAND - Pro basketball bores Rick Barry anymore. It frustrates Walt Frazier. It darkens Magic Johnson's sunny disposition. It is a game in need of guidance.

The National Basketball Association observes its silver anniversary this season beneath a layer of tarnish. Scoring is down. Ugliness is up. And the Chicago Bulls are approaching anticlimax.

Some of the greatest players of the league's first half-century gathered Friday to lament the current state of our most breathtaking sport. The NBA's All-Star Weekend has opened ominously.

''The game is very boring to watch,'' Barry said. ''There's no pattern, no continuity to the offense. People stand around and watch other people. You give the ball up and you never see it again.''

Frazier sees stronger physiques and weaker fundamentals. Johnson sees too many specialists, and too few shooters. Said Earl Monroe: ''Kids come in at an earlier age who don't know what the game is about.''

Finest whine

And so on. Never in the history of hoops has so much greatness done so much griping. The NBA brought some of its biggest names to a hotel ballroom Friday for an orchestrated celebration, and what they got was a symphony of sniping. Some of it might be attributed to the crankiness of aging, and some, Dave Cowens suggested, to ''jealousy.'' Yet the concerns seemed genuine, and the criticisms were consistent.

''I think the players that we had were probably a little more fundamental, a lot more cerebral in their approach to the game,'' said John Havlicek. ''So many coaches came out of the '60s and '70s, but I don't think you'll see too many people who played in this era become coaches.''

Today's NBA players are bigger, swifter and stronger than those of any previous generation, but their talent does not always translate as well. As pro basketball has changed from a struggling team sport to an entertainment business based on individual stars, it has lost some of its cohesiveness. Men who have loved the game for decades have come to despair of its direction.

''It'll never be the same again,'' said Ron Grinker, the Cincinnati attorney who once represented nearly 10 percent of the league's players. ''There's too much money, too much selfishness. You can't build loyalties. The league is watered down. The talent is not there.''

Grinker's is a harsh view, perhaps, but one widely shared among basketball men of his generation. ''If we want to save our game,'' says Wayne Embry, the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, ''it is time to change it.''

Strategy, fundamentals lacking

These are not baseball fans bemoaning the squabbles of owners and players. These are insiders concerned with what they find on the court. Some of their problems are with players who come to the league too young and too wealthy, who disdain practice because it interferes with photo shoots; players whose command of the game's essential skills is largely limited to leaping; and, of course, Dennis Rodman.

Yet there is frustration, too, by the game's strategic bent. The three-point shot was supposed to open up the game, but it has slowed it down. Coaches who nurse the 24-second clock to keep poor teams competitive are strangling improvisation and have reduced the balletic fury of the fast break to a controlled chance at an open three-pointer. Rod Thorn, who chairs the NBA's competition committee, says a 20-second clock is worth considering.

Four years ago, the typical NBA team scored 105 points per game. This year, the league average is 95. It is not defense that has done it so much as a slower tempo, and the erosion of fundamentals. More players reach the NBA without exhausting their college eligibility, and few are as polished as were their predecessors.

''Every one I would say is too young to evaluate,'' Billy Cunningham said of the current rookie crop. ''There's some outstanding athleticism, but they have a long way to go because they missed a lot.''

Evolution does not always bring progress. In pro basketball, it has been a backward step.