Yet another snoozy NBA regular season has limped to its end, and the league capos seem to have forgotten it already. They are giddily anticipating Next Year. Almost everyone connected with pro basketball (except, perhaps, Shaquille O’Neal) is rejoicing over new rule changes. Zone defenses, hallelujah! Only eight seconds to cross half-court, praise the Lord! To hear the faithful tell it, we are on the verge of basketball nirvana. There will be no more clearouts for Allen Iverson, and no more two-man tedium between John Stockton and Karl Malone. Next Year’s NBA will hum with full-court presses, dead-eye jump-shooting, and endless fast-breaking. (This is your father’s Oldsmobile.)
I welcome the death of illegal defense as much as the next fan—in fact, I’d like to give the funeral oration: “We tried and tried, but never could understand you. …” Still, Commissioner David Stern is deluding himself if he thinks zones will cure what ails the league. Zone advocates pretend that if clearouts and two-man games disappear, the NBA will suddenly look like ballet. It won’t.
That’s because pro basketball’s problems are less strategic than they are physical. The NBA is a victim of its players. Today’s NBA man is too tall, too heavy, and too fast. Bulls and Bucks stand several inches taller and weigh 20 to 40 pounds more than they did 30 years ago. (If you’re 6-feet-9, you play small forward. ‘Nuf said.) NBA players also run a full size bigger than their college counterparts. Pro teams force their draftees to bulk up because the NBA game kills waifs. (The Wizards’ Richard Hamilton looked like a man when he led the University of Connecticut. Now he’s a twig.)
This gigantism brutalizes the sport. When 10 mountainous NBA men cluster inside the three-point line, the game looks like a mosh pit. Players can’t find room for a clean cut to the basket. Passing lanes are narrow as dental floss. A basic principle of basketball is: Move to open space. But there’s no open space. In fact, the clearout and the two-man game may be a reaction less to defensive rules than to the tight quarters. They are almost the only ways to open enough court space to pass or drive.
The speediness of NBA players exaggerates the claustrophobia. It’s next to impossible to throw a backdoor pass anymore. Any competent defender will step in front of it. The cross-court skip pass—a staple of college and high-school ball—is folly in the NBA. A speedy guard is bound to intercept it. Every year pro ball bears less and less resemblance to the game collegians and kids play.
The NBA (traffic) jam demands a much more drastic remedy than mere zone defenses. The NBA should expand the court. Add 10 feet to the length, stretching it to 104 feet, and—more important—add 10 feet to the width, so it measures 60 feet sideline to sideline. In all, the court would be 30 percent bigger than it is today. It would be a dramatic change, but not an impossible one. Arenas would only have to sacrifice several rows of seats and keep separate college and pro floors. (Not such an inconvenience. After all, they already assemble and disassemble floors lickety-split on top of hockey rinks.)
The jumbo court would make pro basketball feel like basketball again. Players would have space to cut and find seams. There would be enough real estate for long passes. Fast-breaking teams would thrive. They would have plenty of room to run, and they could exhaust defenders with all their extra movement. The slow, shambling-down-the-court centers would retire, replaced by big guys who could motor.
One reason why basketball is so popular is that the game always modifies itself so that everyone can play. Women use a smaller basketball. Tots hoop on low rims. And the roundball gods adjust court sizes for optimum play. College and pro teams use 94-by-50-feet courts. But high-schoolers take only 84-by-50 feet, and junior-high courts measure only 74-by-42 feet. These differences make sense. They equalize the game. Kids have short courts so they don’t exhaust themselves. The longer college courts recognize that 21-year-olds are bigger, faster, and fitter than 16-year-olds. (I remember playing one high-school game on a college-size court. It was agonizing.)
Pros are much bigger, faster, and fitter than undergrads, yet we make no compensation for their gifts. Packing the NBA’s titans into sardine-can college courts is like forcing the Dallas Cowboys to play arena football. The microsized court distorts, even ruins, the game. The NBA offers a different—and worse—style of basketball than college does not because it forbids zones, but because its stars don’t have the room they need to play the game as they can really play it. So c’mon, owners: They give you millions. Can’t you give them 10 measly feet?