All the slight moves

3/17/2010 - NBA

Can't let two great basketball documentaries slide by without comment, beginning with the observation that basketball sure makes a great documentary topic. Feature films, not so much; other than "Hoosiers," you won't find many basketball-related stories on the greatest sports movie lists. But basketball has the documentary category on lock. You could begin and end with "Hoop Dreams."

Now you can add ESPN's "Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks" and HBO's "Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals" to the mix. Maybe the sport's abundance of personalities and outrageous extremes makes it better suited for reality than fiction. How many other sports would have a star engage in a trash-talking battle with an acclaimed movie director in the middle of a game? That was the central theme of the "30 for 30" series' "Winning Time." But as the documentary aired, a strange subplot unfolded on Twitter: a nostalgia for mid-'90s NBA ball.

Come on Generation Xers, just because we're adding some gray hairs to our heads doesn't mean we've reached dementia. Let's not fool ourselves. Sure the game was more physical and the rivalries more intense, but the era revisited in this documentary was the league's low point. The game is in better shape today with an abundance of talent represented by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade et al than it was in that stretch when Michael Jordan played only 17 regular-season games. Things were so bad that Sports Illustrated had a cover proclaiming "Why the NHL's Hot and the NBA's Not." The Knicks-Rockets NBA Finals of 1994 had the lowest TV ratings since the early 1980s. After all, the most memorable moments were the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase during Game 5 and John Starks' 2-for-18 shooting in Game 7.

If you think all was well with the NBA in the mid-1990s, check the movie again. You'll notice part of the Madison Square Garden court looked as if it had been bleached in the 1995 playoff games. That's because 1994-95 was the season the NBA moved the 3-point line from 23 feet, 9 inches, in to an even 22 feet, although you could still see remnants of the old line on the floor.

Why the rule change? To stem the plunge in scoring that occurred the year before when the average team's score plummeted by four points per game-- the largest single-season drop since the expansion season of 1970-71 -- down to 101.5 points, the lowest number since the Syracuse Nationals-Rochester Royals days of 1956-57.

Miller was opposed to the rule change, by the way. He thought the longer line separated the real shooters from the pretenders. But without the gimmick intended to boost scoring, it's possible he would not have made that second, tying 3 in the first game of that 1995 series. With the extra dribble to get back behind the longer 3-point line, Greg Anthony would have had an additional second to get to him and either distract Miller or discourage him from shooting that shot.

The only thing the shorter 3-pointer did was encourage more people to shoot it. Three-point attempts went from 9.9 to 15.3 per game that season and never went back down. But scoring continued to decline as defenses could pack in with even less distance to cover from the paint back out to the shooters. The NBA moved the 3-pointer back to its original distance in 1997.

It wasn't as easy to stop the continued slowdown of the game as too many coaches tried to hold on to their jobs by dictating tempo. If they were going to lose, at least they wouldn't be blown out. It was a smart strategy by Pat Riley, who had nowhere near as much talent at his disposal as he did with the Showtime Lakers. But when Riley had Magic Johnson running the break in Los Angeles and the Denver Nuggets running just as fast and the Boston Celtics making transactions to keep up with them, the league was a better place.

Instead of wallowing in nostalgia for the 1980s, "Magic & Bird" successfully exposes the dark secrets of the two main protagonists of that era. We get a better sense of the anger that drove both of them.

For Bird, the anger came from the suicide of his father and the constant doubts of his greatness just because of his skin color. Has any superstar had to prove as much to his peers as Bird did? Magic talked about how he and his buddies had their doubts, and even Bird's own teammates (or at least Cedric Maxwell) didn't initially believe that the white guy was really as good as people said he was.

We never think of Magic as angry. That broad smile is just as big a part of his image as the no-look pass. Only, the smiling ones can be just as cold-blooded as anyone else. In the documentary, we learn that the day of Game 6 of the 1980 Finals (or World Championship series, as it was called then) Magic found out that Bird had been named rookie of the year over him. That was all the incentive Johnson needed to put on one of the memorable performances in NBA history: 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the Lakers' championship-clinching victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

It turned out he also needed the overindulgent side of him to keep pushing him to get more. After all, he could have been satisfied with winning a championship his first year in the league, an accomplishment some great players spend their entire careers fruitlessly pursuing. But Magic wanted more. There's always been that dichotomy between Magic and Earvin Johnson, his given name, the industrious kid from East Lansing, Mich. And there are those, most notably magazine writer Charlie Pierce, who say Earvin ultimately was done in by Magic, who led him to become HIV-positive. Lust, greed and pride were all sins visited by Magic. And Johnson doesn't dispute the theory.

"That's probably true, that the Magic ego swallowed Earvin a little bit," he says in the documentary. "But that's OK. Because I couldn't have won five championships without that."

It's an admission that anything would have been worth it to him if he could become the greatest winner of his time. And maybe that's what's missing from the game today, people willing to sacrifice years of their life if that were the requirement for being the best. Instead of being told you're not that good, as Bird was, we have AAU coaches and agents telling young players they're the best, in the hopes the kids will take them along for the ride to the top.

How many realize that unless the players maintain that anger -- that common thread seen in Magic, Bird and Miller in these movies -- they'll never get there.