More NBA milestones

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

In 75 years, so many events altered the course of the NBA’s history. In turn, the ripples from some of those milestones impacted the sport all over the world.

The merger, part 2. The NBA’s greatest rival for attention was the American Basketball Association or ABA. It projected itself as the rebellious stepchild, and promoted a fast-paced, outlandish game. It had a red, white and blue ball, a showy fastbreaking, slam-dunking style, and an extra-point field goal or three-point shot. It also had great talent like Artis Gilmore and David Thompson. But its ambassador was the high-flying, flamboyant Julius Erving. The NBA got a boost in many new markets in 1976, when it “merged” with the remaining four teams of the struggling ABA: the San Antonio Spurs, New York Nets, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers. But some people say the crown jewel of the deal was the acquisition of the beloved, magnetic Dr. J.

Magic, Bird, Jordan. In the late 1970’s, the NBA hit bottom. Ratings were down to the point that the finals were broadcast on a delayed basis, and there was a perception of pervasive drug use. Then Magic Johnson went to the Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird to the Boston Celtics. Red Auerbach had the foresight to draft Bird as a junior and waited a year.

Bird and Magic were generational players so opposite on the outside, but were seemingly the same driven, excellent competitors on the inside. They brought their NCAA rivalry to the pros, and in the 1980’s, won eight of the 10 titles at stake between them. They dominated everything, and their mutual respect made it all the more colorful. Then in 1984, a Chicago guard named Michael Jordan rode the media explosion and, after a seven-year gestation period, took the league to unprecedented heights. Without those three players, the NBA may not be the global giant that it is today.

The three-point shot. Close on the heels of the demise of the ABA, one of its rules which was initially ridiculed found its way into the NBA. Originally criticized as a gimmick, the three-point shot eventually became known as a way to catch up to other teams quickly, a great equalizer, so to speak. At first, some coaches would even punish players who took a trey, but it eventually found its place. Then, 10 years ago, the Golden State Warriors’ new management realized the “statistical anomaly” of three-point shooting, and unleashed Steve Kerr, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and company upon the rest of the league. The former trick shot has shaped pro basketball into how it is played today.

China. After the first tentative visits to China by the Atlanta Hawks more than 30 years ago, the Middle Kingdom has become the league’s largest cash cow. As Commissioner David Stern started courting the sleeping giant, Wang Zhizhi played in the league in the 1990’s. And when Yao Ming became the first overseas overall draft pick in 2002, everything changed. Europe may have the more polished athletes, but China has sheer numbers. It was estimated that an additional 20 million Chinese viewers watched the Houston Rockets every time Yao played. TV, merchandising, special events, product launches and NBA games, from that point onwards, China was a necessary stop.

Global expansion and European play. Like it or not, the NBA was once governed by several unwritten rules. Big men stayed under the basket and did not shoot from the outside. Too much passing was a bad thing. An outside shot was a lower percentage shot. Gradually, after the Dream Team opened the world’s eyes to NBA basketball, more and more Europeans found their way to America as direct hires or through the US educational system. With the likes of Drazen Petrovic and Detlef Schremf leading the way, Europeans gradually overcame whatever intimidation they felt. Inevitably, their versatile, team-first style of play irreversibly influenced the league. Though Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dirk Nowitzki are the only two European players on the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team, expect that number to grow dramatically in the next selection in 2046.

How else will the NBA evolve, moving forward? It’s hard to say, but given how much it has changed, we all know that added excitement will be the driving factor.

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