The gem of a line was uttered during what today’s generation of basketball fan would tell you was the Neanderthal days of pro hoops, i.e. B.J.—Before Jordan.
It was the late-1960s and the utterer was a coach named Butch van Breda Kolff, whose last name was truncated by headline writers to simply VBK.
It was a time before three-point shots in the NBA, when there was another pro league that played with a patriotic red, white and blue ball and which had the three-pointer in its rulebook.
It was a time when the shorts only went to early-thigh and the sneakers were canvas and above the ankle. The Afros on the players’ heads added two inches to their listed height.
It was a time when the Lakers and Celtics routinely battled for the NBA championship.
See? Some things never change.
So here was VBK, coach of the Lakers, speaking in a snit about his lumbering star center Wilt Chamberlain, with whom he had a love/hate relationship.
“If the basketball court was made of grass,” VBK said of his seven-footer, “Wilt would wear out a one-square-foot patch.”
To be fair to Chamberlain, his was a time when the center was anchored to the low key, near the basket. If Wilt would wear out a patch, so would most of the centers in the NBA.
But VBK had a way of saying and doing things like no other coach in my memory. Butch was one for wearing flashy leisure suits with open collars and no socks on his feet. He was a lover of steam baths, beer, and technical fouls. If you combined Billy Martin with Hugh Hefner, that was VBK.
Once, VBK, in a fit of anger over a call that didn’t go his way, tried to make like Pele and kicked the basketball toward the paying customers. His shoe flew off in the process.
“My shoe went further than the ball,” he moaned afterward.
VBK and Chamberlain existed, however dysfunctionally, in a time when the five players on the court had strict assignments and their positions were numbered one through five, like a baseball team.
Number One was the point guard—a small wizard with the basketball in charge of passes. Sometimes he would shoot, but only as a last resort.
Number Two was called the “shooting guard,” a gunner who would sometimes pass, but only as a last resort.
Number Three was a small forward, a man too tall for guard but too small for center or power forward (stay tuned). His duty was to get the ball at the perimeter and alternately shoot from the outside or drive to the basket in the hope of getting fouled.
Number Four was a power forward, a man too big for small forward and too stone-handed to be entrusted with the basketball for too long. His main job was to rebound and get the ball back to someone more trustworthy.
Number Five was the center, a behemoth of a man who played no further than five feet from the basket, and who was the last man up the court. At least half of the 24-second clock would expire by the time the center would take his position in the low key.
The center in VBK’s NBA, the position that Chamberlain, Russell, Alcindor and Thurmond played, was a rebounding machine whose field goal and free throw percentages were both in the 60s.
They used to say that you can’t win an NBA championship without a top-notch center. They said it at a time when the Celtics were winning the title every year with Bill Russell. Then they said it when the Milwaukee Bucks won in just their third year of existence with Lew Alcindor. They said it all the time, like rote.
Then guys who were not centers, named Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, entered the NBA and it turned out that you could win championships with superstars who weren’t the size of Redwoods.
And if you still needed convincing, the Pistons won two straight championships under the leadership of a 6’1” mighty mite named Isiah Thomas.
But today’s NBA is still about size, and more importantly, versatility. The positions One through Five are still used, but everyone multi-tasks now.
The point guard is expected to be a scorer, too—sometimes before the passing. The shooting guard sometimes mimics the small forward’s job description. The frontline players—positions Three, Four, and Five, are practically interchangeable.
When you interview for a player’s job in today’s NBA, you’d better be more dimensional than a 3-D movie.
The Pistons have just begun training camp. When coach John Kuester surveys his troops, he sees a lot of guys between the heights of 6’6” and 6’9”. GM Joe Dumars has provided the coach with a lot of jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none.
The center, aging Ben Wallace, is a 20-point scorer—if you give him a week to do it.
They have a couple of short guards and a boatload of guys who would be Twos and Threes in the old days. There aren’t really any Fours. Few of them know how to play defense.
From this strange roster, Kuester is being asked to elevate the Pistons from the 27-55 nightmare of last season to playoff contender.
John Kuester is, by all appearances, a nice guy, a real gentleman.
The Pistons’ coach is a pleasant enough looking man with thinning hair and an easy smile. He looks more like one of the dads at your kid’s school than an NBA head coach.
Kuester, a grad of that basketball institution North Carolina, has been called the “G” word by some in the NBA’s inner sanctum—a genius of offensive schemes and strategies. But that was as an assistant. He’s in his second year as a head coach and we still don’t know if he can really be a head coach or not, because last year’s Pistons were a fractured, splintered group—literally. Their injuries were early and often. Rip Hamilton hurt himself on opening night and the tone was set.
Kuester has a bunch of Twos and Threes and from that he’s supposed to accumulate a bunch of Ws.
Now THAT would be genius!