Things have gone pretty much according to form so far as the 82-game National Basketball Association season approaches the one-quarter mark. The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics are running away with the Atlantic and Pacific divisions as usual. Denver and Houston are head-and-head in the Midwest Division, also as expected. And ditto for Milwaukee and Detroit in the Central Division.
The most talked-about player in the league at the start of the year was 7-foot rookie Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks -- and he has lived up to his advance billing. The former Georgetown All-American is by far his team's leader in scoring, rebounds, and blocked shots, but he is also finding out that you can't do it alone in this league. Despite Ewing's explosive start, the Knicks lost 12 of their first 15 games -- twice as many defeats as Patrick had to endure in his last two college seasons.
Another seven-footer, Akeem Olajuwon of Houston is quickly developing into a dominating force in his second year in the league. The star center from Nigeria is among the leaders in scoring, rebounding, and blocked shots, and his aggressive play at both ends of the floor has been a big factor in the Rockets' fine early showing.
Three other big men who have proved they can lead a team to the top, and who also are off to good starts are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, and Moses Malone.
Abdul-Jabbar, though past the stage where he ranks among the statistical leaders, has been the driving force as always for the Lakers. Bird, apparently recovered from the physical problems that bothered him in the playoffs, has been playing his usual all-around game for the Celtics. Malone also has been piling up impressive statistics, though his Philadelphia team has been one of this season's disappointments. A consistently outstanding club that has played well over .700 ball for the past half dozen se asons, Philadelphia has been struggling to reach the .500 mark. The team has looked lethargic at times, and even a tongue-lashing by owner Harold Katz failed to wake it up before one recent loss.
A dominating big man is supposed to be a prerequisite for success in the NBA, but not every team has such a commodity -- and sometimes a club succeeds without one. The Milwaukee Bucks, for example, are a collection of overachievers who rotate three journeymen in the pivot and still manage to do well under the astute coaching of Don Nelson.
Finally, no discussion of early-season highlights would be complete without at least mentioning the ``long and short of it'' -- Manute Bol and Spud Webb.
Bol is the tallest player in the league at 7-6, and his spindly 190-pound frame makes him look even taller. A native of the Sudan, Manute played only one year of American college basketball (at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut) and one season in the U.S. Basketball League before being drafted by Washington this year. He's still basically a raw talent who sees limited playing time, but he manages to block a fair number of shots, and his very size is an intimidating factor.
At the other extreme is Webb, who at 5-7 is the shortest current NBA player and undoubtedly one of the shortest ever. Spud, who played his college ball at North Carolina State and also was in the USBL (on the same team with Bol), sees a bit more action off the bench for Atlanta where he fills a key playmaking role.