Oh, for '60s-style NBA

Back in the 1960s I knew by heart the name of every player, coach, and referee in the National Basketball Association. I'm sure thousands of other people who followed the NBA at that time, if asked, could have made the same claim.

Teams in different divisions played more games against each other than they do now; East-West rivalries were strong; and the level of intensity on the court usually meant that at least one key player on each squad would foul out before the action was over.

Today, in my opinion, pro basketball has an identity crisis caused by too many teams, too many players, and huge salaries that have driven ticket pices so high that the ordinary workingman can no longer afford to take his family to a game.

Quick now, who is the head coach of the Utah Jazz; the 12th man on the roster of the Dallas Mavericks; the name of just one rookie referee; the site and date of this year's NBA All-Star Game? When was the last time you sat down, picked up a newspaper, and looked at where every team was in the standings?

The regular season is generally routine as teams gi through the motions of playing what amounts to a glorified exhibition season. As far as the league's four division races are concerned, nobody seems to care who the winners are so long as their records are good enough to get them into the playoffs.

That is when the league's ''Second Season,'' its real season, begins. That's when teams stop exchanging baskets and start playing the tough defense; when game scores go down and the level of competition goes up.

What you get during the regular season is too many superstars on the big clubs pacing themselves -- playing hard only on offense and saving themselves for the playoffs, when everything counts double.

Whatever happened to pro basketball's individual rivalries of the '60s -- Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell; Oscar Robertson battling Jerry West; Rick Barry against Dave DeBusschere?

There was a period in pro basketball when, with fewer teams, the Boston Celtics got to play Philadelphia 13 times during the regular season. That meant 13 times when Russell, the game's greatest defensive player, and Chamberlain, the game's greatest offensive player, went head to head for 48 minutes.

Now nobody in this league wants to play 40 minutes at half the intensity that Russell and Chamberlain brought to their teams. Now you see all-star centers who won't run up the court with their teammates on the break, forwards who play a Mickey Mouse defense, and guards who won't dive on the floor for a loose ball.

Years ago, before operating an NBA franchise became an ego trip for owners, coaches were allowed to run a compassionate dictatorship. When a player was told to do something, he did it. When he signed a four-year contract for a certain figure, he didn't demand that it be renegotiated after two years and get away with it.

Most NBA coaches today are probably paid at about the same figure as their seventh or eighth player. While they may still pick the starting lineup and make game substitutions, they don't tell any millionaire superstar with a long-term contract what to do.

They can suggest, but they can't demand. Otherwise that player's going to take his problems to the owner, where he knows he's going to get satisfaction.

When you are in the sports-entertainment business, as the NBA is, it makes sense to showcase your best talent around the league and on network television as often as you can.

Yet several years ago pro basketball decided it could save itself a ton of traveling money if, for example, the Boston Celtics made only one road trip west a year to play the Los Angeles Lakers, and vice versa.

The NBA seems to be forgetting that during one brilliant 13-year stretch, Boston and Los Angeles met seven times in the playoffs in games that sent nationwide TV ratings skyrocketing. Now the league tends to treat this heated and lucrative rivalry as if it never existed.

In my opinion, the NBA should trim its present number of franchises from 23 to 16, divide the league into an Eastern and Western Conference, with eight teams apiece, and have each team play every other club the same number of times during the regular season.

The NBA playoffs would be changed to embrace only the first four teams in each conference, Team 1 playing Team 4, and Team 2 playing Team 3. All would be best-of-seven series.

The conference playoff champions would then adopt baseball's World Series format, a best-of-seven affair that would open in the East one year and the West the next. And maybe by then, just maybe, the fans would have learned the names of all 24 players involved.

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