Somewhere, Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor is already rolling over in his future grave.
Responding to the NBA's "experiment" with a 44-minute game during the preseason, NBA superstar LeBron James recently suggested that the NBA play less regular season games than less minutes per game, and his fellow superstar Dirk Nowitzki soon after concurred, going as far as to say that the number of games played in an NBA season should be cut into the "mid-60s."
As soon as I heard these ludicrous assertions, I immediately thought of Baylor.
As artfully detailed in a terrific 2008 column by ESPN's Bill Simmons, in the 1961-62 NBA season Baylor averaged an astounding 38.3 ppg, 18.6 rpg and 4.6 apg ... while still serving as a US Army Reservist ... in the state of Washington! In a nine-team NBA that had just one team posted on the West Coast (Baylor's Los Angeles Lakers), when granted weekend leave Baylor would depart from his Washington State-based army barracks to take multiple flights to hook up with his Lakers squad on weekends, which cut Baylor's season to 48 of the NBA's 80 games. And unlike the modern NBA travel schedule that James and Nowitzki are quick to gripe over, the NBA of 1961-62 came with none of the travel amenities seen today. And without the exorbitant salaries, either, of course.
Today, NBA travel includes a private jet (complete with masseuses, trainers, condition experts and dietitians on board), hotel suites, luxurious buses to-and-from the hotel, a healthy per diem ($124 today, $8 in 1967), all bags and equipment are carried by the team, and the league limits the number of back-to-backs played by each team to the 15 to 23 range.
Until the mid-1990s, most NBA teams still flew coach.
Until the mid-1980s, the NBA still played back-to-back-to-backs. Including our very own Denver Nuggets who won three straight games in three straight days from November 17th through November 19th in 1983. And those Nuggets never scored less than 130 points in each of those three victories (in fact, Kiki Vandeweghe scored at least 30 points in each game and Alex English scored 30 in two of the three).
In the 1950s and 1960s, NBA travel included few non-stops (often on rickety regional planes), lots of buses and motels and - egads! - players had to carry their own bags. And Baylor and his Lakers once played a back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back ... starting on Christmas Day!*
And yet James and Nowitzki (and others) think that the modern NBA, with all of its luxurious travel amenities combined with NBA referees whistling most of the game's physicality, should see a game reduction? Who are these guys kidding?
One voice of reason immediately entered the debate, that being His Airness Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player in NBA history and current owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Responding to James's and Nowitzki's short-sidedness on the issue, Jordan responded:
If I wasn't playing 82 games, I still would've been playing somewhere else because that's the love for the game I had. As a player, I never thought 82 games was an issue.
His Airness is 100% correct. Playing 82 games IS NOT AN ISSUE. Nor is playing 48 minutes. Nor is playing fewer preseason games, as Tony Parker suggested just the other day.
Every complaint about the NBA season's duration uttered by James, Nowitzki and others is an insult to Baylor and all the other players who came before them. For it was Baylor and others, from Baylor's generation all the way through the 1980s NBA players, who paved the way for the $5.15 million average annual salary and $24.7 million average in career earnings collected by the modern NBA player. I don't know about you, but for $24.7 million, a chartered jet with an onboard masseuse, a hotel suite and a $124 per diem, I'd happily play (lest we lose sight of the word is play) as many back-to-backs and as many basketball games that you want me to.
Oh, and for those numbers I'll gladly skip Christmas with the family, too. Trust me, they'll understand.
Moreover, where exactly do James and Nowitkzi think that their $129 million and $204 million in respective career earnings (to date) came from? It came from the millions of dollars generated from the gate proceeds, television and radio rights of each and every NBA regular season, playoff and preseason game. The more games, the more revenue, the more of that revenue ends up in players' pockets. Duh.
So I guess if James, Nowitzki and others are serious about reducing the number of NBA games played each season, one should ask if they'll be equally serious about seeing their salaries reduced proportionally with their work output. Because my gut feel is that if it's explained to them that way, they'll do what they should have done a week ago.
Namely, play 82 games, play 48 minutes, be grateful that you get paid gazillions of dollars to do both ... and shut up.
*James also complained in 2013 about his Miami Heat having to play on the road on Christmas Day, as did Phil Jackson several years earlier.