There have been times lately when I’ve wondered if nearly as many people are writing about basketball as playing it. In the first five months of this year at least five new books have appeared. Jeffrey Lane’s Under the Boards is subtitled “the cultural revolution in basketball”, which led me to wonder if there was something in Yao Ming’s background I did not know about. Another elides basketball and philosophy, still another basketball and civil religion, and a fourth charts the remarkable history of women’s basketball.11. Jerry L. Walls and Gregory Bassham, eds., Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint (University of Kentucky Press, 2007); Craig A. Forney, The Holy Trinity of American Sports: Civil Religion in Football, Baseball and Basketball (Mercer University Press, 2007); and Pamela Grundy and Susan Shakelford, Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
All have points of merit, but the new book of most interest to me is Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by New York Daily News sportswriter Filip Bondy. Bondy sets himself an almost impossible task. Like Charles Smith’s four failed layup attempts against the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 Eastern Conference finals that doomed the Knicks title chances “forever”, Bondy just can’t quite finish.
Bondy’s premise is that the 1984 draft that contained Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and John Stockton was a tipping point for the NBA and changed the game “forever.” Forever is such a strong word, especially in sports. The greatest representation of a sports event that was “forever” is Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. Trying to find a comparable event in other sports is much more difficult. There are instead usually a series of tipping points, often decades apart, that shift a sport from one status quo to another, the latter often not recognized until well after the fact.
In the National Football League, for example, the forward pass changed the game of football in the sense that the structure of play was altered “forever.” Offenses were no longer just three yards and a cloud of dust. Yet even within the concept of the forward pass there came small shifts in the direction of the game over the years. The Green Bay Packers used it to set up their sweeps and running game. The Oakland Raiders loved the long ball. The San Francisco 49ers developed the short passing game known as the West Coast offense. Which innovation changed the game forever? The pass itself, or the...