From a bottom-line standpoint, the incredible growth of the National Basketball Association from its founding on June 6, 1946, to its current status as a multibillion-dollar enterprise is rather unfathomable. On the court, though, the chasm likely isn’t as wide as you might imagine.
Former St. Louis Hawks great Bob Pettit — arguably the most accomplished player in the history of the NBA All-Star Game — will be honored at the Legends Brunch in New Orleans Sunday morning, the day of the 64th annual All-Star Game in the recently renamed Smoothie King Arena.
He marvels at how far the league has come on the one hand, and how surprisingly little it has advanced on the other.
Pettit, 81, a two-time All-American at LSU, was paid $11,000 his rookie season with the then-Milwaukee Hawks during the 1954-55 season, and he topped out at $60,000 in 1964-65, his final campaign in St. Louis. That salary equates to roughly $485,000 in 2014, a mere fraction of the average salary of a current NBA player, which now tops $5 million. Two teams (the Knicks and Lakers) are valued at more than $1 billion by Forbes, but the average worth of the league’s 30 franchises is $634 million. NBA games are now beamed to 215 countries and territories, in 47 languages. Those figures astound Pettit, who became a bank executive in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., after his 11-year NBA career ended.
“Everything has escalated tremendously, the salaries and revenues in all professional sports,” Pettit said. “You see some (star athletes) signing $200 million contracts. For that kind of money, I probably would have played a few more years. But I had a really nice opportunity with the bank, and I took it.
“All the players of my era knew we had to do something after basketball. We were going to have to continue working. We were not making enough from the game to raise our families and live the rest of our lives after we finished playing.”
But the 6-foot-9 Pettit — widely considered to be the prototype of power forwards that came after him, such as Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Tim Duncan — believes the players of his era could hold their own against the All-Stars who will be on display Sunday night.
“Oh, we’d be very competitive against today’s players,” Pettit said. “Name me two centers better than Russell and (Wilt) Chamberlain. Or a guard better than Oscar Robertson. I don’t think there’s ever been a guard better than Oscar. Those guys would be great in any era, in my opinion. They might even be better now. Can you imagine Jerry West with his range, hitting long jumpers that would be worth three points instead of two?”
Pettit is one of only two players to have won four MVP awards in NBA All-Star Games. Kobe Bryant is the other. But while it is easy to believe that Pettit’s game would adapt to the modern version, and it can be agreed that Bryant has an old-school mentality, the evolution of all-star games in the four major sports suggests that they have become trivialized within the framework of sports that have become so popular and profitable. Those fabulous salaries which the best and most-marketable players now receive might explain the perceived drop-off in intensity for such contests.
NBA All-Star weekend, a three-day cornucopia of events that includes, among other attractions, the Slam Dunk Contest (which debuted in 1984), the Three-Point Shootout (1986), Rookie Challenge (1994), Skills Competition (2003) and Celebrity All-Star Game (2004), serve, depending on one’s point of view, to accentuate or detract from the actual All-Star Game that presumably is the reason for it all happening.
There also was a “Legends Classic,” the last of which was played on Feb. 23, 1993, in Salt Lake City. That “old-timers” game went on the endangered list when the 1992 game in Orlando was marked by David Thompson and Norm Nixon being carried off on stretchers with serious knee injuries.
There is nothing wrong with showmanship, of course, in the proper setting. Who can forget the 1999 All-Star Game in Madison Square Garden, when the guy in the Phoenix Suns’ gorilla costume climbed a miniature Empire State Building, jumped off it and dunked? Or the “Phantom of the Opera” descending from the rafters?
Who also can forget 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson winning the 2006 Slam Dunk Contest in Houston by leaping over a previous dunk champion, 5-foot-7 Spud Webb, but only after Robinson had missed 14 straight attempts at his title-clinching jam? Or, in the real All-Star Game that year, Shaquille O’Neal flinging a free-throw attempt against the backboard, catching the rebound himself and stuffing it in? The referees, suppressing giggles, waved it off. Rasheed Wallace, a right-handed shooter, attempted a lefty three-pointer that, of course, hit nothing but air.
The template for NBA All-Star Games these days is for the participants to avoid playing defense for long stretches and to try other bizarre stuff until the fourth quarter, when they buckle down a bit more and presumably try to win. It’s not much different from the no-checking NHL All-Star Game and the NFL’s Pro Bowl, which is something akin to flag football while wearing helmets and shoulder pads.
Even the most venerable and traditionally competitive of All-Star Games, the baseball version, has undergone a radical transformation. Decades ago, such luminaries as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial started and played the entire game, in part because fans wanted to see more of their hallowed heroes and in part because All-Star managers clearly placed a higher emphasis on winning.
There are latter-day NBA All-Stars who don’t ease up on the throttle because they simply are incapable of doing so. Bryant, again voted a starter for the Western Conference but unable to take the court Sunday due to injury (and thus get a chance to break his tie with Pettit for most career All-Star Game MVP honors), said last year that he attacks these shindigs with playoff-level passion because he knows no other way.
“I’ve been that competitive about the game since I was 18,” the Lower Merion High School (Pa.) product said. “I don’t know, it’s just the way I’ve been.”
Pettit understands, although he said he likes All-Star weekend’s attendant activities because they make for a “more exciting” experience for players and spectators. He also wants to believe that today’s players have the same fire to excel in All-Star Games that he, Robertson (three game MVP awards) and their contemporaries had.
“The players of my era played as hard as they could play in All-Star Games,” Pettit recalled. “They came to win. Our mindset was that these were the 20 greatest players in the world at the same place, on the same night. Of course we were going to compete very, very hard.
“But I feel it’s the same today. I don’t think great players like LeBron James are going to go out there and not give it their best. I just don’t see that happening.”
Now, we want to hear from you! Would like to share your opinion or make a comment on the Unlock Your Wealth Radio Show? If so, then please leave your comment or questions in the space provided below and share this article with your friends and family on Facebook and Twitter. Your comments or question could be chosen as our featured Money Question Monday and a phone call by financial expert Heather Wagenhals could dial your way to be live on the Unlock Your Wealth Radio Show.