LLANO, Texas — Let me be the last to tell you about the extreme contrast between basketball and hockey players on desire for rest. The ice men always push for more minutes and never – I mean NEVER – ask for a day off.
I claim some knowledge of this subject as one who covered an NHL team for several seasons, home and away, and also a couple of NBA teams. I saw similar scheduling demands of two sports whose seasons run concurrently, with all teams playing 82 games, and many of them back to back.
Each league sends 16 teams to the postseason, and I’m not saying that’s too many, judging by the recent first-round action in the NBA and NHL playoffs.
In hockey, the perennial underdog Nashville Predators (the most unfortunate nickname in sports?) swept away Stanley Cup favorite Chicago. And though the league is being ridiculed for elite teams facing each other in early rounds, I had no problem with that format. I’d watch Pittsburgh-Columbus any time. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at 32 turned back the clock and everything else.
Nor does it bother me that in the second round the Stanley Cup champion Penguins, with hockey’s finest player, Sidney Crosby, meet the winners of the President’s Cup, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record. Which means something in the sport of hockey.
What means something in hockey is playing every minute you can, doing everything you can to help your team win every game it can.
I remember Bobby Orr dragging his leg across the ice to take the point on the power play. In the regular season. He could pass or shoot, didn’t need two knees, didn’t need to skate when the Boston Bruins were man-advantaged. Any way to help win a game, whenever, no matter how mummified, he wanted to be out there.
Orr’s tenacity and integrity were not unique among hockey players, then or now. They play in pain that would send NBA players to a hospital.
But now we are in the playoffs, and everywhere I look, except, perhaps, Los Angeles, the hoopsters are playing their butts off. Now they’re pushing themselves like hockey players. And of course I’m happy to see it.
But I can’t erase the memory of a truly fraudulent NBA regular season. You had the best teams – Golden State, Cleveland and my neighborly San Antonio Spurs – resting star players for entire games of most road trips.
In fact, it was the surly (to the media anyway) coach of the Spurs, Gregg Popovich, who invented this sordid stratagem — championship teams tanking to preserve star players for the one season that counts in their sport, the postseason.
So how does the ticket-holder feel? He pays Broadway prices well in advance of a basketball game because he wants to see one or two specific superstars perform.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, there will be a change in the cast for this evening’s performance. The role of LeBron James will be played by Richard Jefferson.”
The fan did not spend a hundred dollars for a pair of tickets to see Richard Jefferson. Talk about bait and switch. Can the fan get a refund? Don’t be silly.
No, he’s told to hang on until the playoffs, and then he will see the greatest athletic entertainment the planet can offer.
OK, promise fulfilled. Already. This year, unlike most of them, even the opening round has been enthralling. Not just explosive individual play (LeBron, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard at their best), but emotional drama as well. Memphis coach David Fizdale goes nuclear on the refs, Westbrook turns pompous and snippy with the press.
Not to be outdone in shady postgame oratory, Indiana’s Paul George calls out three of his teammates, each on a separate night. Reality TV has seldom been better. Nor have the Cavaliers, mangled though they are, disposing of the skidding Pacers in four straight.
The NBA owners count on playoff brilliance and intensity to make up for the spotty product they set before us for six months. They’re probably right. It’s easy to get caught up in the present.
One opening matchup that projected to be one-sided, dynastic San Antonio vs. crippled Memphis, has been spellbinding. The Spurs routed the Grizzlies in the first two games, as expected, but Fizdale won the hearts of his players with a postgame fact-loaded blast at the officials.
When the series shifted to Memphis, the home team was acutely focused and unified, the players all chipping in to pay the coach’s $30,000 fine for free speech. The suddenly ferocious Grizzlies won the next two games, to even the series. There hasn’t been a basketball story this heartwarming since Hoosiers.
Even so, I wonder about carryover effect. If I want to buy tickets to a Dallas Stars game against Pittsburgh next season, I won’t be thinking about Sidney Crosby possibly sitting out. But I would not buy a Mavericks ticket two months in advance, any more than I’d book ahead on United Airlines. Too much uncertainty there.
An NBA owner like Mark Cuban who tries to put Tony Romo into a basketball game is not someone I trust. Not that Cuban’s carnival act trampled NBA tradition. For at least three decades the show has been more important than the score, teams playing little defense on the road, even when purportedly trying. And it was all but official league policy that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant got charging privileges.
In the NHL, nobody questions the integrity of refs or suggests that superstars are treated differently from scrappers. Which is not to say the NHL is without its hypocrisies — goonery on the ice and off, and rarely a hint of remorse.
But fans can forgive misbehavior that doesn’t destroy the integrity of the competition. As the NBA regular season ended — and not a minute too soon — it was sinking ever closer to World Wrestling credibility. The overly reticent commish, Adam Silver, belatedly noticed, condemned the absence of players who have no doctor’s excuse.
Perhaps each coach should start providing a daily accounting of injuries, NFL-style. Punish the cheaters. Is Roger Goodell too high a bar to meet on integrity?