Flair and Function. Two words that can help describe the trends in playing style of basketball throughout history. Flair is an objective yet distinct term very prominent in modern day basketball. From the time a child picks up a ball and learns to dribble he has intentions of being able to bounce the ball through his legs and around his back and although this flies in the face of “fundamental” ball handling skills there will come a time on the court where this skill may help freeze the defender thus making an assist or scoring a basket. Function.
In the infancy of basketball there was little in the form of what we would consider flair in the style of the game. If you watch video from the early days of basketball you may be stunned in the robotic actions of the players of the day. As you progress in time those robotic actions evolve into more fluid and athletic movements and as a result there are more points being scored and rules begin to change to capitalize on the emerging skill sets and creativity of the players.
By the time Ossie Schectman scored the first basket in the Basketball Association of America (later to become the National Basketball Association) on November 1st 1946 basketball had been in existence for over 50 years.
During that time the game had grown from a gym class activity to a spectator sport. The first actual peach baskets had evolved into a rim and net and the basketball had developed from a soccer ball. The 10’ height of the rim has been the same however since Dr Naismith invented the game.
Professional basketball during the 40s and 50s began to gain on football and baseball in popularity albeit in small increments. What we see in today’s high flying, fast paced, starstudded version of the game of basketball can be traced back to several key factors.
The NBA style of play early on was rather flat footed and mechanical. The basic set shot was the primary point scoring method. That was until Joe Fulks made his appearance on the court. Although used on occasion in the past Fulks is considered the first innovator of the jump shot. “Jumpin’ Joe” as he was known used this technique to become one of the leading scorers of his day only being surpassed by the 6’ 10” George Mikan. His prolific scoring ability labeled him the Babe Ruth of Basketball for revolutionizing the game as it had never been played before. The defenses of the time had no answer for the 6’ 5” Fulks who once scored 63 points in a game, a record that would stand until Elgin Baylor scored 64 in a game 10 years later. Joe Fulks’ flair in spinning, running jump shots were revolutionary at a time when the game was played well below the rim in contrast to todays above the rim style.
Ball handling skills of early basketball is virtually unrecognizable in light of today’s game. This would change in part due to The Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters began in Chicago in the 1920s and by the 1940s were a very popular and entertaining version of the game. The team was one the nation’s best during the early 40s as the athleticism of the Globetrotters had made them the face of basketball at the time while the upstart NBA was still in its infancy. As the NBA grew the Globetrotters evolved into a primarily entertainment organization. Due to this exciting and very athletic style popularity for the game grew as NBA teams started to fill their rosters with current and former Globetrotters during the 1950s.
As popularity grew for the NBA during the 1960s so did the need to evolve as baseball and football continued its dominance of the sporting arena. The short lived American Basketball Association was to fuel this evolution.
Formed as a competing league to the NBA the ABA was established in 1967 and although it lasted a brief 10 years it changed the way the professional game was played and marketed. The NBA game was still rather fundamental in style and appearance as opposed to the creative athleticism and flair as signified by the red, white and blue basketball which remains to this day the most iconic image of the league. The ABA introduced the 3 point line as a way to open up the court and provide more scoring opportunities to capitalize on the speed and athleticism of smaller players. The 3 point lines as well as the “slam dunk” were also used as marketing tools to compete with the NBA. The ABA players of the late 60s and 70s took flair to the next level. The future NBA Hall of Famer and former ABA legend Julius Dr. J Erving possessed the incredible athleticism and giant hands capable of creating some of the most memorable and amazing plays in all of basketball. His ability to palm the basketball mixed with an incredible leaping ability gave rise to playing above the rim and using the finger roll and slam dunk as dominating scoring weapons. The ABA also gave rise to the “Slam Dunk Contest” in 1974 during its final year with Dr. J winning the event. This contest would not be seen again until 1984.
After the ABA/NBA merger the game grew in popularity and as the 70s concluded there were two players who took center stage in making the NBA the game it is today. On March 26th, 1979 Indiana States Larry Bird met Michigan States Magic Johnson for the NCAA title thus forming a rivalry that would make the leap to the NBA. The Boston Celtics led by Larry Bird would be the dominant team of the Eastern division and the Magic Johnson led Los Angeles Lakers would dominate the Western Division. The Celtics or Lakers made appearances in every NBA finals from 1980 to 1989 with the Lakers beating the Celtics in two of three exciting series. This rivalry fueled the popularity of the NBA with Bird’s incredible shot making abilities mirrored by Johnson’s unbelievable athleticism. These two exemplified the words flair and function as Magic Johnson used no-look passes to dazzle opponents and fans alike while Bird, although not blessed with Johnson’s athleticism, used his work ethic and shot making abilities to garner equal admiration. This rivalry would carry the NBA into the 90s as the NBA grew to rival the NFL and overtake Major League Baseball in popularity. As the Bird/Johnson rivalry was in full gear a young gifted player emerged to take the NBA and professional sports to unprecedented levels.
The NBA would reach a pinnacle beginning in 1984 as a young player out of the University of North Carolina stepped on the court as a Chicago Bull. Flair and function would culminate in one man and one era in the name of Michael Jordan. Possibly the greatest most celebrated most recognizable athlete in the world he utilized his abilities to become the greatest player the NBA had ever seen. His timing could not have been greater. The NBA was ramping up to be the most exciting, fast paced, star studded league in the world and its ultimate ambassador had arrived. Jordan took the world by storm with his awe inspiring play and gritty competitiveness. He was the epitome of flair and function during his career as 6 NBA championships attest.
There have been many in the history of basketball that have propelled the game beyond what it was before them and there will be many more who will take the game to levels yet seen. From ‘Jumpin’ Joe Fulks to today’s dominance by Lebron James there have been thousands of players, coaches and owners who have paved the way for the exciting, fast paced above the rim style of basketball we see today. Fascinating advancements are inevitably going to produce better, faster and stronger players taking the game to levels we cannot image today.