The NBA Was Not Better in the ’80s

I just turned 36. For my generation, the 1980’s were a glorious time. We had Small Wonder and Mr. Belvedere, slap bracelets, and Skip-It. How could you not love the 80’s?

We as humans often romanticize the past, remembering only the good parts while conveniently ignoring the bad ones, and we especially do that with our childhoods. There was a crack epidemic, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and the looming threat of a nuclear winter, but when my friends and I reminisce, we only talk about Fraggle Rock and blowing into our Nintendo game cartridges to make them work.

It’s the same way in sports.

When someone tells me why they don’t like the NBA (which happens often), they invariably say something along the lines of, “It was just better when I was growing up in the ‘80’s.” When pressed, the person usually says one of two things: either (a) “the league was much more competitive back then, now there are only a few good teams”; or (b) “the players are…I don’t know…they’re just too…thuggish.

Are those two statements true? I decided to investigate.

Let’s tackle the second statement first.

A major reason for David Stern’s implementation of a player dress code in 2005 was to try to avoid his league being represented like this any longer. The majority of fans that go to NBA games are white, while most of the players are black. This causes a disconnect between player and fan, but when that player is Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, those fans can usually get beyond it. However, when that player is  J.R. Smith, they begin to question why they’re going to games. I don’t even know if it’s completely racially motivated, because how many people can really relate to Chris Andersen?

This is a new phenomenon, right? I mean, players didn’t dress all flashy in the ‘80’s, did they?

Oh.

Well, that’s off the court. Certainly no one would wear two gold chains while competing in the Slam Dunk Contest, right?

Well, All-Star Weekend doesn’t count. Michael Jordan would never break the rules in an actual NBA game that counted just to increase sneaker sales, would he?

Well, this is awkward.

While some may look at furs and gold chains as gaudy and not necessarily threatening like cornrows and tattoos, I would argue that it was the natural evolution of the urban style that is shared by hip-hop and the NBA. In the ‘80’s, the prevailing style revolved around gold chains and fur. As style evolved, so did the fashion of NBA players away from the old style and more towards cornrows, tattoos, and tilted fitteds. It’s a constant evolution. Even without the dress code, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would dress like nerds and Dwyane Wade would dress like Carlton Banks because that’s the direction that style is taking.

In another ten years, it will evolve into something else.

Beyond clothes, people will point to instances like the 2006 Knicks-Nuggets brawl and the even more severe “Malice at the Palace” as proof of a league run amok and inmates running the asylum. The prevailing thought was that the league was out of control, dominated by (apparent) criminals that would rather fight than play. That’s why the dress code was so necessary. Fights like that didn’t happen in the 1980’s.

Oh.

Huh.

Interesting.

Wow.

Maybe bad things actually did happen back then.

That Larry Bird — Julius Erving fight is especially fascinating to me. Here were two future Hall of Famers, superstars at the top of the sport that endorsed the same shoe company (Converse), and one of which (Bird) was in the midst of an MVP season that began choking one another in the middle of a game.

Those two went from this:

To this:

The most shocking thing of all? Neither Bird nor Erving were suspended and were each fined only $7,500 (equivalent to $17,047 in today’s dollars). Can you imagine if that happened now? If LeBron and Kobe started choking one another in the middle of a game and weren’t suspended, I’m pretty sure Skip Bayless would have a conniption live on national television.

Despite that incident, I doubt anyone would categorize either Larry Legend or Dr. J as a thug. Perception is everything and Bird and Erving are seen as gentlemen, particularly in comparison to the appearance of today’s players. However, perception is not reality and the NBA of 2016 is a cleaner and more controlled game than it was in 1985.

That’s a fact.

So, if the thug element is more of an invented perception than an actual reality, let’s look at the other comment that the league was much more competitive back then and talent wasn’t concentrated on a few marquee teams like it is now.

Is that true?

Let’s investigate by looking at the results from the NBA Finals from the last full decade (2000–2009) and comparing them to the results from the 1980’s. In each case, there were ten winners and ten losers, so there would be a maximum of twenty teams that could make this list and a minimum of two teams (since a team cannot play against itself, the most Finals any one team could make is ten).

11 different teams played in the Finals over that time, which is just over half the maximum possible amount. Only two teams played in more than two — the Lakers (6) and the Spurs (3) — and only two more — the Nets and the Pistons — played in the Finals twice during that span. The remaining seven teams played in the Finals only once during that decade.

The list from the 80’s is not nearly as diverse.

Only five different teams played in the Finals over the course of the decade and all of them made more than one appearance. The Pistons and Rockets played in two, the 76ers played in three, the Celtics played in five and the Lakers, amazingly, played in eight of a possible ten NBA Finals from 1980–1989. (Two years later, the Lakers would once again win the Western Conference and play for the championship in 1991, their ninth appearance in twelve years.)

There were a grand total of four matchups that happened in those ten years: Lakers vs. Sixers (three times), Lakers vs. Celtics (three times), Celtics vs. Rockets (twice), and Lakers vs. Pistons (twice). That’s insane.

So while some decry that the era of The Big Three will be the downfall of the Association, they seem to forget that the league was top-heavy when it really began its ascent. There were 22 teams in the league in 1980 and 25 in 1989, yet only five of them played for the championship.

Also, for those that complain that it seems like every team in the NBA makes the playoffs and hovering around .500 shouldn’t be enough of a qualification, I give you one rebuttal: the 1985 — ’86 Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan, in his second season and fresh off winning Rookie of the Year, broke his left foot in the third game of the season and had to miss almost the entire year. Even without him, the Bulls still made the playoffs with a record of 30–52. Think about that. They were 22 games under .500 (.366 to be exact) and twenty-seven games back in the division.

We all romanticize the past and I don’t think there is a better example of it than this, so the next time someone talks about how great the NBA was in the ‘80’s, kindly refresh their memory. Or punch them in the face. Either way.

Because while this is what happened:

This is all anyone remembers:

A version of this essay first appeared on I Hate JJ Redick and again on Medium

Christopher Pierznik’s eight books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more.Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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3 thoughts on “The NBA Was Not Better in the ’80s

  1. Great read. I had no idea that there was so little diversity in the 80s. You really did a great job of refuting the most popular arguments for nostalgia stricken basketball fans.

    Like

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