Friday, July 1, 2011

Cerebral Innovators:Four African American Athletes Who Reinvented Guard Play in the NBA Without Unleashing a Single Dunk

Cerebral Innovators: Four African American Athletes Who Reinvented Guard Play in the NBA Without Unleashing a Single Dunk

Professor Mark Naison
Fordham University

Nothing irritates me more in the contemporary popular discourse on race and sports than the presumption that Black athletes have revolutionized the game of basketball, along with other major American sports, largely through strength speed and jumping ability. Such an assumption flies in the face of my own experience, not only as a schoolyard basketball player in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx-where I met numerous Black players who had only average physical skills, but helped their teams win through their knowledge of the game- but as a close observer and fan of the NBA, where Black athletes changed the game as much through artistry and intellect as through raw physical ability

No where is this more true than in the evolution of guard lay in the NBA. From the mid 1950’s through the mid 1970’s, a revolution in guard play took place in the National Basketball League largely through the influence of four African American athletes whose mastery of the game came through guile, intellect, and a mastery of spacing, angles and spins. At a time when we tend to exoticize Black athletes as physical specimens whose dominant attribute is leaping ability, it is instructive to recall these remarkable individuals who achieved extraordinary success not by outrunning or out jumping their white counterparts, but with body control, anticipation and a uncanny ability to see everything going on around them,, a skill set most often associated with athletes like Wayne Gretsky in Hockey and Lionel Messi in soccer.

The players I had in mind are Lenny Wilkens, Oscar Robertson, Earl Monroe and Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Not one of these players had dunking or high flying acrobatics as part of their arsenal of weapons yet they were unstoppable offensive forces who made their team mates better. For those of you who did not get a chance to see them in person, I want to give brief portraits of each player.

Lenny Wilkens, of mixed African American and Irish ancestry, came out of Brooklyn in the 1950’s and was a star at Providence College before playing in the NBA. Though he is perhaps best known as one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, he was an extraordinary force in the league for at least ten years. Less than 6’1” tall, slight of build, Wilkens could get to the basket and score at will even though he only drove left. The key was quickness, timing and an ability to vary the angles of his layups. Everyone knew Wilkens was driving left, but no one could stop him. He understood how small variations in the timing of his drives, as well as his ability to pass accurately when moving at top speed, made trying to block his shots almost impossible. Today, Wilkens legacy is kept alive by guards like Chris Paul. In his time, his game was sheer genius

Oscar Robertson, Wilkens contemporary, was a very different type of athlete, and in his era was widely regarded as the greatest player who ever lived. Robertson, out of Crispus Attacks High School in Indianapolis and the University of Cincinatti, was a 6’5” guard, 225 pound guard whose shooting and ball handling skills were the equal of guards in the league who were half a foot smaller. But Robertson, who was always close to the top of the league in rebounding and scoring as well as assists, impacted the game as much through his fierce intelligence as his physical skills. Robertson was one of the first guards in the protect the ball by backing his defender in and he could do so without losing sight of either the basket or his team mates. As a result, it was virtually impossible to steal the ball from him or to block his shot, which he took from behind his head rather than the top of his leap. With his combination of size, strength, shooting ability and uncanny court vision, Robertson was literally unstoppable. For most of his career, he averaged 30 points and 10 assists as game and was regarded with awe, respect, and more than a little fear by opponents and team mates alike. By showing how you could move the ball effectively up the court, as well as position yourself to score, with your back to the basket , Robertson single handedly forged a place for a tall player as combination ball handler, passer and scorer, a mantle later taken up by Magic Johnson. One of the key’s to his success was his ability to maintain balance and body control with the ball in his possession over all 90 feet of the court/.With movements that were economical, graceful, and single mindedly result oriented, never for show, Oscar Robertson dominated the game with his feet firmly on the ground.

Earl Monroe , our of Philadelphia and Winston Salem College, took Oscar Robertson’s innovations and brought to them to life with a showman’s flair when he entered the NBA in the mid 60’s. Whether bringing the ball up the court, or positioning himself to shoot, Monroe had an uncanny ability to spin sided to side, with his back to the basket, without ever losing control of the ball or his body. No one had ever seen a basketball player move backwards and side to side with such grace and speed, leaving defenders confused and crowds shouting in astonishment and joy.(his nickname in the Philadelphia schoolyards was “Black Jesus!”) Monroe had an artists sensibility as well as an artists grace, but his unique way of moving also created numerous opportunities to score.. Opponents never knew when he was going to interrupt his spins to drive, pull up and shoot, (passing wasn’t Monroe’s forte!) and when he shot, you never could predict its point of release. Unlike Oscar Robertson whose jump shot was a thing of beauty and had the exact same release point, Monroe’s outside shot was a one handed push that he could take in the air or on the ground from a seemingly infinite variety of angles. As a result, even though Monroe, was, at best, an average leaper, with only average foot speed, his shot was virtually impossible to block, and he was a 20 point scorer for most of his time in the league.

Our final basketball innovator was the Bronx’s own Nate “Tiny” Archibald out of DeWitt Clinton HS and Texas El Paso. Archibald, in many ways was the second coming of Lenny Wilkens, a 6’1” guard who could drive to the basket any time he wanted to and whose lay ups could not be blocked. Archibald, like Wilkens had an exquisite sense of the geometry of the game, and could vary the trajectory and spin of his layups as well as their release point, making it almost impossible even for tall players with great leaping ability to figure out when the ball was coming out of his hand. Archibald who could drive right as well as left, unlike Wilkens, added another weapon to Wilkens arsenal of quick slashing drives,, using the basket to protect the ball. If a defender looked like he had great position on one side of the basket, Archibald simply continued through to the other side and laid the ball off the backboard in the reverse, with the rim keeping the defender from reaching the ball. None of the extraordinary variations in Archibald’s lay ups required him to be more than one or two inches above the rim height, yet he was able to average close to 30 points a game during his early years in the league while having only a mediocre outside shot. Archibald, like the other athletes I have discussed, reinvented the physics of guard play, by pioneering new ways of moving that depended on throwing opponents off balance rather than physically overpowering them.

The snapshot portraits of these great players, all of whom I have watched in action on numerous occation, one of whom I know personally, should serve as a reminder not to essentialize Black athletes in ways that erases their intellect, creativity, discipline and skill. The modern game of basketball owes a great deal to these four innovators who changed ball handling and scoring from the guard position, and have made it possible for many different kind of athletes, with a wide variety of skill sets, to play that position in this great and increasingly global sport

Mark Naison
July 1, 2011

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