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Sunday, February 13, 2005

I Sure Miss Magic Johnson

Making the Extra Pass


American basketball has lost its way. A game born of teamwork became a celebration of individual prowess. Now a growing number of NBA franchises are trying to turn back the clock.
By David Wharton
David Wharton, a Times staff writer, last wrote for the magazine on sports talk radio host Petros Papadakis.

February 13, 2005

A voice keeps whispering in Carlos Arroyo's ear as he dribbles upcourt. C'mon. Make a move. Score. The sleek point guard tries not to listen, but he has played this way all his life. Quick and instinctive. Shoot first, ask questions later. And the cynics out there might be nodding their heads, figuring he sounds exactly like a child of basketball's new generation, raised on Air Jordan sneakers and a constant diet of ESPN highlights, all those crossover dribbles and slam dunks. But then another voice beckons, his coach calling from the sideline. Stop. Pass the ball. Set a screen. Run the offense. That was how Jerry Sloan played in the National Basketball Assn. three decades ago, back when you sacrificed for the good of the team.

Sloan took over as coach of the Utah Jazz in 1988, and molded the offense around a decidedly old-school guard, John Stockton. When Stockton retired, Sloan went looking for a replacement and, for better or worse, picked Arroyo. Over the last season and a half, the 25-year-old Puerto Rican star has shown flashes of progress, remaining patient, making good decisions. He has also suffered lapses, arguing with his coach, exiled to the bench for days at a time.


The change has been tough because, Arroyo says, "My game is like that . . . flashy." Sloan insists in his folksy way, "I believe you still have guys out there who want to get on that old yellow school bus, take a ride and get off and play together. They may not be as good as some of the high fliers, but I still think there are players who will perform in the team concept." Think of Gene Hackman as the grizzled coach in the film "Hoosiers," leading a tiny high school to the Indiana state championship by demanding his players make the extra pass. It is a romantic notion, with practical underpinnings. You can win with less talent, for one thing, and fans seem to love it. The sport was its most popular in the 1980s and '90s, when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and other superstars used their all-around skills to get teammates involved in the game.

No one argues that today's players work hard and are physically talented, running faster and jumping higher than their predecessors. But a growing chorus of voices—team executives, coaches, even some players—are calling for a return to the game's roots. They believe fundamentals and teamwork should trump individual expression, one-on-one moves, soaring dunks that make the highlight reels.

The Detroit Pistons offered a glimpse of old-time basketball last June. A team without a superstar upset a Laker squad built around Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Then came the Summer Olympics, at which a roster of NBA stars finished third to foreign teams that had greater cohesiveness.

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