In a few weeks, the NBA will crown a champion. The Larry O’Brien trophy will be hoisted, champagne will be sprayed and gem-encrusted rings will be ordered.
Steve Kerr knows the moment well … very well. He played on five NBA championship teams with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs and is now an NBA analyst for TNT.
“Oh, it’s the greatest feeling on Earth,” he told Only A Game. “The one thing about the NBA playoffs is they last forever. It’s like two straight months of incredibly intense competition and even when you’re not playing, you’re thinking about it, but at the same time, there’s all that pressure. So when you finally win, it’s this amazing combination of elation and relief all in one.”
This year’s champs will have traveled an unusual road to that moment. The NBA lockout cut the regular season from 82 games to 66. Kerr played on the 1999 Spurs, the last team to win after a lockout-shortened campaign. That regular season was just 50 games. Kerr says he never considered that the circumstances might diminish the first title in Spurs team history.
“I didn’t feel like it was tainted at all,” he said. “In fact, no one really said much of anything until Phil Jackson said that we should put an asterisk next to our name. Leave it to Phil to try to stir up the pot. But look, everybody was playing by the same rules.”
When the Spurs won, Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan had both left the Bulls prematurely, so you might forgive the Zen-Master for sour grapes, except Jackson is still calling out the Spurs today. In a November interview on Chicago radio station ESPN 1000, Jackson said the compacted season gave up-and-coming teams an advantage over older squads.
“It changes the complexity of how you play the game and what you make your team up with,” Jackson said at the time. You have to have young players and you have to have healthy players to win.”
Basketball isn’t the only sport that’s suffered disruptions. The NHL played a shortened season in 1994-95 and skipped the 2004-05 season altogether. Football kept its schedule intact after last year’s lockout, but the NFL has had its troubles. ESPN’s Michael Wilbon spent more than three decades with the Washington Post.
“I remember intimately the 1982 NFL season,” Wilbon said. “That was not the replacement-player season. That was just a season where they missed games and they had a Super Bowl tournament. People can look that up. They’ve forgotten about it because it’s been…30 years ago. The Washington Redskins won that shortened season and they won the next shortened season. So yes, two of the Redskins’ three Super Bowls were achieved during abnormal seasons.”
But Wilbon thinks the Redskins of 1982 and ‘87 stand on their own and so do the ‘99 Spurs.
“And when you look back on that team, what, you want to say that a team with Tim Duncan and David Robinson at the end of his prime, wasn’t worthy?” Wilbon said, during a break at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this spring. “No, you don’t. You don’t want to suggest that. And Avery Johnson and Steve Kerr and all the characters that were on that team, professional, professional players. No, I’m not going to put an asterisk by those seasons at all.”
Even the National Pastime gets interrupted by labor disputes. There was a 13-day strike in 1972. And in 1994, a strike ended the season early without a World Series and shaved a few games off the 1995 schedule. But in 1981, baseball had its quirkiest disruption – a mid-season strike in June and July. Ron Cey played third base for the Los Angeles Dodgers most of his 17-year career.
“And when we came back we also got a reward on top of it, which was – for the first time ever, I believe – they decided to divide the season into two, two parts,” Cey said. “They declared a first half winner and that was us.”
After the season, the four division leaders from the first half played the second-half leaders to decide who’d advance to the league championships. That structure excluded the team with the best overall record – the Cincinnati Reds. The Dodgers reached the World Series and defeated the New York Yankees. Cey had been to the Series three times before and lost. Did it ever bother him that when he finally won, it was after an unprecedented playoff system?
“No, not at all because no one in baseball, as far as the players were concerned, knew what system was going to be devised when the players and owners were in negotiations,” Cey said. “Everybody was in the same position. It doesn’t matter. We played by the rules. We won. That’s as simple as I can state it. It didn’t take away anything at all. Ever.”
Major League Baseball’s Official Historian John Thorne disagrees. Thorne says 1981 and other abbreviated seasons are scars on the record books.
“Looking retrospectively, you would say that those pennants, those championships were diminished,” Thorne said. “We don’t think of them very fondly and I think it may be because the enthusiasm for the regular season was dimmed by a labor action that not only cut attendance in backlash, but also made us feel sour about the game.”
SB Nation’s National Baseball Editor Rob Neyer believes history will be more kind to this year’s NBA season than it has been to baseball’s irregularities.
“In baseball, the numbers are about how many times you do something in a season: how many home runs you hit, how many runs you drive in, how many games you win,” Neyer said. “Well, in basketball, you’ve got to be a real statistical nut to know how many points Kobe Bryant scored in the 2004-05 season. What you might know is how many points per game he averaged. And that’s not affected at all. You could play ten games and you’re still going to have the same average, so I think really in basketball it’s really just a blip.”
Some people say that life’s a journey not a destination. Others say all’s well that ends well. And if you were hoping for a definitive end to the debate, you’d better mark this story with an asterisk.