Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Age-Old Question

NBA legends have mostly figured out how to handle their sunset years.

 Simple works best: Be shown on TV sitting courtside; trot out at halftime to wave at the crowd; sit in the broadcast booth for some light banter.

 But, for the love of all things sacred, don’t attempt to make aging bodies do what they once did so gracefully.

 There have been many missteps along the way. The Legends Game was a part of the NBA All-Star Weekend from 1984-’93 until it was scrapped in the wake of blown-out knees and used-up oxygen tanks.

 The nadir of hoops icons embarrassing themselves came on Feb. 28, 1992, at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. That’s when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, combined with the hucksterism of a more hirsute Donald Trump, brought the world “Clash of the Legends” ­— a one-on-one, pay-per-view matchup featuring two retired players whose credentials are unimpeachable.

 Of course, Abdul-Jabbar was 44-years-old and a couple seasons removed from ending his 20-year career. Dr. J was a spry 42 with a salt-and-pepper mane and hadn’t played in the NBA since 1987.

 The spectacle would cost $19.95 for fans’ TV viewing pleasure. There would be an undercard of two other legends and the main event would feature four 5-minute quarters, all refereed by an over-the-top Earl Strom.

 What could possibly go wrong? Well, nobody brings up the event much anymore.

 The broadcast was quarterbacked by an earnest John Saunders, with some able assistance from Bill Russell and Billy Cunningham. All were clad in tuxedos.

 The roving reporter was Jim Gray, who opened the show by interviewing the contestants backstage. Both Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J. sported Zubaz and discussed strategy without any sense of irony.

 The undercard was between Rick Barry and George Gervin. Barry had defeated Connie Hawkins, 29-17, and Gervin had eliminated Tiny Archibald, 35-14, in semifinals that were not fit to be televised.

 Barry, inexplicably wearing weightlifting gloves, lasted all of one possession before he started whining to Strom about his officiating. This would continue for the duration of the game.

 The action was only a few minutes old before Barry and Gervin were visibly winded. The game then descended into two guys watching each other hoist three-pointers.

 Gervin raced to a big lead, with Cunningham imploring Barry to foul and shoot more three-pointers. Many fouls were called in the final minutes before Gervin put away Barry, 29-26.

 The main event started like a Vince McMahon fever dream, with Dr. J and Abdul-Jabbar ascending on a rising platform through tendrils of manufactured smoke. The most amazing visual was that Dr. J was also wearing gloves.

 Abdul-Jabbar missed his first skyhook, then rejected a weak layup attempt by Dr. J. Those first two possessions seemed to exhaust both players.

 With no three-second rule and a decided size advantage, Abdul-Jabbar pounded the ball inside. He led, 11-0, after one quarter with the highlight being a banked three-pointer that wouldn’t have looked out of place at your local YMCA.

 The sloppy action continued apace, with Cunningham imploring Dr. J. to get into the open court, regardless of the fact that Erving was in his 40s and it was a half-court game.

 Hopelessly behind, Dr. J turned to his “coach” — the legendary John McLendon — in the break before the fourth quarter and said “it’s all about pride now.”

 Dr. J then went out and skied over Abdul-Jabbar for a dunk, following it up with an emphatic rejection. All jokes aside, it was an amazing sequence for a man of Dr. J’s age.

 That sapped all of his strength, however. The rest of the final quarter was hacky fouls, missed shots and legends bent over at the waist, gasping for air.

The last shot was, fittingly, an airball by Dr. J.

 Abdul-Jabbar won, 41-23, on 16-of-31 shooting. Dr. J was just 9 of 44.

 Only 55,000 people — 0.3% of the available audience — paid to watch the sad show. The meager profits were given to Magic Johnson’s AIDS Foundation.

 A worthy cause, no doubt, but Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J likely wished they had just cut a check instead.


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