What I learned from watching hours of old NBA games

It’s not just that the old games remind me how I adore the old game. It confirms specifically what was better.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson tangle in a 1984 game. Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe


As someone who savors the modern NBA — well, except for James Harden’s sideways moonwalk that flouts the travel rule; a moonwalk is still a walk — I have to tell you something that has become clearer in these hours spent socially distancing by watching old-school sports.

The old NBA was better.

Trust me, this is not a curmudgeonly, back-in-my-day take. I am not shaking my fists at the clouds. I love this league as currently constituted, and dearly miss it, among many other things right now. Players today are more well-rounded, fit, and skilled than they have ever been. They shoot the ball better than ever from the outside, and yet the collective defensive intensity has never been higher.


The NBA is a melting pot — it’s almost unfathomable what it would be like without the worldwide influx of talent — that in some ways represents the best of us. There’s never been anyone quite like Giannis Antetokounmpo before. There’s never been a shooter like Steph Curry.

Just imagine what the skill level will be like in another 10 years, when the best athletes on earth have raised the bar a little higher. Heck, they may need to raise the rim a little higher, just to keep the game resembling something we know.

I’ve often said, and probably written in this space at one time or another, that the only period in NBA history that was superior to what we have now is the mid-1980s. Watching — oh, at least a dozen — fully replayed games from that era over the last three weeks has only confirmed that belief.

It’s not just that the old games remind me how I adore the old game. It confirms specifically what was better. Math hadn’t altered the aesthetics yet. Teams didn’t pass up layups to kick out for corner threes; they worked the angles to get the ball to their post players, who actually made — get this — well-crafted post moves.


Watching Kevin McHale and Akeem (the H came later) Olajuwon take turns drop-stepping and dream-shaking each other in the ’86 Finals is both satisfying and sad; that element of the game is an afterthought now. Some uncreative coach would have long since turned them into stretch-4s.

Players passed better in confined space, and the 3-pointer was used either as a dagger (a Larry Bird specialty) or a tool to try to make up a deficit. It wasn’t the focus of an offense dreamed up by a numbers analysts.

The rivalries were ferocious; I have never seen a more physical game that Game 7 of the ’81 Eastern Finals between the Sixers and Celtics, and that includes when McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis in ’84 and Robert Parish billy-clubbed Bill Laimbeer in ’87.

Yet teams played with more finesse too, running even off made shots. The Celtics were the masters of running a break in which the ball would touch three or four sets of hands but never the parquet.

The Showtime Lakers’ wings would touch the sidelines on the break to open up Magic Johnson’s passing lanes. Nobody before or since has passed like Magic. Yes, even Larry. He’s second. And if you don’t believe Bird would be a great player today, get back to me after you watch one of his games. Forget the dorky translucent vibe of Bird and the ‘80s Celtics; he’s what Luka Doncic aspires to be.


I recognize I’m watching the best of the best here — if you don’t believe the ’86 Celtics are the best team ever assembled, now is your chance to learn — and not some random Kings-Pacers borefest from ’84 or something. But we always judge generations not by the median, but by the best. The ‘80s gave us Larry vs. Magic, the ascent of Air Jordan, Stockton to Malone, and the ascent of all-timers such as Olajuwon and Charles Barkley (the prototype for Zion Williamson). The original 1992 Dream Team — the only team deserving of that title — was made up of ’80s icons plus team bellhop Christian Laettner.

I love the ’80s, man. But let me tell you, the generation gap isn’t as wide as it’s often portrayed in NBA lore. Parish was teammates with Bird, McHale, Pete Maravich, Bill Walton, Dennis Johnson, Rick Barry, Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Jamaal Wilkes, and Alonzo Mourning. Vince Carter and Dominique Wilkins were in the league at the same time (1998-99).

Bill Russell played against Wilt Chamberlain, who played against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played with Magic and against Larry, both of whom played against Jordan, who played against Kobe Bryant, who played against LeBron James. The threads are tight in the quilt of NBA history.

The current NBA is great. I miss it. I miss watching Jayson Tatum improve and Marcus Smart torment. I’ve missed watching Klay Thompson shoot all season. There’s so much to like. It’s just that there was a little more to like in the ’80s, and without the current league, it’s been a satisfying consolation to watch old games from its best times.


And just about anything beats watching the ’90s Knicks. That, I suspect, we can all agree on.


This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com