As we entered the 2013 playoffs, the Miami Heat were poised to repeat as NBA champions. Or so it would seem.
As we wait to see where the challenger will come from, the Heat’s place in history is developing before our eyes. Will they become a dynasty or fold under the real life pressures of free agency and the salary cap?
Will they take their place in the discussion of “Greatest Ever?” Or be a team that had a great run?
One of the pleasures of a long playing career in the NBA is having the opportunity to see and play with and against the greatest players and teams in the history of the game. In my case, in addition to an 18-year playing career, I had the pleasure of literally growing up in the game.
My father, NBA Hall of Famer and Top 50 player Dolph Schayes, retired when I was 4 years old, so I don’t remember much from his career. However, when I was 7, he was the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. That team had Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer, and he was awarded Coach of the Year. When I was 10, he took the coaching job of the Buffalo Braves when they were an expansion team. While the team wasn’t very good, I got to be an everyday ball boy and go to many of the practices and games.
I still consider myself a player of the ages. I grew up in the old school era. (When I say black and white, I mean TV, not players). I entered the league with Magic and Bird. I competed with Showtime, Larry Legend’s Celtics, Detroit’s Bad Boys, Jordan’s Bulls, the “Dream Shake” in Houston and saw the beginning of Kobe and KG.
I am constantly being asked about how the game has changed and if the players are as good today as they were during the “Golden Years” of the 1980s and early 1990s.
With the playoffs under way, let’s talk about the best teams. Here are my five best teams from the Danny Schayes Era, which does not include the George Mikan Lakers (five titles) or Bill Russell’s Celtics (11). All of the teams below played in color. I’m not that old!
1971 Milwaukee Bucks
When I was a ball boy for the Braves, I worked the Bucks locker room. They had a young center named Lew Alcindor. He had come into the league and dominated the position. He transformed the Bucks from an expansion team to a contender practically by himself.
He also brought an elegance and rhythm to the game that was mesmerizing to a young player like myself. The team had balanced his game by adding “The Big O,” veteran star Oscar Robertson. They had the championship formula with these stars and terrific role players in scorers Jon McGlocklin and Bob Dandridge.
Coach Larry Costello was a great friend. He played with my dad with the Syracuse Nationals and used to guest lecture at my dad’s basketball camp. Larry was very tough and a hard-nosed defensive guy. When I watched them play, they had a quality about them that made them seem invincible. Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was one of those players that took unstoppable to a new level.
There was just no answer to the question, “How do you stop this guy?” After a 66-16 regular season, the Bucks went 12-2 in the playoffs, including a Finals sweep.
The Showtime Lakers
When I was with the Denver Nuggets, we were the highest-scoring team in NBA history. We usually averaged over 120 points a game and ran teams silly in the thin air at home. The only team that we couldn’t get over the hump with was the Showtime Lakers. They always seemed to have an answer. Of course, when you have half of the All-Star team on your roster, there are a lot of weapons to call on.
One time we played a close game and I scored with two seconds left to give us a one-point lead at home. I was thrilled to have a game-winner against the Lakers. We forced a bad inbounds pass that Magic Johnson caught 35 feet from the hoop with his back to the basket. As the clock was ready to hit zero, he hurled a bomb from his hip that swished. I was stunned but unfortunately not surprised.
The Lakers went to the Finals eight times in 10 years, including beating us in the conference finals in our best year.
Several years later, I was traded to the Lakers when Magic took over as coach (if you want to read a funny Magic-as-coach story, check out my previous column). We used to sit in the weight room and talk about our old rivalry between weight sets. He also loved our matchups and admitted that we were the toughest team for them, and they hated playing us. That is high praise!
Larry Legend’s Boston Celtics
The West had Magic and Showtime. The Lakers were so dominant that the other teams would structure their rosters to compete with them. They would look to get faster to keep up.
In the East, it was the Celtics, led by Larry Bird. From 1981-1987, the C’s went to the NBA Finals five times, winning three titles. The teams that were real competitors also had to mold their rosters to find a way to beat the Celtics in the playoffs. The 76ers brought in Moses Malone to complement Julius Erving. The Pistons lost to the Celtics two of the three previous years before breaking through in 1988. They added size in James Edwards, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn and John Salley before finally besting them.
One of my best wins – and one of my worst losses – happened in the Boston Garden against this team. In December 1987 I went into Boston with Denver. They were coming off making the NBA Finals. We were able to keep the game at a very high tempo. Our jet starting point guard Michael Adams was running crazy all over the court, breaking down their defense and shredding their press. He went for 31 and I had a solid 33 minutes, scoring 11 with seven boards.
What I remember most was that they played a great game. For us, everything was clicking and we won the game, 124-119. It was a beautifully played game by both teams. The Celtics went 36-5 at home that year. Our win was one of the most satisfying of my career. Beating a great team in their house, playing great ball!
The next season, we played them in March. It was another game where both teams played well. I was having a nice game, finishing with 22 points and 12 rebounds in 41 minutes. The game was close down to the wire but I made a critical turnover with under a minute to play that led to an easy basket by Jim Paxson, sealing the win. After that play, none of the good things that I done during the game mattered. It was painful to make a mental mistake with the game on the line, especially in Boston Garden.
Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls:
When the Bill Russell-led Celtics won eight championships in a row in the 1960s, the feat was considered a type of dominance that would never be seen again.
In the 1990s, Michael Jordan became “The Best Player to Ever Play the Game.” It was said in jest that the only player that could stop Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan. Boy, was that true. It took the team a couple of years to get the mix right and get past the Pistons. After their first three-peat, MJ stepped away. Two years later, he returned and led them to another three-peat. If he had not retired, the second Octo-peat in NBA history was there on a silver platter.
The Bulls game was the biggest game of the season for every team in the league. In 1995-96, when the Bulls went 72-10, they came to Miami when I was with the Heat. We had made some major trades that day and only had eight active players. Plus they were 48-5 and we were only 24-29! They must have taken us lightly because we upset them easily, being up 23 going into the fourth quarter and winning, 113-104. Rex Chapman hit 9-of-10 threes and finished with 39!
That was all we got to enjoy. The next two times we played them in the regular season, Rex was held to a combined 1-for-14 from 3-point range. We then got waxed in the playoffs, getting swept by them by an average of 23 points a game!