Second of four parts
WILLIE GREEN talked to World B. Free as if he were a mentor. And, for good reason. Green, the current player, and Free, a former player who among other roles serves as the team's director of player development, see each other almost every day. Their conversation flowed easily during the more than 45-minute interview recently with Daily News staffers Mark Kram and Paul Vigna that took place inside the Sixers' locker room at the Wachovia Center.
While they bounced from today's empty playgrounds to yesterday's heightened intensity, they started with a dialogue about how the game has changed.
Free: Guys now are bigger. Not that they're stronger. But they're bigger. And the guys like Bob Lanier and Moses Malone. Darryl Dawkins. These are centers that played center. You couldn't get in that paint. That paint was theirs and they let you know it. You run by there and you try to do something in there, and you look up, they knock you right down. You know it. You get out of there. So you know, you have to work on your game. That's why everybody developed an in-between game back then, because you knew where you were supposed to be. It made for good basketball. But the guys nowadays, the young fellows, guys like Sammy [Dalembert]. Give me another center.
Green: Steven Hunter, from our team. Dirk Nowitzki, who's kind of like a center. Kevin Garnett.
Free: Exactly. See these guys are mobile and they shoot jump shots and they can handle the ball. Like that Chinese kid [who was recently drafted by Milwaukee]. That kid can handle the ball at 7 feet. He's like a guard running around shooting the ball. So, you know, it's a difference.
Green: I actually liked that era, the '70s and '80s. The biggest difference is really on defense. The game has been made for offensive players to score easily. It's hard to stop them by yourself, where as before, you could put your hand on them and you could guide them everywhere you wanted them to go. So, you actually gotta give those guys back then more respect because, you know, it was harder to score. You couldn't just put up 50, as you can now. Now, if they touch you, it's a foul. Whereas back then, you could bump, you could shove, you could grab, actually get into an all-out fight in just one game.
Free: It was competitive all the time. If you would lose back then to a team, you put that team on a calendar and you couldn't wait to play that team again. As opposed to now, you know, we come into the locker room and, guys could lose a game and you hear everybody laughing in the showers. Hey, man. You couldn't hear a pin drop back then when we lost. We lost and we took it to heart. It was actually a brutal fight every time we came out and played.
Green: Some of that is true. Guys realize that, we lost a game and we gotta get ready for the next game, so sometimes you have a tendency to relax. I'm not that kind of a player. If I lose, if I don't play well, I'm not talking to anybody, not laughing. I'm a serious type basketball player.
Free: They're not playing as hard as they use to [and are thus less fundamentally sound]. We were talking about this earlier. I said I could ride by a park 20 years ago and it would be filled up with kids, playing hooky from school, just to go ahead and play basketball. Now, you can ride by these same parks and it's empty. Ghost town.
Green: It's a number of things. The way the world is now. A lot of violence, you know, a number of things why kids are not in the park like they used to. But I have to agree. I don't think players are as fundamentally sound as they used to be. I watch the old games. I watched the games back in the day, and one of things I do realize is that guys were good at what they did. You hit a jump shot, you're going to hit the jump shot every time. Guys made their free throws. They dribbled. They didn't do a lot of fancy stuff, but they got to where they needed to get to on the floor. And, that's what basketball is really about. When you look at a team like the San Antonio Spurs, the players on their team are fundamentally sound.
Free: I'm from New York, so I used to sneak into Madison Square Garden and see the Knicks. Those guys, all I remember, you know, besides Walt Frazier being my favorite athlete in the world, you would always see those guys communicate. Say that someone gets broken down [defensively]. "Help!" You know. You'd hear it. I mean you'd hear it all the way up where I was sitting at. "HELP!" The communication was always there. If a guy is killing another guy, they would say, "All right, my man coming through, yo, I got him, let me have him for a little while." They talked to each other.
Green: You got to. The good team is gonna do that. Any team.
Free: San Antonio does that a lot.
Green: Would you say that the game has gotten to a point where guys depend on athleticism more? I think that's what the league tries to push. They want to see fancy passes. They want to see slam dunks, because it's about TV, it's about ratings; you got real good teams that don't do that, like the San Antonio Spurs, but they won't draw; they won't draw a crowd like, maybe, the Phoenix Suns, who are more a flashy type a team. Or you look at a team like Golden State. They shoot threes and dunk on everybody. And I think that some of the reasons why we may not be as good fundamentally because kids see us on TV and all they see are slam dunks, a nice behind-the-back or between-the-legs pass instead of things like talking or working on your free throws.
Free: God blessed me with talent. I came [into the league] in '75. Back then, they had one, two, three rounds, down to seven. Nowadays it's totally different. I was the 23rd pick in the draft overall, and coming out of a small school in Greensboro, North Carolina. Guilford College. Had about 1,700 people in there. They said I was never going to have a chance to make it going out of a school like that.
Green: Those dudes were hungry back then. Was less teams. Less amount of positions that you could have on a team. They're not getting paid the money that we're getting paid. Every day is a fight. You gotta scratch, fight, claw. Bite. Bust somebody the side of the head. Whatever you gotta do, I know they had to do it because, look at today's game, I love it, because it gave us the opportunity to flourish and, we're millionaires. You know what I'm saying? Whereas, they came in at 21, 22, and they weren't getting paid that kind of money. So it kind of made them hungry. When you have an opportunity to make a lot of money and you make it, you have a tendency to maybe not work as hard as you need to.
Free: Nowadays, [players] can come in and sign for 2 years and not have to work for the rest of their life. [But there is other] pressures that comes to the court with these guys [today] because of the fact they make so much money. I've seen that with a lot of players over the years. It's serious stuff. We had it on a smaller scale back when I played. But we always had people that were competitive that you had to make it every year, 'cause everybody would tell you: "Look. you're going to get cut next year. You're going to get cut." And that's all I heard, man. I'm too small to make it. And that fueled me, and every year I worked harder and harder.
Green: Most of us come from unfortunate situations where we were basically poor until we made it to the NBA. And now we have a lot of money, and you expect to do a lot of things with that money. You gotta take care of your family. This is what you worked hard for, this is what you asked for, so if God lets you get it, you gotta know how to handle it.
The NBA has gotten a lot better with their programs, where guys get help for whatever it is they're going through. They have team psychiatrists, chapels for every team . . . just people to talk to and help you.
Free: We didn't have all that.
Green: The league realizes that they're asking 18-, 19-year-old kids to handle everything, and they're expecting you to perform then and there. That's why I call it the NBA: No Babies Allowed.
Free: That's pretty good. All these years I never knew that.
Green: When you get here, you gottta be ready. It's a man's game.
Free: A lot of people, when [they] get to a certain level, they change. It's not a good thing. You got obligations now to people who look up to you, especially little kids. We're all human, and things will happen; there's a lot of pressure.
Green: When you're faced with adversity, can you still be a positive person in the locker room? There's going to be times where, in basketball and life, everything is going for you. But what about the times where you're not playing, or you're injured, or things not going well with the family? Can you still come in and do your job every day? Help people? Still smile? [When I was injured], the main thing I wanted to do was to be able to play basketball at a high level again. So it was tough, but you gotta learn from it.
Free: I had three ribs broke on my right side. Collapsed lung on my right side. Eastern Conference Finals, in '77. Guy by the name of Mike Newlin, with the Houston Rockets, ran into me; I dropped like a sack. They had to revive me because I couldn't breathe. My ribs were broke, so it was cutting into my side. So I was gone for a minute. Just to try to get back to that series, I tried to do what I could. But if anybody had just touched me, that could have been it.
Green: You didn't have the doctors and the technology that we have today. That's very important in sports, because it prolonged guys' careers. If my [knee] injury would have happened to me 25 years ago, I might have been done playing basketball. I really thank God for just the era I'm playing in. I was able to come back.
Free: For a guy to do what [Allen Iverson] has done throughout his career is just unbelievable. 'Cause he only weighs 100 pounds.
Green: It's amazing. He'd get hurt every game. You may not know that he's hurt, but he'd get hurt every game. You just bump him, and he's going to fall, but he gets back up. Gets back up and keep playing. You gotta be a basketball player to realize what he was going through. He was just a different type of person. He felt like, "I'm giving it all for 48 minutes, it's going to be tough for me to give it all every practice and still play in the games." I gotta do it, because I'm not A.I.
Free: But no young person [should] look at that and think that's right. I mean, you got 11 other guys going out there giving their all. I was the star of my teams. Michael Jordan and these guys were stars of their team. But still, even though I was giving it all 40 minutes a night, I still had to work with them guys to make the continuity right. You can take your little pauses in the middle of what you're doing, but you still have to be right there with the group. Nobody's above the game.
Green: One thing, though. A.I. practiced. He didn't just not practice. He just didn't practice all the time.
Free: It's really night and day [from when I played]. It's that stark. Like look at these locker rooms. We didn't have this. Our locker room was like a dungeon. And the players had beer and stuff in the lockers. Guys were smoking cigarettes in the locker rooms, at halftime. When me and Darryl Dawkins were rookies, we were in Indiana playing the Pacers, and they were kicking our ass by 30 points. So everybody walks into the locker room at halftime and one guy opens up a Schlitz and another guy lights up a cigarette. I said, "What the . . . ?"
Green: I would be fired if I lit up a cigarette in the locker room like that.
Free: The people back then had more fun. I got a chance to stay in the game and see [it] change.
Green: This game is getting crazy. Like who would have thought? You see Wilt, then you see Shaq come. You got Yao Ming. Are we going to see an 8-footer?
I think the game is going to continue to just evolve. It's going to be more global.
Free: [There's] going to be change. You just can't keep everything [the same]. My era's an era. Your era's an era. You can't stay the same.