Povich Rewind: Basketball is Not for Him


Povich Rewind: Basketball is Not for Him
Apr 24, 2019

As men’s and women’s basketball — from high school to college to the NBA and WNBA — continues to soar in popularity, we wonder how the late Shirley Povich would have dealt with the current surge. While he played the game as a youth, it certainly wasn’t his favorite sport to cover or watch.

Shirley Povich often wrote freelance pieces to help send his children to private schools. This article for Sports Illustrated, for which Povich received $1,000, supplemented his son David’s first year at Columbia Law School. As the magazine said in a sidebar, “This article will probably create some unrest in the family of Shirley Povich… Two of his offspring, David, 23, and Maury, 19, were ardent basketball players in school and remain loyal fans. Their father changed from fan to ex-fan in that period: ‘It got so I was rooting as hard against the referees as I was for the boys,’ he says.”

Povich’s irreverent description of basketball noted how the game is for “carnival freaks” with “runaway pituitary glands” who stuff baskets “like taxidermists.” The story resulted in thousands of letters of protest to the magazine and was also included in a college writing guide as an example of “making effective sentences.”

December 8, 1958

The late H.L. Mencken some years ago warned that the language was changing and wrote a book about it. A newly recognized entry in the American lexicon at that time was the word goon. Mencken’s goons were simple, workaday strikebearers who might have to bash in a few skulls to get the job done. America’s latter-day goons are the biological blowups with runaway pituitary glands who play at basketball.

Basketball is for the birds – the gooney birds. The game lost this particular patron years back when it went vertical and put the accent on carnival freaks who achieved upper space by growing into it. They don’t shoot baskets any more, they stuff them, like taxidermists.

In a single generation, there has been a revved-up degeneration of basketball from a game to a mess. It now offers a mad confection of absurdities, with ladder-size groundlings stretching their gristle in aerial dogfights amid the whistle screeches of apoplectic referees trying to enforce ridiculous rules that empty the game of interest.

Dr. James Naismith, an earnest man, could be justifiably spinning in his mausoleum in a schizophrenia of rage and despair at what they’ve done to the game he invented in 1891. When he inspired basketball by placing two peach baskets at opposite ends of a YMCA hall in Springfield, Mass., the sincere doctor could hardly foretell the degree to which his creation would become all fuzzed up by the senseless tinkerers who have grabbed hold of it. And if the native pride of peach trees is remembered, it is obvious that the tint of their fruit now is less the glow of ripeness than the blush of shame for their part in helping to bring basketball into the world.

The towering 6-footers who were giants of the basketball court only a couple of decades ago and were eagerly sought for the important center jump need not apply any more unless they are content to be the game’s runts. If the mere 6-footer is permitted to suit up at all by coaches, whose ruling passion is collecting two-legged giraffes with an eye-level approach to the basket, he is reduced to rooting around in the undergrowth of the forests of bone and marrow that rear above him. It is time for him to curse the utter normality of his glands which stunted his growth.

This basketball apostate makes confession that he is a onetime aficionado who couldn’t wait to get up in the morning to play the game or watch it. That was in the era when it was a game, not a bewildering whistle-fest with the referees eager to bring to book the naughty-naughties who are so bold or so careless as to commit something of a firm nature, like laying a hand on the hem of an opponent’s garment.

It used to be a game that could be comfortably won by a team total of 26 points, in the not-so-distant days when a slightly malevolent glance at an opponent with the ball was simply a frame of mind, not a personal foul. I read incredulously that the New York Knickerbockers averaged 112 points a game last season and finished last in their division of the pro league.

They’ve weighted the rules so heavily in favor of the team with the ball that the missed basket is now more incredible than the shot that is made. Referees not content with enforcing the letter of the rules impose non-no, musn’t touch injunctions that leave the defense in a constant state of fright lest their tactics be adjudged too manly.

The way they have it rigged and the way the coaches have wheeled in all available altitude, basketball and basket shooting now offer a close substitute interest for those doughty sportsmen who dream of shooting fish in a barrel. They’ve made the basketball court a virtual shooting gallery with the bull’s-eye affixed to the rifle barrel, just to encourage success.

It has all served to simplify coaching skills. An eye for the basket isn’t necessary as long as the coach can corral enough tall hands to plumb it. Then it becomes a game of can-you-top-this against rival coaches who counter with their own altitudinous tribes of basket shrinkers.

From time to time apologists for the game have made attempts to define the motivations that impel the buffs to attend these encounters, but their conclusions are almost invariably desultory and pathetic. The best that this observer, who has also delved into the matter, can say is that there is no accounting for people’s tastes, because it is well known that some even like fried baby bees, kidney stew, Garroway and yodeling, and some root for the Washington Senators.

This discouraged spectator, who has tried intermittently to warm toward the game in efforts to relive it up, finds nothing left to cheer for in a basketball contest. Who can applaud Wilt the Stilt or his ilk when they outflank the basket from above and pelt it like an open city? These fellows are biological accidents who ought to be more usefully employed, like hiring out as rainmakers and going to sow a few clouds.

Even that last precious motivation of healthy partisanship, the pleasure of rooting for somebody, evaporates at a basketball game in common outrage against the referee who is usually wronging both teams, as well as the spectators.

Basketball is always attended by a shrieking dissent from this character, who is trying to enforce fine-line rules that defy sensible interpretation. It is thus inevitable that the referee must wind up as the enemy of all cheering sections. King Solomon would have wisely disqualified himself as incompetent had he been asked to deliver a fair ruling on blocking vs. charging on the basketball court of today.

Nothing in the prospectus ever suggested that anybody should pay admission to watch a basketball referee perform, but their actions would seem to imply that they believe this to be the case. Most of them consider the basketball court as their public stage, having taken the cue from the late great Pat Kennedy, an extraordinary dramatist who invented the role of the domineering, infallible, showboat referee. The first indication of a rules infraction would set Actor Kennedy aquiver and his whistle shrieking. His eyes bulged from their sockets, the veins showed purple in his neck as he tracked down the miscreant who had violated something about Kennedy’s game.

Kennedy’s antics were at least diverting, but peopling the referee ranks now are only the lesser hams who have no reason to fancy themselves in his image. The result is pure cornball as, playing screech-owl tunes on their tin whistles, these Keystone cops blow the action to a stop apparently on a whim.

The game, in fact, is crawling with would-be scene stealers. In that department the referees are hard pressed by the coaches on the players’ benches. Modern coaches are a breed better born for the revival tents. They play the crowd by kicking up a public fuss at every grievance real or fancied, and communicate by their gestures that the referees are utter no-goodniks.

The coaches warm up to their phony sympathy pitch with suitable and audible sighs and groans. Then come the head-in-hands gestures of utter despair, the falling to the knees in posture of prayer for greater justice, and then the arms flung wide in “Please, Almighty,” supplication for deliverance from the fiends blowing whistles. For the most part it adds up to incitement to riot.

Among the pro teams, all this has filtered up from the colleges where the coaches first discovered that they, too, could be characters. As usual, the pros have improved on it, as they have done with most everything else from the colleges, so that in basketball you now have, in addition to the goons, the flip-top coach.

The basketball rules, in themselves, are enough to baffle anybody with an orderly mind. The game launched its popularity with simple restrictives like five players to a side and don’t step outside the marked lines. Now it is a confounding jumble of personal fouls, traveling fouls, dribbling fouls, whistles, buzzers and bonuses for injured innocence.

It was not much overdrawn when somebody once said that the basketball people scribble new rules with a pen in each hand for fear of being caught up with. What was permitted last year is this year’s foul. In the pro league, even last night’s rule book is apt to be outmoded, with President Maurice Podoloff ordering revisions at any hour he can get his referees on the telephone.

The pros’ mania for changing the rules cropped up again in October when two new rules governing foul shots were adopted. There is actually the stipulation that one of the new rules would be considered official only during an allotted one-month tryout – a sort of rookie rule, as it were.

The other new rule of the pros deals with double fouls and now provides for a jump ball between the centers of the two teams. But wait. Identifying the centers apparently is not so simple in this modern age of basketball, because the rule takes care to spell out, “If a dispute arises as to who is center of a team, it shall be resolved by the referee.”

The once-respected place tags have gone from the game. Every position is now so freewheeling that the centers, guards and forwards can be positively identified as such only by lip tattoo. It amounts to basketball’s for-real version of the “Who’s on First?” vaudeville routine of Abbott and Costello.

To add to the confusion, the colleges a few years back introduced a queer something called the “one-and-one” foul. The bright minds who thought that one up should be cited for deportation as saboteurs of the American way of life.

It is flabbergasting to know that the one-and-one foul, which is awarded victims of aggression, is sometimes two shots, sometimes one, depending on the inaccuracy of the man on the free-throw line. If he sinks his first free shot, he is deemed to have exacted the offender’s debt to basketball society and the referee says that’s all.

But if the fouled citizen misses his first free throw, he is now entitled to take another, honest. Failure is rewarded, success is penalized. It is George Orwell’s 1984 in action. Black is white, Truth is false. Love is hate, and Big Brother Referee is always present.

The pros have gimmicked it up even more. Now there is a something extra called a bonus free throw. That goes to the aggrieved team if the fouls by the other side total as many as seven in any period. The spectator without a Comptometer is lost, and only certified public accountants can follow the scoring, except when the board lights up like a jackpot-hit machine.

In what exact year basketball began to go sour as a game cannot be precisely determined here, but there had to be alarm on a certain night in 1949. That was when one man, Paul Arizin, of Villanova, scored 85 points in one game. To the basketball fundamentalists, that was as disgraceful as it was remarkable.

Later on a whirlybird named Bevo Francis of Rio Grande College made numerous descents on the basket and ladled in 113 points in one night against Ashland College. They’ve got some kind of a game all right, but it isn’t basketball. What is happening reawakens for this disenchanted fellow a gratitude for one of America’s most little-mentioned freedoms – the freedom to stay away from it.

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