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Lakers legends James Worthy, Kurt Rambis open up on lack of physicality in the NBA

James Worthy, Lakers, Kurt Rambis

During the Showtime era, the Los Angeles Lakers were accustomed to physical play in the NBA on a nightly basis. The Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons were extremely physical teams, and both squads led by Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas gave Magic Johnson and company a run for their money when they would go head-to-head.

In today’s NBA, however, the game has changed drastically. Physical play is frowned upon and penalized quickly before it gets out of hand with technical fouls, fines, and suspensions regularly handed out to maintain order and help secure the safety of the players.

During an event to announce the partnership between Anthony Davis, First Entertainment Credit Union, and the Lakers, Tomer Azarly and I had a chance to catch up with a few Lakers legends. We spoke with James Worthy and Kurt Rambis about a number of different topics, including the change in physicality in the league and their thoughts on how different it is compared to when they were playing for the purple and gold.

“Well, number one, it’s about protection for the players because they do carry value in entertainment and increases the value of franchises when they have quality players, so nobody wants to see anybody get hurt,” Rambis said. “So that’s a part of it. The other part of it is the league, you know, the fans want to see more scoring, so they’ve taken a lot of the grabbing, the holding, the physicality of the game until the playoffs, then it all starts coming back again. But they want to see scoring. That’s really what’s opened up the game; the three-point shot has spaced the floor so that you can increase scoring. [The physicality] has taken it out, but it’s more for the safety of the players.”

Back in 1984, Rambis was famously clotheslined by Celtics legend Kevin McHale in the NBA Finals. This took the rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics to a new level during that series as things got incredibly physical.

Although jokingly we asked Rambis if we’ve seen the last of clotheslines in the league, the four-time NBA champion talked about how McHale would’ve been suspended today and how now it is all about the safety of the players.

“No more clothesline, which I just went to the free-throw line and shot my two free throws,” Rambis says while laughing. “[Kevin McHale] would be suspended now. It’s all about the protection of the players and what’s really good for the fans. They want to see the players perform. They want to see the grace, the agility, the athleticism. So the league acknowledges that and they want to see that happen out there on the floor and you’re seeing more and more, and more of that as the players are starting to advance and grow. It’s become real artistry out there for players. Their creativity and their ability to express themselves with the basketball is just off the charts right now.”

Worthy, the man that held Rambis back from going after McHale following the clothesline, also gave his take on how physicality has changed in the league.

“I also think it’s a younger fanbase,” Worthy said of the new NBA. “I think back in the 80s; you go to New York, Boston, Chicago, they understood the game. And they watched. They knew what a pick-and-roll was. They kind of understood. And there were certain things you could do. I mean, you could ride somebody as long as you didn’t extend it. If someone came across the lane, you could [hand] check. I miss that part of it!  But like Kurt said, people want it to be more entertaining now. They wanna see that three [point shot], they wanna see that dunk.”

The NBA has changed, and many would argue for the better. Physical play is a thing of the past, and although some legends of the game may not be entirely fond of that fact, they’ve come to terms with the reality that the game is more popular than ever and thriving.