Fans of NBA history have never had it as good as those who worship the NFL’s past or MLB’s traditions.
From the 1960s on, NFL Films documented everything that happened in the league and produced popular shows like the Super Bowl recaps and blooper tapes (I remain partial to the one voiced by Elmer Fudd). The NBA, on the other hand, has hardly any official videos from the ’60s. Even in to the 1980s the league was far behind the times. The 1982 NBA championship recap contains one highlight of Magic Johnson collecting an assist or scoring a point. All Magic did in those finals was win series MVP. Instead the video consists of bizarre music stolen from a porno and shots of the crowd looking anxious or excited.
And baseball? Well, baseball has entire organizations devoted to games that happened a hundred years ago. We can scour the box scores and read old newspaper accounts and there have always been keepers of the hardball flame, whether they were poets or statisticians.
Basketball’s finally catching up. The league owns YouTube. While it’s nearly impossible to find a baseball highlight because of copyright issues, you can locate an NBA highlight about two minutes after it happens. On Monday night, Blake Griffin’s dunk was up online about three seconds after the ball hit the floor. Entire games and playoff series live online. A possibly insane person has put the majority of the Showtime Lakers playoff games on YouTube, for which I’m forever grateful, though I’m also fearful about what that person neglected in their life while compiling the videos – personal hygiene, family, food.
Now, finally, NBA fans can also enjoy what’s been commonplace for baseball fans for decades. Thanks to the work of a retired defense department official and the fine people at Basketball Reference, every NBA box score is now online. A guy named Dick Pfander has been collecting box scores since the ’40s and this lifelong…well, hobby doesn’t seem like strong enough a word, paid off after he hooked up with Basketball-Reference, which now has the boxes online. Some of them are “just” the old newspaper boxes, they’re not yet fully digital. That means field goal attempts are often missing and rebounds and assists aren’t listed.
I don’t think anyone will complain.
So now anything you want is online. Search by season or date. If you have an old ticket stub from 1966 and can’t remember who actually won the first NBA game you ever attended, now you can read the box. I’ve already spent a few hours clicking, searching and reading. Here’s a bit of what I’ve been reading:
* The most famous box score in NBA history has to be from the night Wilt Chamberlain and Al Attles combined for 117 points in a victory over the Knicks in 1962. One of the most fascinating parts of that box – which doesn’t include field goals attempted – is the attendance figure: 4,124. Though I bet in the years that followed, closer to 40,000 claimed to be there.
* Speaking of high-scoring games, here’s Kobe Bryant’s 81-point outburst against Toronto. One of my favorite things from that game was the immortal Smush Parker’s immortal quote when he credited the Lakers’ defense for the victory, which is a little like someone attributing the success of The Godfather to the outstanding service provided by the caterer. Worth noting: Kobe scored 81 points in 41 minutes of play.
* Fulda legend Arvid Kramer – who, if his high school team had officially kept track in 1975 would have had 18, or was it 19, blocked shots in a single game – played eight games for the Nuggets in 1980. He scored 16 points, 10 of them against the San Diego Clippers in a blowout victory.
* Another tall, humble hoops legend from southwestern Minnesota – Slayton’s Trevor Winter – has one of the more unique stat lines in league history. He appeared in one game – on March 16, 1999 against the Lakers – and only played five minutes. In those five minutes he committed five fouls while guarding – well, “guarding” – Shaquille O’Neal. I bet that box hangs on Trevor’s fridge, next to the newspaper account of his dominant effort in the prep playoffs against Southwest Christian in 1992.
* The Timberwolves lost their first game in franchise history 106-94 against Seattle, despite 20 points from Tyrone Corbin and 19 from Scot Roth(!). The first win? Well that came a few nights later, in the cavernous Metrodome, a 125-118 overtime victory over Philadelphia. Tony Campbell had 38, Corbin 36, Roth…20(!).
* Back to the Nuggets, who have been fodder for box score fetishists pretty much their entire history. The 1991 team, under Paul Westhead, gave up 130 points per game, as he brought his run-and-gun style from Loyola Marymount. The Nuggets started the season with a 162-158 regulation loss to Golden State.
* You can analyze the Lakers’ 33-game winning streak from the 1972 season in its entirety, but an even more fascinating game is the one when the streak stopped. The Bucks beat the Lakers 120-104, behind 39 points from Kareem. Pat Riley went scoreless for the Lakers.
* Even Wilt’s 100-point effort doesn’t qualify as the most absurd box score in league history, an honor that goes to the 19-18 slugfest between Minneapolis and Fort Wayne in 1950. George Mikan made all four Lakers field goals and had 15 of their points. One of the “nonscorers” for the Lakers, relegated to the bottom of the box? Bud Grant.
* The box for the highest-scoring game is slightly more entertaining, especially the one on Basketball-Reference, which was marked up from the newspaper. In December 1983, the Pistons defeated the Nuggets – of course – 186-184 in three overtimes, behind Isiah Thomas’s 47 points and 41 from John Long. Kiki Vandeweghe had 51 for the Nuggets, Alex English 47 and Bill Hanzlik 2. At least I think that’s Bill Hanzlik, who goes by Hanzlick in the box score. Hopefully the paper issued a correction.
* It’s fun looking at debuts of old legends. Bill Russell didn’t play for the Celtics in 1956 until December because of his Olympic commitments. He scored six points in his first game, a two-point victory over the St. Louis Hawks. Not in the box? He grabbed 16 rebounds.
You can’t help but look at these box scores and reminisce. Growing up I often had to wait two days to find out Lakers scores and I found them in the Mankato Free Press or the Star Tribune, but press times meant West Coast games never made the next day’s paper. Before we got ESPN, I watched the Lakers play a handful of times a year on CBS and then in the playoffs. Otherwise it was box scores. How many did Kareem score? How many assists for Magic? How many rebounds for Rambis? How’d they lose to the Warriors?
Now I can watch every NBA game and see every highlight online. The box scores still tell a lot of the story, but no longer all of it. But for those NBA fans who love their history and love the old stories of Russell and Wilt and Elgin and West and Larry and Magic, these old box scores offer a chance to reconnect to the legends. Finally, the NBA’s history is being treated with a bit of the reverence usually reserved for baseball or football.
If only the league could create a new video for the 1982 Finals.