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Ball Don't Lie

Revisiting the NBA’s 1972 one-on-one tournament, and wondering if we could do it again (VIDEO)

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

They'll show the event from time to time on NBA TV, but by and large the decades old one-on-one championship the NBA used to produce is mostly forgotten. For good reason, I suppose, because the final pairing (as shown during Game 5 of the 1972 NBA Finals) featured massive Detroit Pistons center Bob Lanier working against skinflint Boston Celtics hybrid guard Jo Jo White. The Dobber, as you'd expect, basically backed down White time and time again on his way to the title, but not after some stirring play-by-play from ABC's broadcast crew of Keith Jackson and Bill Russell.

If you haven't seen it, take a watch:

Of course, the reasonable reaction to pulling this bad boy up again is to wonder just why the NBA can't pull something like this off in 2012. Exclude the big men, 'natch, and kindly pardon superstars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant from the proceedings while they gear up to play until June. Link up a series of 30 players, one from each squad, that showcase sound individual gifts and a competitive flair, see if Vitalis is still an actual brand, and drum up the TNT-intrigue by televising it all. Money goes to charity, or eventual winner Gerald Green. We'll figure it out later.

Actually, we'll figure it out now. The actual league-wide competition from the early 1970s took place over a series of months, with each team's representatives battling it out in games to 20 (win by four, with a temporary two-point line put in place years before the NBA ever adopted the three-point line) in various pro and college gyms across the country during each player's "free time." The $15,000 prize money was some serious scratch back then, and a 2012-appropriate figure (even if given to charity) would be hard for any sponsor to sign off on.

Before you rail against the money-hungry nature of today's NBA player (superstar, middling, whatever), kindly understand what these guys tend to do from October until spring.

There's barely enough time to practice, much less don the uniform to tape an eventually nationally televised one-on-one game against a player you're likely to play in a real game the next day (or even later that night). That early 1970s schedule worked in the tournament's favor because there were only 17 teams in the NBA back then, with most squads focused on the Eastern side of things (Milwaukee, Chicago and even Detroit were in the Western Conference in 1972). Even if the season were spaced out a few months later in order to open up free dates to play, this would be a logistical nightmare.

On top of that, you don't want your team's sixth man cheerily going up against an opponent he's about to face later that week (or, three or four more times that year) just so a fan of one of the other 29 teams in the NBA can have some fun during ABC's halftime show a few weeks later. Admit it. You still want to believe all NBA players are moral enemies.

Then, on top of that, there's just no time. Scour an NBA's team's home website; just about every in-season non-practicing moment has NBA players engaged in some NBA Cares outing for charity. Great stuff, to no end, but also a time-taker. Between practices and games and shootarounds and — gasp — personal time, there's just no chance to squeeze a 30 or even 17-team tournament in. Because as popular as the 1972 tournament was, there's a reason it wasn't kept up a year later.

(And it's not because Bob Lanier had to run for his life following the tourney after being handed a satchel full of 15,000 dollar bills in full view of thousands at the Forum and a nationally televised audience.)

(Maybe it was.)

The trick, as has been expressed for decades, is to run something during the All-Star break; a break that existed 40 years ago, but without the Saturday activities the NBA introduced in 1984. Make the H-O-R-S-E tournament shorter. Make the Skills Competition a one and done. Take the top two participants from each and have them play a four-person tourney. Winner has to get to seven, by ones, win by two. Run it for charity, tax write-offs for all. Something, besides forcing some of the more breathtaking athletes in the world into putting their thumbs out while exciting a chest pass into a stupid, bloody net five feet off the ground. The Skills Competition is only fun for the men and women that mold those plastic obstacles for a living.

What about teammates? What of Russell Westbrook against Thabo Sefolosha's long arms? Goran Dragic versus Kendall Marshall? Anthony Davis and Robin Lopez? Any seven of those 6-3 guys the Detroit Pistons have? Idiot NBA detractors are going to complain about the league going streetball even if David Stern enacts a five-pass-before-shooting rule, so why not play to the junkies that are dying for something new on a Saturday night in front of their basic cable package?

It isn't the great equalizer, and it's not a sign of selfishness. It's one-on-one, we've all done it, and it's so damn fun.

Unless you're Jo Jo White, I suppose.

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