Fifteen minutes into practice Friday afternoon, Sidney Lowe called his team to the free-throw line. Lowe is an assistant with the Detroit Pistons, but on Friday, he was the head coach for the rookie team that would play NBA second-year players in the Rookie Challenge. Lowe wore a microphone so that the fans watching practice could hear him interact with his team.
But when he called the players up for a midpractice talk, Lowe covered the mike and lowered his voice. "They want to see you play basketball," he told his players. "They don't want to see a show. They want to see your skills."
A couple of All-Star Games ago, the Rookie Challenge turned into an embarrassing mockery: a game with no defense, just a sloppy, impromptu slam-dunk contest.
Critics used that performance as Exhibit A for how the NBA's young players were responsible for the fall of Western basketball civilization, and why the world's other basketball players had caught up with players from the US. Targeting the NBA's young players has become a pastime for old-school basketball coaches and part of a cottage industry for former players.
On Friday, Del Harris, the coach of the second-year team, said any coach was required to do more teaching and explaining "because the league is younger now and hasn't been coached as much."
As recently as Wednesday, Larry Brown, the Knicks' coach, lamented: "Now all you hear about our league is individual players. It's almost become an individual sport."
Let's give this a rest; I've heard enough.
In fact, effective immediately, Commissioner David Stern should put a moratorium on youth bashing. The game has never been more popular, never been more global, and it's largely because of the league's young blood.
Even Lowe, who won a national title in 1983 as a college player at North Carolina State before enjoying a solid professional career and becoming an NBA coach, conceded that some of the old school has to lighten up.
"I think we have to make adjustments and say, `Hey, we want them to express themselves, this is who they are,' " he said. "They're freer athletes than we were. We were more structured; today's players are so talented, they can do so much they're comfortable with, coming down the court going between their legs four or five times. You might find 15, 20 guys in the league that do that. Back when I played, guys just didn't do that. It just wasn't the way you played."
Lowe and Elvin Hayes, the NBA legend and an assistant for the rookie team, spent most of the shoot-around watching the players.
"We look at some of these kids, and E's saying, `Man, I didn't know that kid could do that,' " Lowe said. "These guys can do some things guys my size back then, we couldn't do."
Kobe Bryant didn't completely agree with the argument that older players were too hard on younger players. "I'm a bit of a throwback," Bryant said Friday. "When you talk about the old-school guys, they were all gym rats and they all stressed the fundamentals of the game. I'm a bit of a throwback in that regard.
"I've learned so much from them, it's tough for me to say they need to adjust to or adapt to. Everything I know has been passed down from Oscar Robinson to Michael Jordan to Jerry West and those guys."
That's precisely why this generation of young players is outstanding: They have learned the lessons of yesteryear. This talent wasn't created in a vacuum.