I was there when it happened to Julius Erving: Nov. 9, 1984, Philly at Boston, the night his five-year rivalry with Larry Bird went up in smoke. Bird outscored Erving 42-6 in three quarters before words were exchanged and, incredibly, two of the league’s biggest stars started fighting at midcourt. Imagine two kids getting their picture taken with Santa, then imagine their faces if Santa got into a brawl with the Easter Bunny. That was Bird fighting Erving. Their scuffle was so preposterous that it overshadowed the real story: Julius Erving had gone through The Change. He was great, and then he wasn’t. And it happened overnight.
Sift through NBA history and you’ll notice that, for modern superstars, The Change occurred somewhere between the 900th and 1,200th career game (including playoffs) for everyone except Karl Malone and John Stockton, who fended it off because of their extraordinary work ethics, their signature play (an unstoppable pick-and-roll that they could have run into their 50s), Utah’s altitude (which may have given them a conditioning advantage) and the little-known fact John Stockton is actually an alien. An NBA career is really pressure over time: knees are Shawshank’s prison wall, games are Andy’s rock hammer, and that hammer just keeps chipping away. Eventually, your career gives out. That’s the rule.
Or, that was the rule. Because Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are fending off that rock hammer in ways that have to make us wonder if we’re headed for a historical revamping along the lines of the steroids era blowing up baseball like an “Angry Birds” grenade. Everything we thought we knew about basketball is changing … and for all the right reasons, too. (Well, unless you’re Rashard Lewis and O.J. Mayo.) They are beneficiaries of undeniable advantages over everyone who played before them: better doctors, surgical procedures, dieting, drug testing, trainers, computers, video equipment, workout equipment, workout regiments, airplanes … even pillows are better.
Check out the career numbers (regular season and playoffs) for Allen, Pierce, Nash, Nowitzki and Bryant for games, minutes, minutes per game and seasons played.