He played in famous Rucker Park during the 1970s. He played one-on-one with Larry Bird during the 1980s. He was the first NBA beat writer who transitioned to television for NBC in 1990s. Peter Vecsey is controversial, opinionated, and a basketball pioneer.
As we navigate through this pandemic and resuscitate old-school debates, such as how the 1990s Bulls would have fared today or was Michael Jordan a better player than LeBron James, we talked with Vecsey, now 76, who has covered the league for 50 years, mostly for the New York Post.
And let’s get matters straight: Vecsey is not one to glorify 1990s basketball because of Jordan. And he accurately points out there were NBA megastars long before Jordan was drafted in 1984, long before Magic Johnson and Bird came into the league in 1979.
What’s more, it’s a sore point to many NBA legends when they hear the theory that Magic and Bird saved the league. The NBA still had Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, George Gervin, Bill Russell, Bill Walton, and Moses Malone playing in the decades before their arrival.
“To me, I thought the ’70s were damn good and the ’80s were great and the ’90s were great,” Vecsey told the Globe. “But the ’90s weren’t greater because Michael got six [titles]. I think when you had Magic and Bird and Julius and Kareem and those three teams and Houston. C’mon, the ’80s were better than the ’90s and the Pistons were in the ’80s. too.
“The ’80s, to me, were it. Jordan and the Bulls, I would have loved to see him have stayed for those two years [he retired]. I would have loved to see a healthy Jordan go up against the Knicks in ’94. It robbed his legacy that he didn’t go 8 for 8 [in titles]. And then let’s talk about him and Bill Russell.”
Vecsey said a primary reason the NBA took off in the late 1980s was commissioner David Stern helped to improve the image of the league, and that meant a better television package. CBS was broadcasting NBA Finals games on tape delay in the early 1980s. What’s more, I remember Johnson’s debut game against the then-San Diego Clippers in 1979 was telecast after the local news at 11:30 and KNXT sportscaster Jim Hill would tell viewers to look away from the screen if they didn’t want to see the final score.
The NBA has advanced light years. The first step was NBC taking over coverage in 1991 and enhancing the package when the league was soaring because of Jordan.
“NBC kind of lucked into it, they wanted to do it a different way,” Vecsey said. “I always felt the league was great. The crowds were getting bigger. I was enjoying the hell of out of everything in the NBA. Again, the ’70s was great, the ABA, the NBA, the merger. The talent that came into the NBA at that time, to me, that was the turnaround of the NBA. OK, so it wasn’t reflected in ratings.”
Vecsey remembers speaking at the ABA’s 50th anniversary dinner in Indianapolis in 2018 and mentioning to those legends that the league didn’t start when Magic and Bird arrived. And he received a rousing ovation.
“OK, so Magic and Bird came and they had the perfect thing, black and white and two superstars and they had all that going for them,” Vecsey said. “And the ratings started to kick in because the NBA started to promote it more. The marketing kicked in. There was something to sell and they sold it.”
The perception that the pre-Magic/Bird NBA was a bunch of drug addicts and the league was mired in trouble is not exactly accurate. The NBA’s leadership feared marketing what was considered an all-black league to a mostly white audience. Very few of the league’s personalities, such as Erving, were presented to the American audience.
“There was a perception that the league couldn’t be sold because it was a Black league; they had to overcome that,” Vecsey said. “The salary cap came into effect. The union agreeing with the league regarding [drug-testing] players. Those were critical factors of improving the league’s image. And free agency was different then. You couldn’t just jump around in those days. There was compensation.”
The most egregious case of compensation occurred in 1976 when the New Orleans Jazz had to give the Lakers two first-round picks and a second-rounder for the right to sign future Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich. The second of those first-round picks, the Jazz’s 1979 selection, ended up being Johnson. The Jazz moved to Utah [in 1979]. And we know what happened with Magic.
“Thank God they got rid of that,” Vecsey said. “That was a catastrophe for the players and the league.”
Vecsey did not want to comment specifically about “The Last Dance” documentary detailing the final year of the Jordan Bulls because he’s working on his own book on the topic. But he did, because he’s an authority on the topic who should have been approached about being part of the project, and he didn’t hide his disdain.
“ESPN never called me about ‘The Last Dance,’ ” Vecsey said. “It’s absolutely amazing to me that they could be that stupid. I had so many inside stories that were printed that they are not even going to address it. It’s amazing. They interviewed Sam Smith, they couldn’t avoid that. I was involved in all of that stuff [during the 1990s].”
FIT IT IN
Coach draws up plan for fans
Phil Coles is the executive director of performance for the Celtics and he has spent the past several weeks offering workout regimens and advice to players. Coles also has some advice for us regular people who don’t have access to gyms or state-of-the-art home workout equipment and are attempting to stay in shape during the pandemic.
Coles said people should be able to create workouts at home and develop plans to maintain condition.
“There’s a lot of things we can still do,” he said. “If you’ve got equipment, it’s easier, and if you can get outside, it’s easier. The most important thing is to prioritize that you have to keep doing some sort of physical activity and schedule that into your day.
"In these crazy times for everyone, and everyone’s schedule is so different, there’s a potential for people to lose their routine and the exercise that just happens as a part of life.
“There’s lots of body-weight strength exercises you can do, lots of online aerobic things you can do with a small space and no equipment. I think it’s about finding what is the level of intensity that you need and what is your preferred approach.”
Coles said there are plenty of companies providing online exercise classes that could help compensate for a lack of gyms or home exercise equipment. Several Celtics players have said they do not have home gyms and depend on Coles’s script to exercise.
“You can develop your own version of these body-weight training programs, push-ups and chin-ups, and dips, and a number of things you can do in your space,” he said. “It’s just about making sure you’re consistent with it and prioritize and program so you have a routine of getting it done.”
Coles’s biggest suggestion for us regular folks is doing at least 20 minutes worth of high-impact exercise three times a week.
“Work really hard for 20, 30, or 40 seconds and then take a rest,” he said. “But if you work in that type philosophy where you work yourself hard and then relax, 20 minutes is enough and 20 minutes three times a week is enough.
“If, on top of that, you can add in some body-weight and strength work, then, from a body-toning perspective, it will be beneficial, as well.”
Coles said what most people aren’t realizing is how much exercise they are missing out on by not doing common, everyday things, such as walking around work or running errands.
“All those things you do without realizing that you’re exercising,” he said. “So it’s more important to schedule something and prioritize it and figure out the most inventive way you can do it.”
A sidebar to this story is Coles is dealing with a group of players who have never known life before gyms and health clubs. Before health clubs became en vogue, people would run around neighborhoods and lift weights in their back yards with those plastic weights with cement inside.
“We’re getting even more inventive,” Coles said. “I’ve seen professional athletes in different sports who are filling up different sized luggage bags with clothes and using them as weights, lying back and doing bench presses. Using small hand bags for arm weights. You can be inventive in the house with no equipment and you can find the things you need to get done.”
Working with current players who are eager to return to basketball and get exercise hasn’t been a challenge, Coles said.
“We’re lucky that most of our guys have some home equipment they can utilize,” he said. “Some of that we delivered to them. The players themselves are coming from the base where their life is exercise. These guys are desperate to do stuff. It’s been different and somewhat challenging. We’ve got players who are motivated enough to make it effective as we can.”
Social media finds new stories to tell
With social media becoming so popular and essential, especially during this quarantine, younger athletes are taking more control over relaying their messages and detailing their journeys. Top draft prospect Jalen Green announced on Instagram that he was joining the NBA’s G-League program, while other prospects have joined social media companies to tell their stories.
An emerging company in this genre is called Unguarded, which is producing detailed features on the lives of high school and college players. For example, the site just published an eight-minute documentary on Caleb Love, a St. Louis native who has just signed to play at North Carolina.
The local connection here is Love played for Justin Tatum at Christian Brothers College High School. Tatum is the father of Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, who played at Chaminade College Prep in St. Louis and signed with Duke. Love used Unguarded to talk about his love for the game and his decision to sign with North Carolina.
This is a new wrinkle to college announcements, perhaps replacing the old-fashioned news conference at the high school with mom and dad at the player’s side and college caps on the table.
“The concept really came from me playing sports in the past and wanting to document stories,” said co-founder Sal Hasan. “I played Division 3 basketball [at City College of New York] and I wasn’t always the best. But I went through a lot of injuries and had a lot of ups and downs and I thought if you could document that, imagine documenting a top-tier athlete who is a five-star recruit.”
As young athletes want to gain more control of their message and narrative, there has become an increasing need for more social media vehicles. Former Yankee Derek Jeter developed The Players’ Tribune for athletes who wanted to pen their own testimonials, while LeBron James developed Uninterrupted for athletes to use video to relay messages.
“Everyone has a story,” Hasan said. “And, in this day and age, the athlete can build their own brand at an early age. A lot of that stems into me wanting to document it because you could essentially tell your story on social media and from there build your own brand. A lot of players can look back and watch their stories and people have been really receptive to it. It’s been growing.”
Hasan documented the journeys of current NBA players such as Portland’s Moses Brown, Minnesota’s Naz Reid, and Jahvon Quinerly. The former McDonald’s All-American was the first to use Unguarded to detail his story as the New Jersey player of the year signed with Villanova. (He eventually transferred to Alabama.)
More players want to use social media to tell their stories, where they can control the narrative, which offers Unguarded several options on how to move forward.
“We want to keep documenting stories, but we have a decision to make on whether we’re going to focus on a few players, or are we going to start doing episodes?” Hasan said. “It’s a challenge because you go from being on the court to being off of it and learn all these different avenues. We’ve had to learn how to build different distribution, learn how to create the content.”
What is fascinating about this topic is more athletes are thinking about building their brand and marketability at earlier ages. For example, LaMelo Ball hasn’t even been drafted but he has been in the social spotlight, partly because of his father and brother, for three years. Younger athletes can use these mediums to create other financial opportunities off the floor.
“The basketball community is small, so sometimes we reach out to the players and tell them we’re interested in documenting them,” Hasan said. “Since we’ve been doing this, everyone kind of knows who we are in that circle. And we mostly want them to say what the game means to them, why they play and who they are. We want to represent who they are and how they got here and what they need to do to keep pushing.”
The popularity of Unguarded is a testament to the changing athlete. Gone are the days where the college recruit would call his local hometown reporter and reveal his college choice and even news conferences are becoming stale.
“We work with these athletes through time,” Hasan said. “If there’s something they want to document, we document it. It depends on each athlete, but our main focus is getting more stories out. We’re concentrating on building networks. We want to build our following and give exposure to this kids and their stories.”
UCLA recruit Daishen Nix became the third top prospect to bypass college in favor of the NBA’s G-League training program that will tutor prospects over the next year in preparation for the 2021 draft. Nix joins Green, the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2020, and Isaiah Todd, who had committed to Michigan. What is enticing these prospects is the possibility of earning $500,000 during the season and also earning money off their likeness. Green has already agreed to a deal with the Upper Deck trading card company, something that would not have occurred had he chosen college. The NCAA has responded by considering allowing athletes to earn money off their likeness if the deal is not arranged by the university. Nix, Green, and Todd could help determine the fate of this G-League training program. The NCAA committee that reviewed the operations of Division 1 basketball suggested that athletes who do not have interest in attending college not attend college, but these three athletes jumped into the G-League program because of the financial opportunities, as well as receiving NBA training. The training program will be facilitated by former NBA point guard Rod Strickland . . . The Knicks are seeking stability by agreeing to a one-year extension with general manager Scott Perry, the former Pistons and Kings executive who kept his job despite the front office shakeup in New York. Perry is a well-respected front office man who waited years for his opportunity to become a GM. It’s uncertain how much say he has had in the Knicks’ personnel moves as he worked under former president Steve Mills. Mills was reassigned when former agent Leon Rose took over as president. The most regrettable move of the Perry-Mills era was trading budding star Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the Mavericks for Dennis Smith Jr. The move cleared salary-cap space to sign two maximum free agents, but the club was unable to sign Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant. Meanwhile, Smith has struggled after a strong rookie year with the Mavericks. The Knicks could have another top-five pick in this year’s draft. "