The N.B.A.’s Back-to-Back Problem: ‘Rest? It’s Your Job, Man!’


Most players will tell you that the back-to-backs add up to more fatigue and more risk for injury. They have also become a marketing problem for the league, because coaches sometimes bench their stars for one of the games.

Just last week the Cleveland Cavaliers left LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love at home when the team visited the Memphis Grizzlies on the second night of a back-to-back. It was a disappointment to many fans who had paid to see the Cavaliers, the defending N.B.A. champs, at full force in the team’s lone trip to Memphis.

“I love the idea of less back-to-backs,” Larry Nance Jr., a Los Angeles Lakers forward, said Friday, “because we’re on one now, and I like the idea of not being on one.”

The Lakers were in Philadelphia on Friday for the first half of a back-to-back that was part of a seven-game trip. After defeating the Sixers, the Lakers took a late-night charter flight to Cleveland for their game against the Cavaliers on Saturday. Without D’Angelo Russell, who sat out after having played well against the Sixers, the Lakers lost.

In all, the Lakers are scheduled to play 16 sets of back-to-backs this season. The load should lighten next season. Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, the start of the season will move up by about a week to build more off days into the schedule and reduce the number of back-to-backs — though by how many is unclear.

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“Once the game starts, you just start playing,” said Phil Chenier, at left, playing for the Baltimore Bullets in 1972.

Credit
John Rooney/Associated Press

“It’s tough because we have a young team,” Luke Walton, the Lakers’s head coach, said. “You have 19-year-olds who aren’t used to this. The mental preparation that it takes and the mental strength that it takes to fight through that fatigue is challenging.”

That said, the concern over back-to-backs is a source of amusement for former players like Dan Issel, whose 15-year career featured countless sets of back-to-backs, more than 50 back-to-back-to-backs and about a dozen back-to-back-to-back-to-backs.

In an email, Issel said he had no specific recollection of any of them, not even the time he scored 37 points for the Kentucky Colonels of the A.B.A. in his fourth game in as many days in 1970. (N.B.A. players of that era were no strangers to four straight games, either.)

To Issel, those stretches never seemed remarkable. He would have gladly played in even more of them, he said, had his teams “flown charter with sleeper seats and great meals, and stayed in five-star hotels,” a reference to some of the amenities available to today’s players.

Charles Grantham, who joined the players’ union as a consultant when the N.B.A. merged with the A.B.A. in 1976, said easing the schedule was not a priority at the negotiating table — not for the players, who were pushing for guaranteed contracts and improved transportation, and not for the league, which had financial troubles.

“The business was to get the product out there and to play as often as you could,” said Grantham, who was the union’s executive director from 1988 to 1995. “I think owners looked at their teams like owning a candy store: They wanted it open all the time.”

The A.B.A. merger, along with expansion, resulted in more games for the league and reduced the financial imperative to stretch teams so thin. Plus, it was becoming obvious that tired players produced lower-quality basketball, a detriment to a league that was trying to expand its audience.

“All of us sat there and recognized that in order for this product to move forward, it’s got to be set for television,” Grantham said. “And the players need some fresh legs.”

Still, change did not come swiftly. The players themselves saw virtue in plying their trade without much time off, similar to how baseball players of that era were oblivious to pitch counts. George Gervin, a scoring wizard for the San Antonio Spurs through much of the 1970s and early ’80s, said he could not fathom skipping games to keep his body fresh.

“Rest? It’s your job, man!” Gervin said in a telephone interview. “We got all these people crying now about playing back-to-backs. I respect the job that these guys are doing. But yesterday, it was a little bit more difficult.”

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George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs with a rebound in 1980. “We got all these people crying now,” Gervin said.

Credit
Associated Press

His point of view has the familiar tone of generational grumbling: When I was your age… But Gervin has always considered himself a basketball purist.

“I hated the preseason because the coach would be like, ‘Hey, you’re only going to play half the game,’” he said. “I was like, ‘What? What kind of crap is that? I worked all summer and you got me trained, and you want me to play half the game?’ Come on, man.”

Phil Chenier, a three-time N.B.A. All-Star who retired in 1981, recalled nights when he could feel the physical toll of his profession. The schedule was more fearsome than any single opponent. But sometimes he made it look effortless. Over a three-day stretch with the Washington Bullets in March 1977, Chenier scored 21 points in a narrow road loss to the Atlanta Hawks before returning home to score 30 and 38, respectively, in wins against the New Orleans Jazz and the Phoenix Suns.

“Once the game starts, you just start playing,” Chenier said. “That’s all you know.”

He does remember one hazard: the uniforms. Most teams had only one set of road uniforms, and the players were generally responsible for their care. Some were more fastidious than others. Chenier recalled using shampoo to launder his jersey and shorts in hotel bathtubs. Planning ahead was important, he said, otherwise he would end up with a soggy uniform for the next game.

Also, he discovered that certain shampoos brought a side effect.

“You’d put your uniform on and you’d feel like you have this rash,” Chenier said. “Of course, some guys didn’t wash their uniforms at all — and you could tell.”

The laundry complications, Charles said, could signal that an opposing team was on a rough trip. He knew when he caught a whiff of his defender.

“And you’d be like, ‘Oh, you guys played last night,’” he said.

By the early 1980s, the league had largely scrubbed back-to-back-to-backs from the schedule. They made a brief return during the 2011-12 season, when the league scrambled to cram games into a reduced scheduled after a labor stoppage.

The Lakers, for example, opened that season by playing three games in three days, losing twice. Metta World Peace, a forward who is still playing for the team at 37, reflected on that experience — “It was bad,” he said — and assessed back-to-backs as difficult enough, especially at his age.

“They kill me,” he said.

When he was younger, he said, he did not take them seriously. After a late-night flight, he would often try to squeeze in a trip to a nightclub between games.

“And play like garbage,” World Peace said. “When I got older and actually wanted to win, I would drink a lot of water, eat a lot of veggies, go to bed once you got into the city — no sex, nothing like that. Because all that stuff adds up.”

World Peace said he thought that the quality of play would improve with fewer back-to-backs. But he does not want to see them eliminated. “They build so much character,” he said, sounding like a true throwback.

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