Great Britain assistant coach Paul Mokeski speaks with MVP’s Niall Gray about what it was like to play in the NBA in the 1980s and how the league has changed since then – beyond recognition.
The 1980s was the decade that saved the NBA; an era when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ruled the league and Michael Jordan was on the cusp of greatness.
Paul Mokeski, an NBA Development League coach with Reno as well as Chris Finch’s defensive guru with GB, is one of those few who can look back on that time and say ‘I played against those guys’.
Mokeski entered the NBA in 1979, the same year as Johnson and Bird, and would go on to play in the league until 1991, the year Jordan won his first championship.
Drafted by Houston, Mokeski played for six NBA teams, but is best remembered for his time in Milwaukee, where he spent almost seven seasons.
“Played behind Moses Malone my first year and then I went to a bad Detroit Pistons team,” recalled Mokeski. “I was there when Isiah Thomas was a rookie and we were really bad.
“I started a few of those games and I made a name for myself, but then I was traded to Cleveland and they let me go as they had too many guaranteed contracts I had four teams to pick from and when I went to Milwaukee; it was just a really good fit for me. I played for Don Nelson who was very much a players’ coach, he had played the game.
“I was a high IQ player, I got along by doing what you’re supposed to do and when you’re supposed to do it. Know all the plays and get there early, and I fit right in with their programme.
“When I first got there, there was an older group with Bob Lanier and Sidney Moncrief and I was coming off the bench, playing ten or fifteen minutes.
“Then they made a shift when I was there and got Jack Sikma, Paul Pressey and some younger players. I became a twenty-five minute guy, still off the bench but playing significant minutes.”
Mokeski made a name for himself as a back-up guy and it was good enough to see him play in the league for 12 seasons.
“I started a few games but not consistently,” he said. “People don’t realise how valuable someone is coming in off the bench.
“It’s hard to get thrown into a high-paced basketball game, right into the middle of it when they’ve been running and to do what you’re supposed to do and not mess up.
“It’s very difficult and a lot of players have a tough time. You see it on national teams where there are players on national teams that are starters on their regular teams and now they have to be a substitute, and they’re not used to it. I got that reputation to be the guy who could do that.”
Mokeski was asked for his thoughts on how the NBA has changed from when he played.
“People call it old school basketball but the basketball level back then, first of all there wasn’t 30 NBA teams, there was 22, 24.
“Guys who are starting right now, back then would have been back-ups. Guys that were backups may not have made the team, so the level of play was very high.
“Now, times that by ten when you have the play-offs and you have the best teams. You’re talking about teams with Moses Malone, Dr J (Julius Irving), Charles Barkley, or Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale.
“You talk about the big three in Miami with Dwayne Wade, Lebron James and Chris Bosh — all those teams had big threes.
“It was a very physical league back then.”
Michael Jordan to an extent changed the way the game was played and Mokeski believes Jordan helped change the way the game was officiated as well.
“They give more advantage to offensive players now as they want the free flow and that kind of goes back to Michael Jordan when he first came into the league. The Detroit Pistons were very physical with him and the NBA wanted to open up the game, and [Jordan] was the start of that.”
The Eastern Conference in the 1980s was packed full of good teams such as Bird’s Boston Celtics and Dr J’s Philadelphia 76ers.
The Milwaukee Bucks were pretty good too and reached the Conference Finals three times, only to come up short against Philadelphia or Boston each time.
Looking back on some of the battles, Mokeski remembered one such game with Boston and a chance encounter with Celtics’ legend Red Auerbach which revealed how different his career might have been
“One of the stories that stands out the most in my career was that when I was with Milwaukee, we had the Boston Celtics on the ropes one year in the play-offs. We had it all tied up and we went back to the Boston Garden for game 7 on a Sunday afternoon.
“We were up by 9 points with a few minutes left and then Larry Bird hit three threes in a row, right in front of our bench, and they end up winning the game.
“I remember being so frustrated as that was our chance. My wife was there, my agent was there and we left the Boston Garden.
“The Boston Garden was much like London where there’s trains and buses right outside.
“Coming out of there and meeting my wife and my agent to go to dinner, because it was an afternoon game, I remember getting a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it was Red Auerbach.
“He said, ‘Paul, come and walk around the corner with me’. So I walked around the corner of the Boston Garden to an alley and he said to me, ‘I love the way you play, you play really hard and I want you to know that when you were in the draft, we were [a few] picks away from selecting you.
“We’d just lost a Game 7 and I could have been a Celtic with a championship ring! It would have been exciting [to play for Boston] I know that.”
One of Boston’s weaknesses in the 80s was finding a capable back-up to play behind Robert Parish, so asked if Auerbach ever tried to recruit him to Boston, Mokeski replied: “No, it was different back then.
“Now with free agency you get players talking to players. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale are friends of mine, but back then I hated them!”
As for other differences between then and now, Mokeski added: “Guys in those days didn’t hug before games. We would go out for a drink or something after, but during a game it wasn’t very friendly.
“Back then there wasn’t the suspensions either. If you fought, you paid the $200 [fine] and played the next game.”
Perhaps one of the biggest changes from Mokeski’s time is famous venues like the Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium and the LA Forum were replaced years ago (although in the case of the Forum, it’s still standing, just no longer home of the Lakers).
Only New York’s Madison Square Garden still remains as an NBA venue from when Mokeski was playing and that place hold special memories.
“The best game I probably ever had was in Madison Square Garden in New York against Patrick Ewing, where I had 21 points and 16 rebounds.
“Those arenas were built for basketball. Now you have billion-dollar arenas that are built for basketball, hockey, concerts and events like monster trucks, so they’re really open and wide. It doesn’t get as loud.
“I remember in the old Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden, LA Forum, it got so loud you could not hear the person next to you and you couldn’t hear the coach.
“The only thing you can really hear is the stadium ringing in your ears. You can’t hear anyone saying anything, just the ringing. That’s how loud it got.”
He added: “Playing in the Boston Garden when it’s probably 120 degrees in that arena and the fans are right on top of you.
“Red Auerbach coached on that floor, won championships on that floor and then you look in the rafters and you see all the banners and retired numbers, it’s just a special feeling.
“Then, when you start the game and the fans are all yelling at you and Larry Bird’s raining down threes on you.
“If you’re a player and you want to compete and many great players do, I loved to go into that kind of arena where it’s really loud, the fans are against you, and your goal is to make them quiet.
“If you can make them quiet. and it’s really a different feeling to when you’re at home and you want the crowd in it and you feel the pulse of the crowd.
“On the road you feel it when you get quiet.”
Mokeski then talked about the players of his era and in a decade that had so many great players, he said it was a shame that former team-mate Sidney Moncrief never got the recognition he deserved.
“[Moncrief] lead the team in scoring, rebounding, steals and assists and he is 6’4″, said Mokeski. “He’s under-rated because he played in Milwaukee, which is not a major market., but also because he played in the era of Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird, so he got overshadowed.”
He added: “People ask me the greatest players I ever played against and you talk about Larry Bird who had a killer instinct & Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan was the best athlete I’ve ever played against.”
Asked how he defended Jordan driving to the hoop for one of his dunks, Mokeksi laughed and replied, “I fouled him hard!”
Some things don’t change and one of them is the competitive nature of the game’s star players.
“What I tell young players is that Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson , they were all great players, their games were different but they had one thing in common. They were the most focused, competitive people in the world,” he underlined.
“Michael Jordan will bet you on which bag will come off the conveyor belt first, that’s how competitive he is and in practice, if you are playing a shooting game with him, he’ll want to win.
“All those guys; Jordan, Magic, Larry, they always want to win every competition and in a scrimmage they won’t just want to beat you, they would want to annihilate you and that’s what makes them great.
“If the best player on your team is doing that and playing as hard as that, how can you not? They led by example and that’s what some of the great players now like Dwayne Wade, Kobe (Bryant) are, they are so competitive.
“Magic was different to Bird who was different to MJ, but they all had that one thing in common.”
Main pic: BB/MAP
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