Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Center of Attention

In the early days of the NBA the big guys ruled. GEORGE MIKAN was the first dominant center in professional basketball. He created problems for opponents in the 1950's that they had no answers for. Before Mikan, basketball was considered to be a game that was more fitting for smaller, quicker men. Mikan, at 6'10, proved nimble enough as he introduced jump hooks and showed the NBA how to use size as an advantage. The game was never the same.

In the 1960's a 7'1 giant named WILT CHAMBERLAIN dominated the sport like no other athlete has ever dominated (statistically) any sport. He owns too many records to list here (Wilt Chamberlain stats & records) and achieved the still unbelievable feat of scoring 100 points in a single game. But Wilt had a capable foe in BILL RUSSELL, a 6'9 center that led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles in 13 years. Every time these two big men met it was a major event, like a basketball version of an Ali-Frazier fight.

In the 1970's legendary big men KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR and BILL WALTON continued the center domination. Abdul-Jabbar, 7'2, won six NBA titles, six MVP's, played in 19 All-Star games, and is the All-Time leading scorer in NBA history. WALTON, 7'0, perhaps the greatest college basketball player ever won two NCAA Championships and three straight NCAA Player of the Year Awards. Then he entered the NBA and led the Portland Trailblazers to the '76-77 NBA title, winning the MVP award in 1978 before injuries derailed his career. He finished his career as a role player, but was successful at that too. In 1986 he came off the bench to help the Boston Celtics win a title and was given the Six-Man Award that year.

The 1980's brought us the burly MOSES MALONE, 6'10, who would lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1983 title and was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 1979, 1982 and 1983. And, following illustrious college careers, the NBA welcomed 7'0 PARTICK EWING and 6'11 HAKEEM (Akeem in college) OLAJUWON. They both enjoyed brilliant professional careers, but Olajuwon was more successful, winning two titles for the Houston Rockets, and in 1993-94 he became the first player to be named NBA MVP, NBA Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP in the same season.

DAVID ROBINSON, A 7'1 Naval veteran, became the next great center, dominating most other big men in the early 1990's. Robinson probably would have had an even more impressive career if not for the arrival of the man that would ruin the center position from that point on - 7'1 behemoth SHAQUILLE O'NEAL. The NBA had never seen anyone like O'Neal before. He was absolutely massive, but had exceptionally quick feet and was far more athletic than his body would suggest. Opposing centers had difficulty defending him because they weren't allowed to. The league and its officials were never sure exactly how to referee him. They claimed that he was so big that "incidental" contact was unavoidable. In other words, an offensive foul for anyone else was not an offensive foul for O'Neal. He was allowed to catch the ball in the low post, turn, and bull his way through the defender to the basket. It became almost impossible to defend a man that was immune to the rules of the game. As a result, the center position neared extinction, except for O'Neal.

By the millennium, big men that would have once been centers were now shooting the ball from three-point range (far from O'Neal) and calling themselves forwards. Great 7-footers like TIM DUNCAN, KEVIN GARNETT, and DIRK NOWITZKI, have avoided the title of center, and the responsibility of defending O'Neal this entire decade. The only other true center with any real talent to come into the league in years is 7'5 Chinese import - YAO MING. He's no match for O'Neal, but as O'Neal nears retirement, with a bloated resume to match his bloated waistline, the position has potential to rise again.

With the expected announcement that 7'0 Ohio State prodigy - GREG ODEN - next year, and the emergence of 7'2 Georgetown center ROY HIBBERT, the future looks bright for the position and a new era of great centers looks possible.

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