WHERE ARE THEY?

The once dominant NBA center has all but disappeared
February 22, 1988

Go back 22 years to the 1965-66 NBA season when the immortal Walter Bellamy averaged 22.8 points and 15.7 rebounds for the Bullets and Knicks. Yo, Bells—these days that's a $2 million season for a center. Now fast-forward to the '72-73 season and focus on Neal Walk, who was never much better than a journeyman center. Walk averaged 20.2 points and 12.4 rebounds for Phoenix. Rich Kelley is remembered more for his quick wit than for his quick moves in the pivot. Yet in the '78-79 season all he did was average 15.7 points and 12.8 rebounds (second-best in the league behind Moses Malone) for the New Orleans Jazz. Today, James Donaldson of Dallas, who played in this year's NBA All-Star game, would gladly take those numbers. As of the weekend he was averaging 6.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.

Remember Swen Nater? Here's a center who averaged 15.0 rebounds to lead the NBA in the '79-80 season. By comparison, Akeem Olajuwon, a contemporary center who is highly praised for his rebounding, has yet to average more than 11.9 rebounds in three seasons with the Houston Rockets.

So, what's going on here? While no NBA executive would take Kelley and Nater over Olajuwon, there is, nevertheless, a trend to be divined from those comparisons. Consider:

Olajuwon, the leading scorer among NBA centers, stood only 15th among all players through Sunday's games. Only four centers (Olajuwon, Detroit's Bill Laimbeer, Washington's Malone and Philadelphia's Mike Gminski) are among the top 10 rebounders. Peruse the list of field goal percentage shooters, long a category dominated by pivotmen, and you'll find only Boston's Robert Parish and New York's Bill Cartwright upholding the honor of the centers.

Quick—name the topflight NBA centers age 30 or under. Remember, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is 40, Parish 34 and Malone 32. For you sentimentalists who want to include Artis Gilmore, recently waived by Chicago and picked up by Boston, he's 38. Here's your list: Olajuwon and the Knicks' Patrick Ewing, both 25; Golden State's Ralph Sampson, 27; Cleveland's Brad Daugherty, a babe of 22. Laimbeer is an even 30.

And there are many who would quibble with even that short list. Though his scoring average has slipped two points this season (from 23.4 to its current 21.4), can we agree that Olajuwon makes it? O.K., let's agree. But some would not include Sampson, who at 7'4" has all the tools but perhaps not the heart. Others would leave out Laimbeer, a tough defensive rebounder and deadly outside shooter but neither an inside scorer nor a shot-blocker. Others would eliminate Ewing, a grand physical specimen but still a work in progress, albeit an expensive one. And others would exclude Daugherty, who needs another season or two to prove himself conclusively.

Centers are not only deficient in stats these days, they're not much in the pizzazz department, either. Jeez, what will the once grand pivot position look like when Abdul-Jabbar, Parish and Malone, the oldies but goodies, hang it up? Will centers become as faceless as offensive tackles? It's not just the ones on bad teams, like Benoit Benjamin (Clippers) and Joe Kleine (Kings), who fail to bring color to the paint. Consider several of those employed by some of the stronger franchises:

Atlanta is one of the best teams in the East, with a combination of Jon Koncak and 32-year-old Tree Rollins in the middle. Chicago's starting center is Mike Brown. Dallas is currently ruling the Midwest with Donaldson in the pivot, while Denver is chasing the Mavericks with a trifecta of Wayne Cooper, Danny Schayes and Blair Rasmussen. Milwaukee is hanging tough in the Central with Randy Breuer, while Portland is second in the Pacific behind the Lakers with Steve Johnson. Is your pulse racing yet?

Each of the above players has at least one NBA skill, but none fits the traditional center's triple-threat billing of scorer/rebounder/shot-blocker. Who's the best of them? Lord knows. Breuer? While his improved play is the talk of Milwaukee, he's having a career year with less-than-eye-popping averages of 13.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Portland's Johnson is the best offensive player of the lot (17.9 points per game), but he's an average rebounder and not much of a defensive presence, and he has been hurt recently. On it goes.

Rarely is a center the focus of his team's offense anymore. Abdul-Jabbar is now the fourth-leading scorer for the Lakers, and, in the Bullets' Malone & Malone offense, 6'4" Jeff takes more shots than 6'10" Moses. (So does Bernard King.) Yes, Houston's first look is to Olajuwon, New York's is to Ewing, and Cleveland's may be to Daugherty (at least until guard Ron Harper is completely healthy), but the offense of every other team revolves around a forward or a guard.

It's odd: Teams get taller and taller, yet the dominant players, more and more, are the smaller, all-around "versatiles," the ones who play everywhere except center—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Fat Lever, Harper, Alvin Robertson.

Ah, but perhaps the center position will once again take center stage when Ensign David Robinson enters the league, probably for the 1989-90 season. Assuming that he can beat out the Three Amigos currently manning the pivot for the San Antonio Spurs—Frank Brickowski, Petur Gudmundsson and Kurt Nimphius—we will see a center who seems to have the classic tools. Robinson is 7'1", he plays with his back to the basket (though he can also face up and run the floor), he shoots a hook shot and a turnaround jumper, he dunks, he rebounds, he blocks shots.

"Maybe Robinson will be the one," says Willis Reed, the former Knicks center who's now an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings. "He's certainly the only guy with a realistic chance. It's very slim pickings beside him."

Not everyone accepts the premise that good centers are disappearing, however. "If there are players that easy, where are they?" asks Olajuwon. "I want to play them." Says Sacramento coach Bill Russell, considered by many to be the best center ever to play the game: "There never were more than three dominant centers at a time. I know when I played, the only other center that dominated was Wilt [Chamberlain]." Atlanta coach Mike Fratello agrees. "I think people might be pushing alarm buttons saying that the end of an era is at hand," says Fratello. "What era? We had three or four really great big men, and the whole rest of the so-called big-men era might be a myth."

There is some truth to that. The history of the NBA to this point can be divided into three distinct eras, all dominated by centers: the George Mikan Era from 1948 (his first year in the NBA) to 1954 (his last productive season); the Chamberlain-Russell Era from 1956 (Russell's first year) to 1969 (Russell's last); and the Abdul-Jabbar Era, which began in 1969 and ended sometime in the early '80s when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird started the era of the do-everything player. Moses had a few dominant seasons but not enough to define an era. Bill Walton might have been the center to take over for Abdul-Jabbar and rule through the mid-'80s, but his foot injuries—sadly—turned that into mere speculation. There was no Walt Bellamy Era.

And, to be sure, even those who do feel that good centers are vanishing are hardly pushing panic buttons. The game is better than ever, more entertaining than ever. Watching Magic Johnson run is certainly more aesthetically pleasing than watching Bells toil.

Still, something is missing without those colorful pivotmen of old. Run them through that 8-mm film loop in your mind: Mikan, the late Neil Johnston, Clyde Lovellette, Arnie Risen, Harry Gallatin and Johnny (Red) Kerr. Then, along came Wayne Embry. Followed by Bellamy and Zelmo Beaty. Followed by Nate Thurmond and Reed. In the '70s, Abdul-Jabbar wasn't all alone; there were Gilmore, Wes Unseld, Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier and Elvin Hayes, not to mention Moses and Walton, one with a face of stone, the other with a ponytail and headband. Says Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey, ticking off some of those names: "I don't think Pat Ewing is in a class with those guys."

It's not so much the pivotman's scoring that's missing—aside from Mikan, Johnston, Wilt, Kareem and Bob McAdoo, centers have never really dominated NBA scoring lists. Still, in only two seasons (1958-59 and '83-84) has a center not been among the top 10 scorers, and that could happen this season. No, the big difference is on the boards. During the first four decades of the NBA, forwards and guards, for the most part, went up for a rebound only at their own risk. Cleaning glass was a job for Windex and centers. There were a few exceptions, such as Dolph Schayes, Bob Pettit and Maurice Stokes, forwards in centers' bodies, who could rebound with most of the pivotmen in the '50s. So could Oscar Robertson, the Big O, who in '61-62 became the first guard to sneak into the top 10 in rebounding (he was eighth with a 12.5 average).

And now? The 7-foot Ewing makes $3 million per year to average about one more rebound per game than Denver's Lever, a 6'3" guard, or three fewer rebounds per game than Barkley, a 6'4½" forward.

Attention, centers—what gives? Are you going the way of the dinosaur? Or is there a center shortage in our country right now, just as we have a teacher shortage or a doctor shortage from time to time?

Or, on the other hand, have there been changes in the game that are keeping you from dominating? To continue the offensive tackle analogy, perhaps you are playing better than ever, but guards and forwards are just getting most of the attention. Is that possible?

Says Don Nelson, executive vice-president of the Golden State Warriors: "For whatever reason, the multipurpose, multitalented center doesn't exist anymore in the college ranks. I think it's just a demise in the talent of big players."

He's partly right. But there are several other reasons that explain why, as a group, NBA pivotmen are no longer front and center:

CHANGES IN THE GAME—Reason No. 1 is elementary. There are bigger and better players all over the floor. Centers used to be able to dominate, particularly on the boards, simply by being so much taller than everyone else. "You look at small forwards back in the early '70s and the difference is ridiculous," says Mitch Kupchak, assistant general manager of the Lakers. "Guys like Mike Riordan and Bill Bradley couldn't compete with Dave Cowens or Wes Unseld for a rebound. A lot of times the ball would go up and those guys would take off and bolt, get out on the break. 'Leave the rebounding to the big guys.' That's the way it used to be."

Bigger players all over means, naturally, bigger forwards, forwards who are going to compete with centers for the rebounds. Chicago's Charles Oakley (6'9"), Boston's Kevin McHale (6'10") and Atlanta's Kevin Willis (7'0"), power forwards all, would have certainly been centers 10 or 15 years ago. On many teams, in fact, "power forward" has come to mean "rebounding forward." Players like Oakley, the Clippers' Michael Cage, the Lakers' A.C. Green and the Nets' Buck Williams are expected to rebound, rather than play the classic forward position.

By the same token, there are lots of big forwards who want the ball on offense, and who want it down low, in the area that was, in the Chamberlain-Russell days, almost exclusively reserved for the center. There are also forwards nowadays who want room to maneuver and call for the ball out by the foul line. That post area was the hub of most early NBA offenses, and in the hub of the hub was, of course, the center. It was only logical. Throw the ball into the pivot, populated by a veritable giant, and give him the option of passing to a cutter, taking a hook shot, or making some kind of power move. Except for players like Pettit, whose skills were extraordinary for a 6'9" forward of his day, and the 6'5" Elgin Baylor, whose skills would have been extraordinary in any era, forwards tended to play a subordinate role to the centers.

"Forwards didn't demand as much playing area years ago," says Reed. "They didn't post up as much and played the perimeter more. When I was with the Knicks, for example, we ran nothing for [Dave] DeBusschere on the post."

That isn't true today. Any player on the floor, except for, say, the Bullets' 5'4" Muggsy Bogues or a nonshooter like Denver's T.R. Dunn, is likely to post up near the basket from time to time. "It's not important for the center to be your post-up player," says Laimbeer, "as long as a team has someone who is. Ours [Adrian Dantley] happens to be 6'5"."

O.K., but having bigger players all over the court doesn't completely explain the disappearing-center phenomenon. Nor does it explain why the center is no longer the focal point of the offense. It seems so simple to get the ball to your tallest player, give him some space and let him throw up a hook shot or make a power move. Chamberlain averaged 39.6 points a game over his first seven seasons (50.4 in 1961-62) that way. Abdul-Jabbar has scored more than 37,000 points that way.

CHANGES IN DEFENSES—Times have changed and so have defenses. "To get the ball down there and score nowadays," says veteran Portland center Caldwell Jones, "you have to be selfish."

Why? Because a guard will double down on a center whenever the ball goes into the post. Or a forward will come over to help. Or both a guard and a forward will come over, setting up a triple-team and making the center feel like he's trying to change clothes in a phone booth. "It's no longer me-against-you in there," says Abdul-Jabbar, who won a large majority of his "me-against-you" battles over the years. "You start out alone with a guy, but all teams send at least four people to the boards, sometimes five. Defenses are focused on people in the post because they're closest to the basket. That's just common sense."

Obviously, there are few easy shots in the post now. Says Portland's Johnson, a .582 lifetime percentage shooter: "You used to be able to catch the ball and then just back your man down. The defenses are not going to let you do that anymore. If you're going to do something down there now, you better make some awfully quick moves." Sorry, Steve, few NBA centers have "awfully quick" attached to their names. Consequently, the swarming defenses quite easily take the more representative ones out of the offense unless they are able to compensate with strength or outside shooting skill.

Consider Indiana Pacer center Steve Stipanovich. He is effective because he has the quickness and all-around athletic ability to turn himself into a perimeter-type offensive center along the lines of Laimbeer. Meanwhile, Stuart Gray and Greg Dreiling, his backups, are practically helpless against the suffocating double-and triple-teams because they are so slow.

But more aggressive team defense doesn't explain the disappearing center completely, either. Why aren't more big men learning proven center techniques such as Abdul-Jabbar-type sky hooks, or low-post moves like the ones Johnson has worked on? Sure Olajuwon is a gifted natural athlete, but isn't it strange that this immigrant from Nigeria seemed to learn more about low-post play in one year—his first in the NBA—than most young American centers learn in a lifetime? Why is it, according to Trail Blazer coach Mike Schuler, that "a lot of centers come to us and don't have the proper fundamentals"?

CHANGES IN THE PLAYER—Zone defenses are banned in the NBA because they make muck of play underneath the basket and particularly inhibit the giants who have traditionally been the pro game's greatest attractions. College coaches have to beat zones, and to do so they need face-the-basket jump shooters. And, even if they asked for volunteers to learn the classic back-to-the-basket center moves, they might not get any takers.

"Kids growing up today love to play facing the basket," says coach Morgan Wooten of DeMatha High in suburban Washington, D.C., one of the country's most respected schoolboy coaches. "A kid gets big, gets some skill, and he doesn't want to become Kareem. He wants to become a small forward or a Magic Johnson. I liken it exactly to the reason we never seem to have enough good baseball catchers. Kids don't want to put on those tools of the trade. It's tough in there, what with the defenses designed to shut off the inside. So you have a situation where, to begin with, kids aren't working hard to become skilled inside players, and, second, it's not very glamorous."

So, why don't high school coaches force their talented 7-footers to learn the classic pivotman's game? Maybe they'll be tutoring the next Abdul-Jabbar.

"Most coaches bend the system to fit the kids," says Wooten. "And the kids want to face the basket."

WHAT'S IN THE FUTURE?—And here's the way it is in the NBA: The eternal search for the "franchise" center, the man who can hoist a team on his back and carry it to the championship—the way Abdul-Jabbar did the Milwaukee Bucks in '70-71—continues unabated in many quarters. Before this season began, Portland, which in 1984 drafted Sam Bowie, a center, ahead of Michael Jordan, would have parted with the multitalented Drexler to pry Sampson loose from Houston. And Nelson gave up two All-Stars, guard Sleepy Floyd and center Joe Barry Carroll, to get Sampson (and guard Steve Harris) to Golden State two months ago. Says Cleveland general manager Embry: "I'm still convinced that you need a great center to win in this league. Basketball hasn't changed that much." That's why Embry's first move upon being hired by the Cavaliers in June 1986 was to ship Roy Hinson and $800,000 to Philadelphia for the right to draft Daugherty, Cleveland's center for the '90s.

Will the current crop of college centers help reverse the trend when they graduate to the NBA? According to Marty Blake, the NBA's chief scout, the top five pivotmen available for the draft in June are Rik Smits of Marist, Rony Seikaly of Syracuse, Will Perdue of Vanderbilt, Eric Leckner of Wyoming and Rolando Ferreira of Houston. Are those pulses still racing? The best of them is probably Smits, and no one, to date, has predicted a Rik Smits Era.

Since basketball aficionados search for centers with the intensity of ornithologists stalking the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, there is already much talk about the talented senior class of high school centers, led by Alonzo Mourning, a 6'10" smoothie from Indian River High in Chesapeake, Va., who is bound for Georgetown. Will we get our next Chamberlain, our next Russell, our next Abdul-Jabbar from that group?

Wooten certainly is a doubter. "I already know the first question a lot of these guys asked recruiters. 'Who are you going to get at center, because I want to play forward?' " he says. "I don't know who out of this class will even be a center."

As things stand now, perhaps Daugherty, with his smooth passing and heady play, will be the center of attention in the '90s. Or maybe it will be Ewing. Or perhaps Olajuwon, the best bet. Now that the long shadow of Sampson no longer constrains him, maybe Akeem will put together a few monster seasons of the old-fashioned 30-point, 20-rebound variety.

Or, it could be Robinson. Can he be an officer, a gentleman and an era?

NBA people aren't exactly bubbly about his chances. Says Detroit general manager McCloskey, "He hasn't demonstrated up to now that he's got what the great ones had." And here's a scouting report on Robinson courtesy of Rick Ma-horn, the Pistons' bullyboy power forward: "They talk about this Robinson kid, but he looks to be a finesse player who runs the floor. He's nothing like Wilt was or even like Akeem is now." Better polish up that hard hat, Ensign.

Yes, these are hard times for NBA centers, what with collapsing defenses stifling their shots and forwards who are more like tall tight ends grabbing away their rebounds. Pay heed, those who would crown David as king, and lower your expectations. Never mind asking whether Robinson will become another Chamberlain, Russell or Abdul-Jabbar. A more germane question for this center-less time is this: Will David Robinson's best ever match Walt Bellamy's?

PHOTOHY PESKIN/LIFEMIKAN (LEFT) WAS THE FIRST OF THE GIANTS. HE LED THE LAKERS TO FIVE CHAMPIONSHIPS PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.RUSSELL OFTEN GOT THE BETTER OF WILT, AND THE RECORD BOOK CERTAINLY IS PROOF POSITIVE PHOTOSHEEDY & LONGONE ERA ENDED AND ANOTHER BEGAN AFTER CHAMBERLAIN MADE WAY FOR ABDUL-JABBAR PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERWALTON MIGHT HAVE BECOME A KAREEM-LIKE LEGEND WERE IT NOT FOR HIS FOOT INJURIES TWO PHOTOSANDREW D. BERNSTEINPARISH (LEFT) AND MALONE (ABOVE) WILL LEAVE A HOST OF PRETENDERS TO THE CENTERS' THRONE, AMONG THEM SUCH RAW TALENTS AS THE KNICKS' EWING PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTS[See caption above.] PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOOLAJUWON (34) COULD TURN OUT TO BE THE BEST OF THE CURRENT CROP, WHILE HIS OLD TEAMMATE SAMPSON MAY TURN INTO ONE OF THE GAME'S BIGGEST BUSTS PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN[See caption above.] PHOTOBRIAN DRAKETHE WAVE OF THE FUTURE WILL ROLL IN WHEN ROBINSON (LEFT) MEETS DAUGHERTY AND QUITE POSSIBLY RECALLS THE GLORIOUS DAYS OF CENTERS PAST PHOTOJERRY WACHTER[See caption above.] PHOTOBRIAN DRAKEIT WILL BE A GOOD WHILE BEFORE ANYONE CASTS AS LONG A SHADOW AS ABDUL-JABBAR

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)