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Sultan of Swat Theo Ratliff has gone from awkward child to the NBA's most intimidating shot blocker

Feb. 12, 2001
Feb. 12, 2001

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Feb. 12, 2001

Sultan of Swat Theo Ratliff has gone from awkward child to the NBA's most intimidating shot blocker

So what if you're a skinny, goofy, long-legged kid with two left
feet and the confidence of a hubcap? That's no reason not to meet
Theo Ratliff. Aw, don't be shy. Sure, Theo is a rich, handsome,
muscular 6'10" All-Star center for the Philadelphia 76ers, and
you're a pizza-faced geek with an aphid collection. It's O.K. if
you're intimidated. Completely understandable.

This is an article from the Feb. 12, 2001 issue

Just stop hyperventilating for a second and listen. See, Theo,
the NBA's 27-year-old shot-blocker supreme, used to be just like
you. No, no, he didn't collect any friggin' aphids, but guess
what? When Theo was a seventh-grader in Demopolis, Ala., he was
cut from the junior high basketball team. When he was a
sophomore, he was cut from the Demopolis High varsity. When he
was a junior his prom date was Vickie Jackson--his cousin.

What do the popular kids call you? Geeko? Aphid Boy? That's
nothing. Imagine your name is Theophalus and you live in
Demopolis. Camillia Ratliff, Theo's sweeter-than-Pez mother,
found the inspiration for the name in Luke 1:3 (Theophilus)
because it sounded important. "Never thought about it rhyming,"
she says. "Honest to goodness."

Being Theophalus of Demopolis was bad enough, but how about some
of the things he was called? Grasshopper. Giraffe. Spider.
Toothpick. Why, when Theo was a tyke, he had to wear a brace on
his right leg to keep his knees from knocking. Even after it came
off, gawky Theo would routinely trip over his own feet. "I have a
videotape of one of his early games and that sucker's funny,"
says Luke Hallmark, Theo's junior high and high school coach,
who's still a close friend. "He didn't play until the end, but he
must've fallen five or six times."

Think you've got it tough? Theo Ratliff suffered through all the
crap you're facing and then some. Theo barely knows his father;
he only saw him once or twice a year during his childhood.
Demopolis is a town of 7,500 in the western part of the state,
and the big thing to do is hang out in the McDonald's parking lot
off Route 80. Theo grew up in the projects, about as poor as poor
gets. When he and his brothers, Thaddius and Timothy, were
little, Camillia's main source of income was a minimum-wage job
sewing $1 panties at the Vanity Fair factory. "We always had a
meal at night," says Thaddius, who's 29. "But it's not like extra
money was sitting around for fun. We struggled."

When the Ratliff boys wanted to play ball, they scavenged the
streets of Demopolis for a tire rim to nail to a tree behind the
projects. The rim was hung as high as the longest arm could
reach. No nets, no backboards and no dunking allowed. Don't think
the boys were playing with out-of-the-box Spaldings, either.
"There was a lot of glass and nails and bottles, so the balls
would always burst," says Theo. "When we didn't have a
basketball, we'd use a volleyball or a soccer ball. When all we
had was a ball with a hole in it, we wouldn't dribble. We'd pat
the ball like we were dribbling--pat, pat, pat, pat. You did what
you could."

You're looking at Theo sort of funny-like. You're wondering if
this is all legit. You're wondering if the man standing in front
of you--the one averaging 12.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and a
league-leading 3.77 blocks at week's end for the team with the
best record in the NBA--was truly as sad and pathetic as you are.
Mainly, you're wondering how he did it. How he escaped. How he
conquered. How he earned a seven-year contract worth $57.5
million before last season and a starting spot in place of the
ailing Alonzo Mourning on the East team for this Sunday's
All-Star Game in Washington.

Good news, Aphid Boy. The answer is simple. Theophalus of
Demopolis worked his bony butt off. Every day, while his friends
and brothers were playing tag and baseball and football, Theo
would dribble up and down the street, up and down the street, up
and down the street. Left, right, left, right. He would watch
Brad Daugherty and North Carolina battle Mark Alarie and Duke on
television, studying every move. Yeah, he was built like a pogo
stick, but in his mind--in his heart--Theo knew he was a basketball
player. "It would be 100 degrees at noon in the middle of summer,
and he'd be outside on a court by himself, shooting," says
Thaddius. "He'd come strolling in after dark with a ball under
his arm."

Hallmark cut Theo from the junior high team as a seventh-grader,
then changed his mind and played him sparingly. "He was like a
deer on ice," says Hallmark. "He had a tiny upper torso, and his
coordination didn't exist. I'll tell you, though, the kid never
gave up."

Think you're never going to develop, kid? So did Theo. But as he
got older, things started changing. He was 6 feet as a high
school freshman, 6'3" as a sophomore, 6'5" as a junior and 6'7"
as a senior. Still, it's not as if the world was clamoring for
Theo Ratliff. As a junior he was contacted by zero Division I
colleges. Heck, he was only the fourth-best high school big man
within an 80-mile radius, well behind Linden High's Roy Rogers,
Francis Marion High's Alonzo Johnson and Sylacauga High's Willie
Jones--all of whom received scholarships to SEC schools. Theo was
on a Greyhound bus straight to the NAIA, no question.

Then something happened. The summer before Theo's senior year,
Camillia saved a little cash and sent her son to the University
of Alabama's weeklong basketball camp. He wasn't the strongest
player or the tallest player or the smoothest player, but we all
get lucky sometimes, kid. Gary White, then an assistant coach at
Wyoming, spotted Theo at the camp, found out he was available and
called up Benny Dees, the Cowboys' coach, who's now a farmer in
Lyons, Ga. "Gary said there was this big ol' skinny kid down in
'Bama who could block shots like you wouldn't believe and could
run like a deer," Dees recalls.

See, Camillia believes everybody's got a gift. "I used to tell my
boys, 'Find something you do, and do it as well as you can
possibly do it,'" she says. "If that's chemistry, then be the
best chemist you can be. If that's street cleaning, clean the
streets until they're crystal clear."

For Theo Ratliff, the gift was blocking shots. Just look at those
Mr. Fantastic arms and Big Bird legs. He left Wyoming in 1995
ranked second in NCAA history with 425 career rejections, and he
finished third in the NBA in blocks in each of the past two
seasons. Much like Bill Russell in his heyday, Theo isn't so much
a hulking presence in the middle as a sleek, out-of-nowhere ball
hawk. He likes to play deep under the basket, emerging just when
an opponent thinks he has an open look. Then--swat!--he does his
thing. Against the Nets in New Jersey last month, he blocked
three shots by Stephon Marbury, all off-balance drives that more
mountainous centers would never have been agile enough to adjust
to and reach.

Right now, Theo's probably the leading candidate for the NBA's
Defensive Player of the Year award. "When I foul someone who has
a lane to the basket, that drives Theo crazy," says Sixers
reserve center Todd MacCulloch. "He'll say, 'C'mon, let the guy
go through. I'm back here waiting for him.' Theo's the most
graceful, most artistic shot blocker there is."

Hey, hey--don't start getting down again, thinking Theo's
naturally gifted at blocking basketballs and you're naturally
gifted at blocking spitballs. Remember, he spent four seasons
grinding it out at Wyoming, the first two mostly in misery on the
bench. He even thought of transferring. Things changed during his
junior season, when a new coach, Joby Wright, introduced Ratliff
to the weight room. Seven years later, Theo is a sturdy 225
pounds, and lifting is a regular part of his workout. "We made
him stronger, but we also tried to expand his game," says Wright,
now a coach for the Harlem Globetrotters. "We worked with him on
shooting jumpers, on making moves from the wings."

By the end of his senior season Ratliff was a stud. He averaged
14.4 points and 7.5 rebounds and made the All-WAC team for the
second time. "When Theo entered school, he was nothing," says
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Reggie Slater, who played with
Ratliff for one season at Laramie. "When he exited, he was a
force."

The day Theo was drafted, in 1995, Camillia rented a conference
room at the Best Western in Demopolis so everyone could watch
David Stern call his name. When the Detroit Pistons selected him
18th, you would have thought a bomb went off, there was so much
yelling and crying. "My dream came true," says Theo. "I guess my
town's dream came true, too."

All that happiness soon turned to misery; Theo's 2 1/2 years
with the Pistons were pure frustration. Although he led the team
in blocked shots in his first two seasons, he failed to earn the
trust of coach Doug Collins, who sat him behind Don Reid, the
last pick in '95. "No disrespect toward Don, but I felt I
should've started, and I wasn't even playing," says Ratliff, who
averaged 5.4 points in 175 games (only 52 of them starts) in
Detroit. "I knew I was the best big man the team had. I wasn't
arrogant about it. I just knew."

Theo responded to all that misery with more sweat. He worked as
hard as anyone on the Pistons. He approached scrimmages with
game-time intensity. He pouted but only over the phone to Wright
and to his mother. "Theo never got his head too far down," says
Sixers guard Aaron McKie, one of Ratliff's teammates in Detroit.
"He would play well when he got the opportunity, then--for some
reason--he wouldn't get a chance the next night. But he kept
working."

As Camillia had promised, dedication paid off. On Dec. 18, 1998,
Ratliff, McKie and a conditional first-round pick were sent to
Philadelphia for disgruntled guard Jerry Stackhouse (SI, Jan. 22,
2001), center Eric Montross and a first-rounder. Sixers coach
Larry Brown immediately named Theo a starter, and he's been in
the lineup ever since. "The best thing is, he's such a great
athlete, there are areas he can improve on," says Brown. "He can
be a better offensive player. He can rebound more. The sky's the
limit."

If anyone knows that's true, it's Theo. He and his family have
risen from the depths of poverty. Thaddius is a chemist in
Smiths, Ala. Timothy, who's 26, played football at Tennessee
State, graduated and is a financial planner in Atlanta. Camillia,
who dropped out of Alabama A&M when she was pregnant with
Thaddius, earned her associate degree from Concordia in 1990 and
her B.A. from Stillman in '93. She serves as the director of a
social services program for the elderly.

Theo's married now, with three daughters. "My mom would never let
us quit," says Theo. "She always taught us the importance of
sticking with it, even when times are tough. We didn't just hear
her, we watched her. I know what to do because she led the way.
She showed us that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish
the world. No matter where you're from and what you're up
against."

You hear that, kid? Did you hear that?

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JAMES PORTO COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANSCOLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Upward mobility Ratliff's post-up game is steadily improving.

Fear of Rejection

With a career average of 2.54 blocked shots at week's end, Theo
Ratliff ranked 12th on the alltime list. This season he has
swatted a career-high 3.77 shots per game, making him tops in
that department by a greater percentage than any other leader in
a major statistical category. --David Sabino

LEADER SECOND PERCENT LEAD

BLOCKS
Theo Ratliff, Shawn Bradley,
76ers 3.77 Mavericks 3.06 23.2%

REBOUNDS
Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O'Neal,
Hawks 14.1 Lakers 12.8 10.2%

FIELD GOAL SHOOTING
Shaquille O'Neal, Bonzi Wells,
Lakers .571 Trail Blazers .528 8.1%

ASSISTS
Jason Kidd, John Stockton,
Suns 9.7 Jazz 9.2 5.4%

3-POINT SHOOTING
Jud Buechler, John Stockton,
Pistons .525 Jazz .507 3.6%

STEALS
Allen Iverson, Terrell Brandon,
76ers 2.43 T-Wolves 2.36 3.0%

SCORING
Kobe Bryant, Jerry Stackhouse,
Lakers 29.9 Pistons 29.6 1.0%

FREE THROW SHOOTING
Steve Nash, Reggie Miller,
Mavericks .924 Pacers .921 0.3%

"I used to tell my boys, 'Find something you do, and do it as
well as you possibly can,'" says Theo's mom.