It is Friday night at the Rose Garden, another sparsely attended home game in a season of them for the Trail Blazers, but at least Portland is playing hard. Again and again, centers Joel Przybilla and Theo Ratliff scramble and push for rebounding position; more often than not, however, Orlando Magic forward Dwight Howard beats them to the ball. When Howard leaps, he creates a one-man skyline above the rim, rising to contort his body for a tip-in or to slap leather against palm with a majestic sweep. He accumulates boards effortlessly: six, then 10, and finally 13. Indeed, as Howard, 20, says nonchalantly, "Getting 13 rebounds a game is easy, really." The funny thing is that it may be--at least for him. ¬∂ Howard is as close as there is to the perfect rebounding specimen. Just under 7 feet, he is a muscular 265 pounds, so broad across the top that, with a T-shirt on, he could be mistaken for wearing shoulder pads. His wingspan is 7'8", his standing vertical jump 38 inches. He can kiss the rim on a dunk and says that, on two occasions, he has touched the top of the backboard. He has never known the gravitational impotence of watching a player close to his size soar above him. "He's a total freak of nature," says one Western Conference scout. "He has a feel for the ball beyond his years."
Still, as with most players, Howard spends much of his time working on his shooting, because that's where the glamour is. Rebounding is not sexy. There is no Nike Box Out VII, no Come Board with Me video--and why should there be? There's nothing glamorous about wedging your ass into another man's hip, elbowing him in the stomach, subtly anchoring his leg with your off arm and then grabbing a basketball that someone else has shot and, most likely, someone else will now requisition. Even the vernacular is utilitarian; rebounders "crash the boards" and "clean the glass" while scorers "light it up" and point guards "break ankles." "For a kid, the last thing on their mind is to watch somebody and be like, 'Man I want to rebound like him,'" says the Detroit Pistons' Ben Wallace, who at week's end led the league with 12.6 boards per game, just ahead of Howard's 12.4. "As a kid, I wanted to finish like Mike, pass like Magic, shoot like Bird and handle the ball like Zeke."
Yet elite rebounders like Wallace and Howard are rare and invaluable in the NBA. Simply put, more boards equals more possessions. (As Scottie Pippen once said of having Dennis Rodman on the Chicago Bulls, "It seemed like we were always on offense.") It's no coincidence that last season's league leaders in team rebounding differential included the Pistons (first), the Seattle Sonics (second), the Miami Heat (fourth) and the San Antonio Spurs (seventh), all of whom reached the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
To the casual observer, the task seems uncomplicated: Just go get the ball. But glass-cleaning is not that easy. As Wallace says, "It is really an art," one best understood by examining the men who excel at it as well as the giants for whom it is utterly confounding.
Thirty years ago, the league's premier rebounders routinely grabbed 15 or more per game--heck, Bill Russell averaged 22.5 during his career. Of course, the game was faster then and the shooters less accurate. "Today, it's a slow-down game, with more plays, so you don't see those numbers," says Paul Silas, who averaged 9.9 rebounds during his 16-year career. "Not too many guys are willing to make a science of it today."
The 31-year-old Wallace does. An undersized center at 6'9", he combines the best attributes of his modern predecessors: the absurd jumping ability of Charles Barkley, the craftiness of Rodman and the desire of Moses Malone, who once summed up his approach: "If there are 100 shots in a game, then I go after all of them."
In some ways, Wallace was born to the job. Growing up in White Hall, Ala., with seven older brothers, the only way he could get touches was to shag errant shots. "It was something I thought I had to do," he says. "I was under the impression that everybody went out and pursued the basketball like that, but I guess not." He guessed right. Many NBA big men today are vertical rebounders, pulling in boards only in their immediate personal space and waving their arms at balls outside it, as if trying to flag them down. Wallace plays a more lateral game, jumping to the rebound. His M.O. is to create contact--to "hit first" in hoops lingo--and carve out space, which he calls "a hole"; only then does he look for the flight of the ball. When he does jump, he has a tendency to do so with arms and legs extended like an Afro-bedecked version of Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, allowing him to simultaneously fend off would-be boarders as he snatches the ball or tips it in.
Wallace's full repertoire of tactics was on display in a November game against the Kings in Sacramento. In pursuit of boards he sneaked out of bounds along the baseline, then came back in under the basket; boxed forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim in rather than out, pushing him deep under the rim; tipped the ball from his right hand to his left, as if playing one-man keep-away; soared in for a two-hand follow dunk; and, in one motion, snagged a defensive rebound and fired a baseball pass to start a fast break. By the end of one quarter alone, Wallace had eight boards, the Pistons were up by nine, and the Kings were essentially finished.
For rebounders who don't possess Wallace's technique and trampoline hops, the keys are power and positioning. Former NBA forward Mark Aguirre, now a New York Knicks assistant, talks of "pushing the refrigerator"; that is, by turning sideways and putting his hip into an opponent--as you would in trying to move a Frigidaire--a player generates leverage.
Strategy helps, too. There are certain accepted truths (about 75% of missed baseline shots carom long on the other side of the rim, for instance) and others culled from experience. Some players, such as Chicago's linguine-limbed Tyson Chandler, take mental notes on their teammates' tendencies; for example, Ben Gordon shoots a "soft shot" perfect for follow dunks, whereas Kirk Hinrich usually misses long, creating fast rebounds. Some rebounders spin off defenders like running backs, while others use swim moves like defensive linemen. Howard says he has already learned to tap a defender on one side, then, "when they scoot to the right, I go to the left." Of course, there are other, less--how should we put it?--legal tricks. Golden State Warriors center Adonal Foyle is adept at pulling on opponents' shorts. Heat center Alonzo Mourning says, "I'll grab a guy's arm and pull it behind his back, to keep him from moving." To paraphrase the Traveling Wilburys: Anything's legal, so long as you don't get caught.
As easily as rebounding comes to Howard, there are men out there--large, athletic men--for whom it is an unnatural act. The best-known of these may be the Knicks' Eddy Curry, who is 6'11" and 285 pounds but has never averaged more than 6.7 rebounds. Mark Blount of the Boston Celtics presents an even bigger puzzle. At 7 feet and 250 pounds, with thick shoulders, he should devour rebounds. Instead he often seems to jump in slightly the wrong direction. At week's end Blount was averaging 4.5 rebounds in 29.3 minutes. To understand how remarkable that is, consider that there were 225 players at week's end, who had a better rebounding rate per 48 minutes than Blount, including 6'1" Moochie Norris of the Houston Rockets and 6-foot Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets. When Blount recently pleaded for more shots, Celtics coach Doc Rivers told the Boston Herald, "The next time someone asks for touches, tell him to go get the freaking rebound."
Maybe, however, it isn't Blount's fault. Jim O'Brien revealed in an online exchange that when he was Boston's coach from 2001 until January '04, the team conducted a study on Blount, bringing in C.M. Newton, a former Kentucky athletic director and Celtics consultant. Newton's conclusion, according to O'Brien: Blount doesn't have "the instinct" to rebound. That underscored what many believe to be true: Because timing and quick-jumping and a space-consuming rump are difficult assets to acquire, you're either a rebounder or you're not, no matter how many tricks of the trade you learn. "It's consistent," says Dallas Mavericks assistant Del Harris. "Guys will become better shooters, that's been proven. But you hardly ever take a guy who's been a nonrebounder and [make him into] a legit rebounder in the league."
But what exactly is a "legit rebounder"? Traditional stats can be misleading; grabbing a defensive board off a missed free throw is much less important than coming up with a tip-in. "There are certain kinds of rebounding that are undervalued," says Daryl Morey, senior vice president of operations for the Celtics and one of the foremost practitioners of quantitative analysis in the NBA. "What you're looking for is a rebounder who increases the percentage [of available rebounds] that the team is getting rather than the raw number." (See chart.)
Which brings us back to Howard, whose rebounding has a profound effect on the Magic. Through Sunday, Orlando was 14.0 points better per 48 minutes when Howard was on the court, and the team had pulled down 52.1% of available rebounds with him versus 50.0% without. His rebounding average--which included 3.5 offensive boards--was even more impressive considering that the Magic has attempted the league's third-fewest field goals per game.
Howard's frontcourt mate Tony Battie believes the second-year man "could end up with 30 in a game." A more reasonable goal might be to average 15 in a season, a mark only three players have reached since 1982-83: Rodman (who did it five times), Kevin Willis (in '91-92) and Wallace (in 2002-03). Howard is a prime candidate; he has the requisite mix of instinct, desire and athleticism. He doesn't foul out often, isn't an offensive liability (the hindrance for specialists like Fortson and his Sonics' teammate Reggie Evans) and is well-conditioned. Says Orlando assistant Mark Bryant, "Once he learns to sit down on people [box out on an opponent's knees], I don't think there's going to be anybody"--Bryant pauses and frowns emphatically-- "I know there won't be anybody in the league who can stop him."
"I think I can average 15," Howard says softly, sitting at his locker. "It could happen next year." Mulling the prospect he becomes animated. "Yeah, that'd be cool," he says, smiling. "To get 15. Or why not 16?"
It is an unlikely scenario: a future NBA star, a man seemingly destined for offensive greatness ruminating upon the joys of rebounding, that most pedestrian of NBA duties. It is almost enough to make one believe that Wallace is on to something when he says, half-jokingly, "I think I may have made rebounding cool again."
NBA Insider Marty Burns fills out his All-Star ballot this week at SI.com/NBA.
One measure of a player's impact on the boards is what percentage of rebounds his team gets when he's on the court versus off it. According to 82games.com, these are the big men (who have played at least 60% of their team's minutes) with the best rebounding differentials this season, through last Friday.
1. Boris Diaw (above, 3), Suns +6.9%
2. Kevin Garnett, T-Wolves +6.2%
3. Brad Miller, Kings +5.4%
4. Lamar Odom, Lakers +3.6%
5. Dwight Howard, Magic +3.5%
1. Zach Randolph, Blazers +8.4%
2. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cavaliers +5.7%
3. Brad Miller, Kings +3.4%
4. Udonis Haslem, Heat +1.9%
5. Ben Wallace, Pistons +1.6%
After becoming the youngest player to average 10 rebounds last season, Howard--who can touch the top of the backboard--is hauling in 12.4 per game this season. Could a lofty 15 per game be within his reach?
Wallace makes up for his height disadvantage with a relentlessness he forged battling seven older brothers.
A study of Blount conducted by the Celtics a few years ago concluded that the 7-footer lacked rebounding instincts.