Posted: Wednesday January 24, 2007 5:21PM; Updated: Wednesday January 24, 2007 6:07PM
Mark Eaton (53) credits Wilt Chamberlain with helping him understand the importance of protecting the basket.
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Most grew up with a gift for it. Okafor said he was "blocking shots before I knew what a block was." Kirilenko played point guard as a boy in Russia but still averaged "probably three blocks a game." Mourning remembers violently spiking anything that came near him as a teen (he's since learned to tap the ball gently, to keep it in play). The 7-foot-4 Eaton, who still holds the single-season record with an average of 5.56 per game in 1984-85, is a different story. An aspiring auto mechanic who was persuaded to play basketball at a junior college, then sat the bench at UCLA, he was largely ineffective before reaching the pros. In the summer of 1981, while playing a pick-up game at UCLA, he received some unsolicited advice from Wilt Chamberlain, who was then in his forties but still running the floor against men half his age.
"I remember we had a guy on our team named Rocket Rod Foster, to this day the fastest guy I've ever seen," says Eaton. "He'd get to basket about the same time that I got to the top of key. So I was standing there, huffing and puffing, and I felt a large hand on my shoulder. It was Wilt. He said, 'You're never going to catch that man, first of all. Second, it's not your job to catch him. Your job is to guard the basket, then cruise up to half-court to see what's going on. Because if a quick shot goes up, you have to go back.' "
Eaton pauses. "That day, a light bulb went on. I figured out my niche in basketball. This is my house, the paint, this is where I live."
Eaton was the prototypical low-post shot-blocker. The Jazz funneled opposing players to him, allowing their own guards to gamble for steals. Today, with so many running teams, not to mention big men who can shoot threes and the defensive three-second rule, few shot-blockers can afford to stay rooted near the basket. They have to show on the pick-and-roll, cover out to the three point-line and get up and down the floor. This explains in part why blocked shots are down -- as does the trend of glorified power forwards playing center -- but Mourning thinks there are also fewer players who have the requisite desire.
"You have to want to go after it," he says. "I've seen many guys who will be in the lane and guys will be coming full speed at them and they'll just get out of the way. You're 7 feet and all you got to do is jump straight in the air and you can make him change the shot or contest it. But you got to want to do it and you got to want to feel contact. Because you're gonna run into bodies."
Secrets of the trade
Blocking shots has surprisingly little to do with leaping ability. In fact, many of the NBA's best-jumping big men are surprisingly poor shot-blockers (such as Seattle's Chris Wilcox, who averages 0.5).
"Jumping's not even important, actually," says Mourning. "It's timing. I don't care how high you jump, you got to come down with the ball. You can jump as high as you want over the rim, but you're coming down. As you're coming down, that's when I time it and I meet you at the rim."
What is important is the illusion of an easy shot. The savvy shot-blocker knows he has to entice an opponent to come to the rim. So many sit back and hide, sometimes behind teammates, hoping to flush out a point guard or an overly confident small forward.
"You got to bait them sometimes," says Okafor. "Wait till the last possible minute when they think they're safe and they'll turn their head, about to make it, and -- boom! People always comment about how fast I get there, it's like, "Where did he come from?' Usually a guard will look and when he sees you're not coming, that's when -- bam! -- he breaks for it."