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Rare commodity

Only a select few appreciate the craft of shot-blocking

Posted: Wednesday January 24, 2007 5:21PM; Updated: Wednesday January 24, 2007 6:07PM
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Alonzo Mourning says timing -- not leaping ability -- is the key to blocking shots.
Alonzo Mourning says timing -- not leaping ability -- is the key to blocking shots.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
NBA's All-Time Blocked Shot Leaders
Player Blocks
Hakeem Olajuwon 3,830
x-Dikembe Mutombo 3,198
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 3,189
Mark Eaton 3,064
David Robinson 2,954
Patrick Ewing 2,894
Tree Rollins 2,542
x-Shaquille O'Neal 2,381
Robert Parrish 2,361
x-Alonzo Mourning 2,256
x-Active players
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If for some reason you ever find yourself amongst a gathering of particularly large NBA players and need to identify which ones are shot-blockers, look at their fingertips.

This advice comes from Alonzo Mourning, who holds up his own hand as evidence. "Blood blisters on the tips from hitting the backboard," he says. "They'll turn purple."

If this doesn't work, check out their pinkies. Spend a lot of time swiping at balls near the rim and, inevitably, you're going to miss the former yet hit the latter. Adonal Foyle, shot-blocking specialist for the Warriors, has dislocated his pinkie after clanging it against the iron. Mark Eaton, the former Jazz center and human skyline, once broke the little finger on his left hand when he jammed it against the bottom of the rim trying to swat a shot. Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, who was second in the league in blocks last season, hasn't tweaked any fingers but has sprained his ankle on numerous occasions upon landing awkwardly after flying in for a block. He's also hurt his back.

Not all injuries associated with the craft of shot-blocking are physical. There is also the highlight-induced damage that can be done to one's ego. "You should be ready to be on poster," says Kirilenko. "I think I got lots of posters with my face on it, trying to block somebody's dunk."

Foyle is philosophical about it. "To be a good shot-blocker, you have to stare getting dunked on in the eye almost every time," he says. "People are going to attack you at the basket and you have to be confident enough to stay in there at the last second. Because one of these days you're going to miss, and eventually you're going to miss maybe two or three times in a row and you are going to get dunked on."

Being a dunkee is part of the deal for elite shot-blockers, that rare breed of NBA player who possesses the height, timing, quickness and requisite humility to challenge the league's high-fliers and interior leviathans night after night. As I chronicled in a story in this week's magazine, they are a vanishing breed. This season, only one player -- Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal -- is averaging three blocks a game and, if the season continues at its current clip, the league is on pace to average the fewest per-team blocked shots since 1975.

"It's a dying art," says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is third on the all-time list behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo. "I don't think people get excited about playing interior defense any more."

This may be true in general, but there remains a community of devoted shot-blockers, and it practices a craft that relies on subterfuge, strategy and risk-taking. In interviewing a number of the best over the course of a month, I found most reluctant at first to speak about it, both because they didn't want to divulge the secrets of the trade (one player told me how he defended a certain point guard, then asked to retract the information, lest that player get wind of his strategy) and because they were surprised that someone was actually asking them about it.

"You want to talk about blocks?" asked Mourning at first. "Nobody talks about that."

The Bobcats' Emeka Okafor (tied for second in the league at 2.9 per game) was reticent at first but warmed to the conversation, eventually getting up and using the Charlotte training room as an impromptu imaginary court to act out his various techniques, skipping laterally and swiping at make-believe shots.

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