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Welcome To the Club, Big Guy
Richard Hoffer
November 11, 1996
From George Mikan to Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers centers have been pivotal to the pro game's evolution
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November 11, 1996

Welcome To The Club, Big Guy

From George Mikan to Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers centers have been pivotal to the pro game's evolution

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But things change, and they changed most dramatically during his career. When he left basketball, Abdul-Jabbar was the highest-salaried team player ever ($3 million a season). Mikan's wire rims had been replaced by Abdul-Jabbar's goggles, and the NBA was suddenly prime time. Abdul-Jabbar retired with a fame that, according to Lorin Pullman, the vice president of Kareem Productions, makes him a spokesman today for 14 corporations, allows him to be a guest star on several sitcoms a year and helped him get his ambitious historical study, Black Profiles in Courage (written with Alan Steinberg), published last month.

Abdul-Jabbar knows that the purity of the Mikan era's underexposed game was sacrificed as the NBA grew more popular. The dunk and the three-point shot, the game's novelty act, woke fans up. (If he were the rules czar, Abdul-Jabbar would move the line back from its current 22 feet to the previous distance, which was 23'9" at the top of the key.) "They tailored the game for the fan, made it as appetizing and telegenic as possible," says Abdul-Jabbar. "It's certainly paid off, but it's weird, too. I was in Rome recently and saw this dunking contest, and it was hilarious. They had the leg out, the tongue out—just like Michael—and then these most amazing looks of surprise when the ball didn't go in."

The game came to be all about personality—his, Jordan's, Magic's, Shaq's and so on. Mikan can and could walk the streets without being accosted by fans. On the other hand, he didn't retire from the Lakers a multimillionaire.

Of the threesome, O'Neal, a free agent who signed with L.A. on July 18 for seven years and $120 million, is the only one who came to the Lakers for a multimillion-dollar annual salary. But he was already rich and famous—a movie star from Orlando! It is his presence at this photo shoot that, in all likelihood, has drawn a crew from Entertainment Tonight. He may or may not become a title-winning center in the Lakers tradition, and he is not as complete a player as his forebears, but he is a true celebrity, famous just for being famous. The three centers trace the route from anonymity to fame, and just as future generations of Lakers centers can't have less hair than Shaq, the star of movies and video games and rap albums, they also can't have more fame. Or more of an entourage—a committee of five ushers him from appointment to appointment.

Whatever their generational differences and degrees of fame, the three Lakers are united on one point: The court should be returned to its rightful owners—the centers, the men around whom the game pivots. Basketball has not changed so much that the big man can't again dominate it. The fact that the Bulls win without an overpowering center doesn't shake the certainty of Mikan and Abdul-Jabbar that the position they played remains indispensable. "You'll always need somebody to rebound," says Mikan, who then recites the old adage: "You can't win without a good center, not in this game. And don't tell me there aren't any. Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson. The Bulls just use their center in different ways."

Similarly, Abdul-Jabbar thinks today's Bulls are an anomaly, a winner only because of the brilliance of Jordan. He isn't concerned that his old position isn't the seminal spot it used to be. Anyway, how do you account for O'Neal? He doesn't exactly line up as a point guard.

"The game changes," says Abdul-Jabbar, the historian. "The Mayans played it in ancient times, a kind of basketball, except the hoop was vertical instead of horizontal. And they'd cut out the heart of the captain of the losing team." The man the Lakers called Cap winces a little at this and then continues. "It's come a long way. In those days the winners would get all the stuff, all the other team's women, all the other team's beasts, everything." Suddenly Abdul-Jabbar hears what he's saying; he laughs at himself, realizing the game hasn't changed all that much.

And it hasn't, not really. As the photographer concludes the session, as ET calls it a wrap, as Abdul-Jabbar's person and O'Neal's people mingle and actually compare cell phones, Mikan takes O'Neal by the elbow, draws him aside and gestures quietly, making a popping motion with his wrist. The old guy's showing him a move.

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