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For visceral impact no block is more impressive than the one that whistles six rows deep into the stands. Of course, such spikes have minimal value. One of the first things a shot blocker is taught is to keep the ball in play (chart, right), preferably by tapping it to a teammate. Russell was a master at this, as was a later Celtic, Kevin McHale. Eaton developed soft hands by pretending he was tipping a jump ball. Mourning had to learn to rein himself in, and now, in his 14th season, he says he sometimes taps the ball too lightly, sending it back to the player who shot it. Others are naturals: Last season Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh blocked 74 shots without sending one out-of-bounds.
Another mistake is being overzealous. Flail at too many jump shots, and you're out of position for the rebound; gamble too much on the weak side, and your man will get open for a layup. Likewise, a goaltend gives away free points (Philly's Samuel Dalembert is the most egregious offender this season, with 20), and committing a shooting foul is not much better. This makes more disciplined players like Mourning (first in the league, at 2.00 blocks per shooting foul) and the Atlanta Hawks' Josh Smith (second, at 1.86) more valuable than, say, the Detroit Pistons' Nazr Mohammad, who averages 0.51.
Those who excel without fouling have varying styles. Mourning and Mutombo wait near the rim, like human gargoyles, while the Warriors' Adonal Foyle (4.45 blocks per 48 minutes in his career) and Okafor use lateral quickness and anticipation. Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, who leads the league in fast-break blocks with 11, prefers to come from behind after hiding "in the shadow of my teammate," as he puts it. Jermaine O'Neal spent the summer watching tape of Olajuwon and attributes his success this season to starting his motion with his hands up, rather than at his sides.
There is one trait that all great shot blockers share: They're willing to get dunked on. As Okafor puts it, "Sometimes you get got." All agree that it's easier to block power dunkers who expose the ball ("You start advertising, someone's gonna buy," says Okafor) and two-handed dunks (which provide a bigger target), whereas players with hang time pose the biggest challenge. Mourning, who was most famously posterized (or is it now YouTubed?) by Nets swingman Vince Carter on a ridiculous hook dunk in November 2005, calls it a necessary sacrifice. "I could care less if somebody does something spectacular that maybe puts me on the highlights," says Mourning. "Unfortunately, that particular dunk will be remembered for a very long time. But, hey, that's a part of the game."
As easy as rejecting shots comes to men like Mourning--who once blocked 27 in a high school game--it remains a confounding skill to many NBA players. To watch Bobcats center Primoz Brezec in action is to see a physiological mystery. At 7'1" and 252 pounds he rarely blocks a shot, though not for lack of effort. Last season, in 27.5 minutes per game, he averaged 0.41 blocks; this season he's up to 0.46. Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff says of Brezec, somewhat charitably, "He's more about providing a presence," but Brezec has no illusions. "I'm a terrible shot blocker," he says. "I think it's just about timing. You just have that ability or you don't. I don't."
Others choose not to go after the ball. For example, 6'11" Michael Doleac of the Heat (0.25 per game through Sunday) prefers to take a charge, as does Jason Collins of the Nets (0.37). Jason's twin brother, Jarron, a Jazz backup, is so unsuccessful at swatting shots--he averages 0.10--that he says, "I've stopped jumping altogether."
Perhaps the most docile big man is 6'11", 285-pound Eddy Curry of the Knicks. Curry has tremendous strength and leaping ability, yet he has averaged fewer than a block a game for his career and was at 0.55 at week's end. Among players who have played in at least 25 games this season, 123 are averaging more blocks per 48 minutes than Curry, including 6'4" Boston guard Delonte West. "He just doesn't make the effort," one Eastern Conference scout says of Curry. "He plays with his hands down, and he's not active defensively."
So why not instruct him? In a league that has free-throw-shooting coaches and mental coaches, there is not a single shot blocking coach. Perhaps it's because, as Lakers assistant Abdul-Jabbar says, "it's mostly instinct." Foyle believes that you can teach strategy to those who already have the knack, but you can't teach timing. Eaton, now a motivational speaker in Utah, disagrees. "I don't know why more people don't spend more time thinking about it," he says. "It can have a profound impact on the game."
Perhaps it is the desire that can't be taught. Take the game in which Okafor thwarted Moore. That wasn't the only dunk Okafor tried to block that night. In the second quarter Carter drove the right baseline and elevated. Okafor, who had earlier described exactly how he would stop a hypothetical Carter dunk--"I'd crowd him, get to him early"--came late and had no chance. Bam: instant highlight. At least Okafor tried, though. The same couldn't be said for Bobcats backup center Melvin Ely, who is 6'10", 261 pounds and a terrific leaper. In the third quarter, when Carter came flying down the lane, Ely threw up his hand and jogged under Carter, as if waving to some imaginary friend at the other end of the court. "Yeah," Okafor noted. "Mel got out of the way fast, didn't he?"
it leads one to wonder, Who will challenge the dunkers of the future? The three dominant shot blockers of this era, Mutombo, Mourning and the Celtics' Theo Ratliff (who has missed all but two games this season with back trouble), are at the tail ends of their careers. Of the remaining players with a talent for it--including Jermaine O'Neal, Okafor, Camby, the Chicago Bulls' Ben Wallace and the Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett--none are true centers. Orlando Magic 7-footer Darko Milicic is long enough but has yet to earn starter's minutes. The 7'6" Yao is hindered by short arms and has yet to average more than his current 2.22 blocks. Andrew Bynum, Abdul-Jabbar's prot�g� in Los Angeles, has excelled in limited minutes but is raw. Mourning, for one, thinks the next great swat artist has yet to enter the league. "There's going to be a bit of a void," he says. "Though I think [ Ohio State freshman] Greg Oden will be a great one. Just watching a couple games that he's played, I've seen him block dunks, and that's what I like to see. You have to have that mentality."