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WHERE ARE THEY?
Jack McCallum
February 22, 1988
The once dominant NBA center has all but disappeared
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February 22, 1988

Where Are They?

The once dominant NBA center has all but disappeared

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It's odd: Teams get taller and taller, yet the dominant players, more and more, are the smaller, all-around "versatiles," the ones who play everywhere except center—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Fat Lever, Harper, Alvin Robertson.

Ah, but perhaps the center position will once again take center stage when Ensign David Robinson enters the league, probably for the 1989-90 season. Assuming that he can beat out the Three Amigos currently manning the pivot for the San Antonio Spurs—Frank Brickowski, Petur Gudmundsson and Kurt Nimphius—we will see a center who seems to have the classic tools. Robinson is 7'1", he plays with his back to the basket (though he can also face up and run the floor), he shoots a hook shot and a turnaround jumper, he dunks, he rebounds, he blocks shots.

"Maybe Robinson will be the one," says Willis Reed, the former Knicks center who's now an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings. "He's certainly the only guy with a realistic chance. It's very slim pickings beside him."

Not everyone accepts the premise that good centers are disappearing, however. "If there are players that easy, where are they?" asks Olajuwon. "I want to play them." Says Sacramento coach Bill Russell, considered by many to be the best center ever to play the game: "There never were more than three dominant centers at a time. I know when I played, the only other center that dominated was Wilt [Chamberlain]." Atlanta coach Mike Fratello agrees. "I think people might be pushing alarm buttons saying that the end of an era is at hand," says Fratello. "What era? We had three or four really great big men, and the whole rest of the so-called big-men era might be a myth."

There is some truth to that. The history of the NBA to this point can be divided into three distinct eras, all dominated by centers: the George Mikan Era from 1948 (his first year in the NBA) to 1954 (his last productive season); the Chamberlain-Russell Era from 1956 (Russell's first year) to 1969 (Russell's last); and the Abdul-Jabbar Era, which began in 1969 and ended sometime in the early '80s when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird started the era of the do-everything player. Moses had a few dominant seasons but not enough to define an era. Bill Walton might have been the center to take over for Abdul-Jabbar and rule through the mid-'80s, but his foot injuries—sadly—turned that into mere speculation. There was no Walt Bellamy Era.

And, to be sure, even those who do feel that good centers are vanishing are hardly pushing panic buttons. The game is better than ever, more entertaining than ever. Watching Magic Johnson run is certainly more aesthetically pleasing than watching Bells toil.

Still, something is missing without those colorful pivotmen of old. Run them through that 8-mm film loop in your mind: Mikan, the late Neil Johnston, Clyde Lovellette, Arnie Risen, Harry Gallatin and Johnny (Red) Kerr. Then, along came Wayne Embry. Followed by Bellamy and Zelmo Beaty. Followed by Nate Thurmond and Reed. In the '70s, Abdul-Jabbar wasn't all alone; there were Gilmore, Wes Unseld, Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier and Elvin Hayes, not to mention Moses and Walton, one with a face of stone, the other with a ponytail and headband. Says Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey, ticking off some of those names: "I don't think Pat Ewing is in a class with those guys."

It's not so much the pivotman's scoring that's missing—aside from Mikan, Johnston, Wilt, Kareem and Bob McAdoo, centers have never really dominated NBA scoring lists. Still, in only two seasons (1958-59 and '83-84) has a center not been among the top 10 scorers, and that could happen this season. No, the big difference is on the boards. During the first four decades of the NBA, forwards and guards, for the most part, went up for a rebound only at their own risk. Cleaning glass was a job for Windex and centers. There were a few exceptions, such as Dolph Schayes, Bob Pettit and Maurice Stokes, forwards in centers' bodies, who could rebound with most of the pivotmen in the '50s. So could Oscar Robertson, the Big O, who in '61-62 became the first guard to sneak into the top 10 in rebounding (he was eighth with a 12.5 average).

And now? The 7-foot Ewing makes $3 million per year to average about one more rebound per game than Denver's Lever, a 6'3" guard, or three fewer rebounds per game than Barkley, a 6'4½" forward.

Attention, centers—what gives? Are you going the way of the dinosaur? Or is there a center shortage in our country right now, just as we have a teacher shortage or a doctor shortage from time to time?

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