Why? Because a guard will double down on a center whenever the ball goes into the post. Or a forward will come over to help. Or both a guard and a forward will come over, setting up a triple-team and making the center feel like he's trying to change clothes in a phone booth. "It's no longer me-against-you in there," says Abdul-Jabbar, who won a large majority of his "me-against-you" battles over the years. "You start out alone with a guy, but all teams send at least four people to the boards, sometimes five. Defenses are focused on people in the post because they're closest to the basket. That's just common sense."
Obviously, there are few easy shots in the post now. Says Portland's Johnson, a .582 lifetime percentage shooter: "You used to be able to catch the ball and then just back your man down. The defenses are not going to let you do that anymore. If you're going to do something down there now, you better make some awfully quick moves." Sorry, Steve, few NBA centers have "awfully quick" attached to their names. Consequently, the swarming defenses quite easily take the more representative ones out of the offense unless they are able to compensate with strength or outside shooting skill.
Consider Indiana Pacer center Steve Stipanovich. He is effective because he has the quickness and all-around athletic ability to turn himself into a perimeter-type offensive center along the lines of Laimbeer. Meanwhile, Stuart Gray and Greg Dreiling, his backups, are practically helpless against the suffocating double-and triple-teams because they are so slow.
But more aggressive team defense doesn't explain the disappearing center completely, either. Why aren't more big men learning proven center techniques such as Abdul-Jabbar-type sky hooks, or low-post moves like the ones Johnson has worked on? Sure Olajuwon is a gifted natural athlete, but isn't it strange that this immigrant from Nigeria seemed to learn more about low-post play in one year—his first in the NBA—than most young American centers learn in a lifetime? Why is it, according to Trail Blazer coach Mike Schuler, that "a lot of centers come to us and don't have the proper fundamentals"?
CHANGES IN THE PLAYER—Zone defenses are banned in the NBA because they make muck of play underneath the basket and particularly inhibit the giants who have traditionally been the pro game's greatest attractions. College coaches have to beat zones, and to do so they need face-the-basket jump shooters. And, even if they asked for volunteers to learn the classic back-to-the-basket center moves, they might not get any takers.
"Kids growing up today love to play facing the basket," says coach Morgan Wooten of DeMatha High in suburban Washington, D.C., one of the country's most respected schoolboy coaches. "A kid gets big, gets some skill, and he doesn't want to become Kareem. He wants to become a small forward or a Magic Johnson. I liken it exactly to the reason we never seem to have enough good baseball catchers. Kids don't want to put on those tools of the trade. It's tough in there, what with the defenses designed to shut off the inside. So you have a situation where, to begin with, kids aren't working hard to become skilled inside players, and, second, it's not very glamorous."
So, why don't high school coaches force their talented 7-footers to learn the classic pivotman's game? Maybe they'll be tutoring the next Abdul-Jabbar.
"Most coaches bend the system to fit the kids," says Wooten. "And the kids want to face the basket."
WHAT'S IN THE FUTURE?—And here's the way it is in the NBA: The eternal search for the "franchise" center, the man who can hoist a team on his back and carry it to the championship—the way Abdul-Jabbar did the Milwaukee Bucks in '70-71—continues unabated in many quarters. Before this season began, Portland, which in 1984 drafted Sam Bowie, a center, ahead of Michael Jordan, would have parted with the multitalented Drexler to pry Sampson loose from Houston. And Nelson gave up two All-Stars, guard Sleepy Floyd and center Joe Barry Carroll, to get Sampson (and guard Steve Harris) to Golden State two months ago. Says Cleveland general manager Embry: "I'm still convinced that you need a great center to win in this league. Basketball hasn't changed that much." That's why Embry's first move upon being hired by the Cavaliers in June 1986 was to ship Roy Hinson and $800,000 to Philadelphia for the right to draft Daugherty, Cleveland's center for the '90s.
Will the current crop of college centers help reverse the trend when they graduate to the NBA? According to Marty Blake, the NBA's chief scout, the top five pivotmen available for the draft in June are Rik Smits of Marist, Rony Seikaly of Syracuse, Will Perdue of Vanderbilt, Eric Leckner of Wyoming and Rolando Ferreira of Houston. Are those pulses still racing? The best of them is probably Smits, and no one, to date, has predicted a Rik Smits Era.