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Searching the shadows for centers
by Tim O'Sullivan / June 25, 2002

The apparent lack of centers isn't for a lack of trying discover one. In just the past two years, general managers have drafted foreign giants like Iakovos "Jake" Tsakalidis, high school giants like Eddy Curry and foreign-born, high school giants, like DeSagana Diop. If you are 7-feet tall, you always get a chance. Just ask Yinka Dare.

With Shaquille O'Neal leading the Lakers to their third straight championship, teams have become even more desperate for a quality pivot man that could maybe, hopefully, God willing, put a cramp in Shaq's gargantuan style. So desperate, in fact, that millions of dollars are lavished on players like Diop, who have very little experience, but very big height measurements.

So desperate that centers like Curtis Borchardt from Stanford, Melvin Ely from Fresno State and UCLA's Dan Gadzuric will be high first round picks in this year's draft despite the fact that Ely can be lackadaisical on the
court, Gadzuric is often out of control and Borchardt never dominated the game like he should have.

Perhaps the most damning proof of GM's lust for height came in the 1996 draft. At No. 10, Indiana selected Erick Dampier, Golden State went with Todd Fuller at No. 11 and Cleveland took Vitaly Potapenko at No. 13. Those teams knew none of the three was going to dominate, but they just couldn't pass on the prospect of height and the potential of size. Instead, they passed on Kobe Bryant, who was taken by the Lakers at No. 13.

There is also something about a towering figure that contributes to the entertainment/spectacle aspect of the NBA. Big big men get the audience to "oohh" and "ahhh." Even if they can't pay, they still look good in in the team picture, in warm-ups and at the airport. And so many of these visual spectacles come complete with seductive stage names: Cherokee Parks, Priest Lauderdale, Acie Earl, "Big Country" Reeves. An NBA team without a skyscraper center is like a circus without any clowns.

So with scouts mining 7-footers out of river beds, foothills and mountain ranges across the globe, why haven't any panned out? One possible reason is lack of motivation. "No desire, lack of intensity" is a very common criticism of centers. If you are anywhere near 7-feet, chances are you didn't have to work very hard in high school or college to dominate. And if you're that tall, you know teams will always give you a second or third chance. With 7-0 on your resume, it's easy to make millions without trying, just ask Pervis Ellison, Benoit Benjamin and Chris Washburn.

Or maybe we can't see just how good the centers of today are because they have to play in the ominous shadow of Shaq. Doesn't Tim Duncan's skill and efficiency make him comparable to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Hasn't Alonzo Mourning shown us enough heart that we can mention him in the same breath with Willis Reed? The big problem is, they just can't compete with Shaq.

And Shaq wouldn't even appear so dominant if Robert Horry hadn't picked up that loose ball and swished a 3-pointer against Sacramento in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Or if the Portland Trail Blazers hadn't folded in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. If those things hadn't happened, we might be talking abut Vlade Divac and Arvydas Sabonis as O'Neal's rivals rather than as his fodder.

Truthfully, for the past 40 years the NBA has only had two dominant centers per decade anyway. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in the 1960's, Kareem and Bill Walton in the late '70's and early '80's and Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon in the late 80's early '90's. So maybe we're only short one dominant center, and not missing a league full of quality pivots. And maybe we should consider Duncan, this year's MVP, to be that other dominant post force. And maybe it seemed like the league used to be full of more big men because there were fewer teams. And maybe the next great big man is right around the corner, ready to perpetuate the ten-year cycle.

All of these maybes lead us to Wednesday's draft and Yao Ming. At 7-5, 295 pounds, Ming looks like the prototype center of the future, but so did Shawn Bradley.

"He's not like Shawn Bradley," David Benoit told the New York Post. Benoit, a former NBA player, played with Ming on the Shanghai Sharks this past season.

"He's the exact opposite. If anything, he's more like Shaq. He's not a 7-5 stiff. He can really move. He's got great feet." Whether or not Ming pans out, the endless, global quest for big men will continue. In this year's draft some teams will take a chance on Maybyner "Nene" Hilario, a 6-10, 250-pound player from Brazil who has drawn
comparisons to a young Hakeem.

And if none of these big men can fill even their own shoes, there's always next year, when 6-10, 260-pound, Kendrick Perkins will be a senior at Ozen High School in Beaumont, Texas and Pape Sow, born in Dakar, Senegal, will have had another year of experience at that basketball powerhouse, Cal State Fullerton.

Tim O'Sullivan is a staff writer at the Concord (NH) Monitor and a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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