Retired NBA player Theo Ratliff was recently a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast. Ratliff recorded the 22nd-most blocks in NBA history and he averaged 7.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks over the course of his 16-year career. HoopsHype talked to Ratliff about his NBA career, today’s centers, playing with Allen Iverson, life after basketball and more. Listen to the interview above or read the transcribed Q&A below.
In today’s NBA, big men are being forced to evolve and the Houston Rockets are even going away from centers entirely. What are your thoughts on how the NBA is changing?
Theo Ratliff: I think the game has definitely changed. Back in my day, everything was kind of based on the big man being dominant in the post. With the evolution of analytics and their calculations that have people shooting more three-pointers and more layups and not really focusing on their mid-range game or post-ups, it has really changed the game. Plus, you have so much more open space now and you can’t armbar guys, you can’t check guys who are coming down the middle and different things of that nature. It opens up the lanes so much because they’re taking so much away as far as what the defense can do.
It makes the offense look great and you can have really small guys like Trae Young and Kemba Walker and some of the other guards you see. But back in the day, they would’ve struggled going up against Gary Payton or Michael Jordan, you know what I mean? Those guys were guarding point guards back in the day and you could hit guys a lot more. I tell these guys all the time: It was against the law if you didn’t throw an elbow before you went to get a rebound. (laughs) Now, if you throw an elbow, you get kicked out immediately. It’s so different, just the physicality of the game. But it has opened it up and it’s made it a lot easier for a lot of the common people to understand and see the game a lot better, even if it doesn’t get as physical.
What do you make of the offensive changes to the center position?
TR: It’s changed a lot. Even when I was playing, they started moving toward that. I was more of a 16-to-17-foot shooter, but now they’re pushing those guys out to the three-point line. You see that with [Brook] Lopez and some of these people you don’t even know out there shooting threes as centers and their coaches don’t even care if they miss it! If we shot outside of that 15-to-17-feet-range, we was sitting on the bench! (laughs) “That isn’t what you do!” We were supposed to battle in the post, get rebounds, set picks, roll, dunk on people and be aggressive. But it’s definitely moved more toward the outside shooting, and all of the kids – even the big kids, like my kids – all they want to do is shoot three-pointers all of the time. That’s what they want to do. With the evolution of the game and then with Golden State becoming who they are and winning championships how they play, it just kind of elevated the game into that.
You have the 22nd-most blocks in NBA history. You need to have great timing and instincts to be an elite shot-blocker. Can you teach those things or is it one of those things where you either have it or you don’t?
TR: Oh, you can definitely develop it. It’s all about muscle memory and timing and visualization. I was just talking to a guy today about how to master whatever it is that you do and it’s all about visualization – seeing things before they happen. Also, doing a lot of studying of other players and their tendencies, where the ball will be in certain offenses, who likes to drive versus who likes to post and different things in the game that help you visualize how you’re going to play against that specific opponent and where you need to be to help.
We talked about how much the game has changed, but are there any active players who sort of remind you of yourself?
TR: Yeah, I think the guy we, the Hawks, just acquired: Clint Capela. He definitely mirrors my mentality and approach to the game. He’s not a guy who really worries about being a major part of the offense, but he’s always looking to help his teammates by blocking shots and rebounding the ball.
Looking back on your career, which season was the most fun for you? Is there a single season that stands out?
TR: Yeah, the 2000-01 season [with Philadelphia]. It was kind of bittersweet because that was the year I got traded as well, but we were at the top of the league at the beginning of the season. We had the best record in the NBA at the time. I made All-Star for the first time, but I ended up breaking my hand. You know, leading in all these categories with my man Allen Iverson. Then, I ended up getting traded to the Hawks, so it was bittersweet. But it was fun all the way up until that point. (laughs)
Speaking of Allen Iverson, what was it like playing with him? And can you speak to the basketball and cultural impact that he had?
TR: You’re talking about a tremendous competitor. To this day, I still don’t know how he did the things that he did and how he was able to push through certain injuries. When he sprained his ankle, it looked like he broke his ankle, but then he’d be right back out here. His will and determination and pain tolerance was right up there with Kobe [Bryant]. He was just able to will himself to do certain things. When we were down, we knew where to go. We’d find him, he’d find the ball, and he would just take over games. Just from his leadership on the floor, that helped us be at our best. We had a lot of guys who were just kind of journeyman guys who hadn’t really stepped out and came into their own when we came over to the Sixers to play alongside him – guys like Aaron McKie, Eric Snow, George Lynch. He helped push us and elevated our game and our status as NBA players. He’s a tremendous guy, a tremendous person as well. Very giving, very family-oriented. He takes his time, even to this day, to speak to your kids and give his story and talk about what he did and the ups and downs of his life. He’s just a tremendous individual.
You defended so many star players. Who was the toughest player for you to guard?
TR: Oh man, without a doubt it was big Shaq! (laughs) He outweighed me by 100 pounds and when I had to guard that guy, I woke up a lot more sore the next day. Then, there’s a guy like Alonzo Mourning, who was just so aggressive. He really taught me how to play in the league and helped me build myself up – build my body and my strength up. [I wanted] to be able to go match-up against those kind of guys. They really pushed me. The style of the game then kind of pushed me to be in the weight room and pound dumbbells. Now, it’s more linear and resistance and people aren’t really trying to get big. I had to try to get big and strong to be able to hold my own against those 280-pound centers and that was a feat. (laughs)
What was it like for you to transition to retirement?
TR: After playing 16 years and moving around while having a family – I have four girls and had two 1-year-old sons – it was a matter of me wanting to be home more and be around my teenage girls and be “Daddy” 100 percent of the time rather than moving all around the country and flying all over the place. I was comfortable with retirement.
How nice was it to spend that additional time with your family?
TR: It was awesome because you can’t get those years back. When you’re moving around, you don’t realize until you stop. You’re like, “Okay, I’m still here. I’m still taking them to school… “ But your mind is so inundated with the game and your schedule and what you have to do, so it takes over. You don’t even recognize it until you stop. It’s just natural because you’ve done that for so long.
Right after you retired, did you ever get the itch to play again?
TR: Nah, nah. It wasn’t tough for me at all. I had moved on from it and after playing 16 years, I felt I had served myself enough. And with how the game was changing in different ways, it was time for me to make that transition.
You put out an anti-bullying children’s book called “Theo the Hero” and your foundation has done a lot of work to try to prevent bullying. When did you realize that you wanted to use your platform to spread this anti-bullying message?
TR: It’s something that’s always been close to my heart. In the book, I talk about myself and being bullied as a young kid. It’s such a big, big problem throughout the world – especially with the advent of social media. We used to say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But that’s really not true. When people say something and it’s constantly said by 10-to-15 people, or you go to social media and it’s said by thousands of people, that can be a real detriment to that particular person – especially with kids, who can be so influenced by what people say about them. That’s just a message that I try to give to the kids and the community because it turns into a lot of suicides and things of that nature, which was alarming to me as well. I just try to stay on top of that with all of the kids that I speak with.
Was being the tallest kid in the class part of why you were bullied?
TR: Yeah, I was a long and skinny guy and I was getting hand-me-downs from my older brother, who I was taller than. Now, the high-water jeans are in, but back then they weren’t! (laughs) There were just different things, growing up in a less fortunate situation. We were in the projects, so we didn’t really have the money to get the latest and the greatest stuff.
Now, seeing kids taking pictures of other kids and posting it on social media and talking about their clothes and things like that, there’s really nothing they can do about it. But they keep sitting there and checking that ridicule. It’s something that touched me. Being around kids and seeing different things, I wanted to share my story -– where I came from and making it to the NBA – because it’s invigorating to me.
That’s very cool. How much basketball do you watch these days?
TR: I’ve always been a fan of the game since I was 12 years old and that never stops. Especially once I had kids and now have twin sons who are playing, it’s something that I enjoy. I like watching every season to see how guys are growing and who’s getting better and which teams are getting better. I really enjoy watching Milwaukee and how they’re maturing. You saw it from the Pistons, the Lakers, the Celtics; everybody has to get over their hump. It takes you losing and feeling that grit to come back next year and be better, and you see that maturity from Milwaukee. And I love to see which pieces different teams are picking up and that whole aspect of the game.
What are some of your other off-court endeavors right now?
TR: One of the major projects I’m working on now is in the commodities industry, I’m trying to do some distribution of some jet fuel, oil and gas. That’s taking up a lot of my time right now. It’s a very interesting, very interesting, industry.