The NBA I Grew Up Watching: When Centers Ruled the League
The NBA’s rapid evolution into a positionless game within the past five years has changed basketball forever.
This development offers a more open floor and skillful game that showcases players’ otherworldly athleticism through off-the-ball movement, teamwide defensive switching concepts and by stretching defenses horizontally with long-range shooting way past the arc.
Even with such positive changes favoring taller guards and wings, fans and media alike might forget the roots that made the game so enjoyable once upon a time. For me and many others, we became NBA fans when centers still ruled the League through brute force.
Sure, there were still plenty of good little guys then, and Dan O’Brien gave a shoutout to the shorter guards who impacted the game during the 1990s:
But big men over 7-feet tall played an enormous role during my early fandom of the same era, dominating as two-way beasts utilizing size and skill to subdue hapless opponents. They were doing as the best bigs before them had done for nearly 40 years.
Centers should never be forgotten, even though their place might be threatened and/or evolutionized as the game stretches further away from the post.
Here are three 5s that I loved watching as a kid. The more I think about how they balled out, I’ve come to appreciate that they also possessed traits that would translate just fine in today’s NBA.
The Shaq Attack
Shaquille O’Neal definitely ruled. He was my favorite player outside the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty.
Shaq Daddy had it all: size, speed, skill and a strong swagger. Standing 7’1” and weighing 325 pounds (when in shape), Shaq just bullied opponents straight up.
No defender was safe. Not even the hoops!
The biggest prospect since Patrick Ewing, Diesel unjustly missed becoming a member of the legendary Dream Team in 1992. Coaches picked college hoops pariah Christian Laettner instead due to being a better “fit.” (In all seriousness, Laettner was the more accomplished collegiate player and certainly looked like he’d be a fine pro. But it still boggles the mind that he was seen as the better choice than Shaq.)
After the Dream Team snub, Shaq unleashed his frustration on the unsuspecting League following the Orlando Magic picking him No. 1. He helped them win 20 more games by averaging 23.4 ppg, 13.9 rbg, and 3.5 bpg as well as running away with the Rookie of the Year honors.
The future Big Aristotle formed a strong duo with Magic Johnson-esque point guard Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, leading the Magic to three straight playoff appearances. Penny helped Shaq realize his full potential by building a strong pick-and-roll relationship with the big man, feeding the nimble baller on the break for some sick alley-oops.
No. 32 gave Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls a run for their money, besting them in the 1995 NBA playoffs before Jordan went nuclear on them the following year. Shaq still spotted a victory over the GOAT before my first NBA All-Star Game in 1996.
The ’96 Eastern Conference Finals shellacking by the Bulls led Shaq to become the biggest free-agent acquisition of all time (before LeBron James a decade later), inking a nine-figure covenant with the Los Angeles Lakers. Teaming up with another great, Kobe Bryant, the duo eventually led the Lakers to a threepeat that filled the vacuum of Jordan’s second retirement.
This video of Shaq’s Lakers years shows he could do it all: run the break, catch lobs, rebound and block shots, maneuver around defenders in the post, explode from the top of the key for a thunderous dunk, and even execute some nifty inferior passes.
He was so big and powerful that the mixtape’s horns don’t give him proper justice!
Larry Bird took crap from no one, but a Prime Shaq scared the living daylights out of Indiana Pacers coach in the 2000 NBA Finals. Superman ate Larry Legend’s Pacers for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Game 1 with a monstrous 43 points on 21 of 31 shooting, 19 boards, four dimes and three rejections en route to a 104-87 smackdown.
The Pacers fouled him relentlessly in Game 2 to activate the Hack-a-Shaq strategy, a last-ditch effort to slow the big man down due to his abysmal free-throw shooting. Shaq shot a record 39 free throws, draining 18 of them.
Even this didn’t slow No. 34 down as he earned 40 points on 11 of 18 shooting, 24 boards, four assists and three blocks in a 111-104 purple-and-yellow win.
Shaq Daddy dominated the League as its best player during his Lakers years.
Writers’ bias of Shaq playing with Kobe, injury and bad conditioning habits prevented him from racking up multiple MVPs despite Diesel earning a 28.9 Player Efficiency Rating, 97.0 Win Shares and 44.2 Value Over Replacement Player from 1996-2004. (For all those Kobe stans out there, the Black Mamba collected 22.3 PER, 73.6 WS and 31.0 VORP during that same time.)
Shaq Fu didn’t always play nice with Kobe (and vice versa), so the Lakers mistakenly traded him to the Miami Heat for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and a future first-round draft choice (Jordan Farmar in the 2006 draft) in 2004.
This wasted Kobe’s monster years while Diesel chugged along with an emerging Dwyane Wade. Wade and Shaq won the 2006 Finals after trailing 2-0 over a heavily favored Dallas Mavericks featuring a prime Dirk Nowitzki.
Shaq should’ve won the 2004-05 MVP as he possessed a higher PER (27.0 to 22.0), WS (11.0 to 10.9) and VORP (4.6 to 4.4) over voters’ favorite Steve Nash.
Even though he slowed down in his last five years and began bouncing around the league, Shaq still put up numbers and was generally effective.
His prime remains one of the most dominating stretches by any player in NBA history, and he was as singularly devastating as any center who has ever played.
Another monster center who stole this young basketball fan’s heart, the great Dikembe Mutombo possessed a tough physicality in the paint and swatted basketballs into the stands.
I (millions more) emulated his famous finger wag in pickup and even video games.
Mutombo came into the NBA as a 25-year-old rookie who got a late start in his basketball career. He played soccer and participated in martial arts as a kid. He didn’t play basketball until his last year of high school because he thought it was boring. However, he quickly made a name for himself at Georgetown University with fellow big man Alonzo Morning based on tough defense and shot-blocking.
The 7’2”, 245-pound Congolese baller stands as one of the best defenders of all time. He was someone who could go one-on-one, cover the weak side, provide excellent help defense, flash and recover while guarding multiple positions.
Mutombo won an astounding four Defensive Player of the Year Awards (1995, 1997-1998, 2001) and made the All-Defensive Team six times. In 1994, he willed his No. 8-seed Denver Nuggets over Shawn Kemp and the No. 1 Seattle SuperSonics in one of the all-time NBA Playoff upsets with 31 series blocks.
Dikembe owned the paint and everyone knew the risks of trying to mess with him.
His fearsome shot-blocking (and equally dangerous elbows) resulted in eight seasons of three or more blocks per game. Deke provided a block party each and every night, swatting a staggering 3,289 career shots!
Rim protection came at a premium, especially back in those 90s and early 00s’ grindy, low-scoring basketball games. This video showcases how Deke instinctively hedged drives, got into good defensive position, blocked a shot and then quickly recovered to block another. (And keep in mind that the Houston Rockets rejections featured here are from when he was 38 and older.)
Mutombo wasn’t scared of anybody and even ribbed MJ during the 1997 All-Star Game that he never dunked over Mt. Mutombo. Though he enjoyed giving Air Jordan the finger wag, MJ made him pay for it. (Then again, he made many greats look bad from time to time.)
Mutombo continued to dominate through the 90s in those fly Atlanta Hawks threads. His offensive game would translate well today as a great dunker.
His superior footwork from soccer allowed him to spin off a defender in the post and zoom to the basket or get a reliable hook shot off. He quietly averaged more than 10 ppg in 11 seasons.
The Philadelphia 76ers needed to give Allen Iverson some help, and they looked no further than nabbing a 35-year-old Dikembe. He could still bring it, as his 3.4 bpg in the second round against Vince Carter’s Toronto Raptors flipped a razor-thin close series.
After retiring, Mutombo’s presence continues through Basketball Without Borders and other charitable endeavors.
salute The Admiral
Many basketball media and fans rightfully give Tim Duncan his props, but so many are forgetting the San Antonio Spurs’ first great big man, David Robinson.
Before Duncan, Robinson was Spurs basketball. He keep the franchise going for years after taking over the best player mantle from legendary scorer George “Iceman” Gervin (1973-85). Robinson handed those reins over to Duncan (1997-2016) for a smooth transition.
Robinson appealed to me with his strength (dude was cut), military-like hair cut, no-nonsense demeanor on the court and… Let’s be honest, he was fun to play on NBA Live if someone nabbed the Bulls.
The Admiral served in the Navy for two years despite being drafted. My mom, Cathy, admired him for sticking with his military service and… he just looked good in the silver and black No. 50.
The 7’1”, 235-pound center won a Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1991-92 and led the League in defensive WS three times. He collected 2,954 blocks and more than 300 in a season three times.
He possessed great feel in the paint, rolling off bigs to register nasty dunks one after another. He simply could catch darts from the perimeter before slamming it home in one smooth motion.
His great conditioning allowed him to run the floor in transition and posterize poor souls before Blake Griffin’s time. His superior mid-range game with his pump fake, turnaround jumper and hook shots stretched the floor for that era. He even put the ball on the floor like a guard from time to time, blowing past other frontcourt players.
These skills served him well when he stole the 1993-94 scoring title from Shaq by pouring in 71 points. Not even MJ did that!
This highlight video above from 1:54-2:31 demonstrates The Admiral’s two-way dominance. The Los Angeles Clippers’ point guard goes outside-in to the roll man for an apparent easy deuce. D-Rob recovers and knocks the stuffing out of him.
The block leads to a fastbreak where Robinson shows the blockee how it’s done. He then proceeds the next possession to easily swat a baseline cut like an annoying fly. Talk about not giving your opponents any hope!
Advanced stats say D-Rob should’ve won a 1993-94 MVP over his rival Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon (30.7 to 25.3 PER, 20.0 to 14.3 WS, and 11.4 to 7.3 VORP), meaning he would equal Duncan’s two MVPs.
Robinson’s biggest impact probably was mentoring Duncan, passing that torch as a franchise player. The duo formed the famous Twin Towers where they brought the Spurs’ first two titles to San Antonio (1999 and 2003) and set the tone for its extended run of excellence thereafter.
The always stellar NBA on NBC interviewed Robinson during halftime of Game 2 of the 1999 NBA Finals where his sense of service, community, love of craft and leadership qualities shine through.
Centers Still Have a Place
I’m as much of a fan as the next person of pace-and-space positionless basketball. This democratizes the game so teams can draw from a larger talent pool where players under 6’6” such as Stephen Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard can light it up based on speed, skill, shooting and intelligence.
But part of me still yearns for the proverbial good old days when centers like Shaq, Dikembe and D-Rob ran the League with other star-studded 5s such as Olajuwon, Mourning and Patrick Ewing. Nothing gets me going more than their thunderous slams and powerful rejections into the stands to demoralize the opposition.
True centers built the NBA as we know it. George Mikan expanded offense. Bill Russell defense. Both Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s crazy athleticism and two-way skill. Moses Malone and Willis Reed toughness.
Writers used to prefer big men, naming 24 out of the first 45 MVPs among their ranks. But Shaq was the last true center to win the award in 2000.
It’s true that centers are marginalized in today’s game where contenders such as the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets opt not to use one most of the time. However, guys like Joel Embiid, Andre Drummond, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert proudly carry on that storied tradition despite its current displacement.
Centers will always have a place in the game, even if it’s just in my heart.
Bob Bajek is an award-winning investigative journalist and TBW staff writer who has extensive experience in news and sportswriting for various outlets including Bleacher Report, The Chicago Tribune and Pro Football Weekly. He firmly believes Drake spread the Gospel of Steph before his official coming… and fans need to forgive the Warriors after providing free tacos for four NBA Finals.