Poor Greg: The Somber NBA Tales of Being Gifted with Abnormal Height

Jan 6, 2012 by

 

Joey: I think you’re the greatest, but my dad says you don’t work hard enough on defense.
[Kareem’s getting mad]
Joey: And he says that lots of times, you don’t even run down court. And that you don’t really try… except during the playoffs.
Roger Murdock: [breaking character] The hell I don’t! LISTEN KID! I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.

-from the 1980 film Airplane!

 

 “You can’t teach height.”  That phrase has been muttered throughout the basketball landscape as far back as Dr. James Naismith after he installed those peach baskets at his university’s gymnasium.  It’s been a blessing and a curse for those whose scalps brush the clouds.

Every NBA scout and general manager’s dick gets hard when they have the opportunity to draft a seven foot tall kid.  The GM’s dream of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy for years to come based solely on the players’ height beginning with a 7 can vanish quickly.  If you ever played the game, you always glanced across the floor at the opposing team to see the extremely tall starting center.  The first thought filling your head is, “this guy is going to dunk all over us, there is no way our center, Jason, has a chance to stop this beast.”  Five minutes into the game, the beast turns soft, you notice he doesn’t run the floor well, fumbles interior passes, and misses easy two-footers.  Except for the one shot he swatted into the fifth row bleachers, nearly hitting your parents with the ball, the tallest man you ever shared the court with is a nonfactor.

During the NBA lockout, two very talented, but injury ridden, centers were the victims of grave misfortunes. Injuries came on swiftly with their frail bodies trying to lug around a frame that guaranteed them a future playing in the NBA.  Yao Ming has the ankles of an 86 year old man, or possibly an infant.  The 7 foot 6 inch center retired from the Houston Rockets last summer.  Battling injuries for most of the last five years, the global icon was out of the game by the age of 30.  The Houston Rockets are left with no true center on the roster, rebuilding is imminent for the once proud franchise.

Greg Oden in his freshman year at Ohio State led the Buckeyes to the National Championship title game.  Though his team came up short to University of Florida, his NBA stock skyrocketed.  Scouts, coaches, GM’s, friends and family members all whispering in his ear to forgo his remaining years in college and set his sights in the NBA.  Oden, at only 23 years old, has a shitty left knee; since Oden was drafted in ’07 he has played exactly eight-two games for the Portland Trailblazers.  Unless you count taking a picture of his junk for the world to see, there hasn’t been much to see of him since his days at Ohio State.  In an era where many of today’s athletes seem to hang around beyond what they should, both Oden and Ming won’t have the chance to make that decision.  Very sad to see two talented big men, both former number one pics, fall by the wayside to injuries.

Ralph Sampson’s dreams use to consist of being the first 7 foot 4 guard in the NBA.  Now I am sure he drifts to sleep dreaming of two healthy knees and a long NBA career.  Sampson, a three-time Naismith college player of the year, was finished in the NBA by the age of 31.  Sampson, alongside Hakeem Olajuwon, was to set to give the Lakers and Celtics a run for NBA titles in Houston throughout the decade of the 80’s and into the 90’s.  Sampson matched his hype, averaging over 20 ppg for his first two NBA years, even leading the Rockets to the 1986 NBA finals.  Then the knees gave out and the once promising career ended.  Sampson was the number one overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft.

My father continues, to this day, to say that the best basketball player he has seen in his lifetime was Bill Walton.  Walton was a standout at UCLA under legendary head coach, John Wooden.  He was a Grateful Dead1 loving hippy, with a massive game.  Walton was a tenacious rebounder, had one of the all-time great outlet passes, was a solid scorer around the basket, and possessed a high basketball IQ.   He had arguably one of the finest NCAA tournament championship game performances of all-time, scoring 44 points on 21 of 22 shooting, taking home the 1973 NCAA title for Wooden and UCLA.  He was later drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers, won a league MVP in his third year, and put the city of Portland on the basketball map by helping the Blazers capture the title in 1978.  The injury demons had seen enough and attacked Walton’s feet with sheer ruthlessness.  By the age of 34, with 6 years of diminishing minutes as a role player in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Boston, Walton called it a day and put those worn out dogs to rest.   Walton, like the others, was a seven footer, but insisted on being listed at 6 foot 11 inches in media guides as he didn’t want to be labeled a freak.  Walton was the overall number one draft pick in the 1974 NBA draft.

From a historical perspective, drafting a center as the overall number one pick is the riskiest draft position.  For every Kareem and Shaq there’s a Joe Barry Carroll and Kwame Brown.  The risk can no doubt pay off, but it can just as quickly doom a franchise for a decade if it doesn’t.

Some notes about centers chosen as the overall number one pick in NBA drafts since s1969.

  • Since 1969 twenty-one centers were drafted as the overall number one pick in the NBA draft.
  • Six of those centers went on to be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame.
  • Along with their infamous draft pick of Sam Bowie 2 in the 1984 NBA draft, Portland has used the number one pick in the draft four times on centers.  Let’s just say they’ve been very unlucky with these picks.  In 1972, they drafted LaRue Martin, who played four seasons and was out of the NBA at the very young age of 25.  Though Bill Walton guided Portland to its only NBA championship in franchise history, Walton played only four years in Portland, after missing an entire season with injury he was traded to the San Diego Clippers.  In the 1978 draft, Portland again had the overall number one pick and wasted it on Mychal Thompson, who never did quite live up to his hype with career averages of only 13.7 ppg and 7.4 rpg.  Not what you’re looking for from a number one pick.  Once again in 2007, they chose the-can’t-miss-freak-athlete Greg Oden.  Portland’s string of horrendous picks continued setting back the franchise to mediocrity.  Oden was picked above current all-star and one of the NBA’s best young talents, Kevin Durant.  Oden, due to injury, has missed the last two complete seasons and looks to be out again for the remainder of this year as well.  Hopefully, Portland has learned a little something here.
  • Michael Jordan’s first pick as president of basketball operations of the Washing Wizards came in 2001, when he chose Kwame Brown over Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson, Zack Randolph, and Tony Parker.  Sometimes talent on the court does not translate to the front office.
  • Injuries, and in some cases being awful at basketball, forced these top picks out of the game before they turned 34 years old; Ralph Sampson, Brad Daughtery, Michael Olowakandi, Kent Benson, Joe Barry Carroll, and Pervis Ellison.
  • These current and former number one picked centers happen to make their respected general managers look competent; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, and Dwight Howard.
  • Of the twenty-one centers drafted number one since 1969 I would consider thirteen busts or huge disappointments.  Odds are not favorable for extremely tall people.
  • I could also name another fifty or so really shitty centers who were drafted high but surprisingly had less than mediocre careers.  Anyone recall Benoit Benjamin’s fine NBA career?
  • However, I not only found Manute Bol to be likeable but extremely intriguing to watch on the court.  Then again he was not very good either.

Today, the NBA center is not looked to for gaudy scoring and rebounding numbers.  Instead, smart teams draft, or trade, for tough-minded defensive oriented centers.  Kendrick Perkins, for example, was one of the key ingredients for the Celtics back to back finals appearances.  He never received the accolades of Pierce, Allen, and Garnett, but without his defense, rebounding, and knocking players in the teeth who drove into the lane, I am not sure Boston would have raised a 17th championship banner in 2008.

My advice to general managers with lottery picks: draft 1’s, 3’s, and 4’s, then for the later picks round out the roster with a sweet shooting and defensive minded 2. (Shooting guard)  Every team needs a solid point guard (1) to set the tone of the offense and be the coach on the floor.  A small forward, especially gifted with some height, are typically very good scorers and can cause match-up problems.  Your power forward is a key ingrediant to any NBA’s team’s run to the finals.  They provide you toughness, defense, rebounding, and it’s a huge plus if they have an inside/outside game.3  If you’ve learned anything from all this, don’t draft a 5 (center) high, especially if he’s white.4

Here’s to wishing that modern science can find away to keep these giants on the court.  The last thing you want to see is Greg Oden hunched over his computern a cubicle near you.  It would be sad for both you and Greg.

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As an aside, I have a unique insight into the difficulties of the Center Position.   In addition to being a student of the game, I also played the position…in the 4th grade.  I had grown like a weed between 3rd and 4th grade, and my coordination was slow to catch up with my height, so as the tallest kind in class, with the least amount of range, I was the default starting center. I maxed out at 6 foot 4 inches by the time I reached 17 and settled into playing small forward.  I do ponder at times what I could have accomplished on a basketball court if I grew to be 6 foot 10.  I also wonder what life would have been like if I’d decided to play guitar.  I guess we’ll never know…

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  1. Hands down, the best studio effort by the Grateful Dead is Workingman’s Dead.  I still find time to spin that record a few times on a warm spring day…
  2. Everyone knows the story, Sam Bowie was chosen by Portland over Michael Jordan and blah blah blah….Someday Sam or more likely Portland will get their due.  Come on basketball gods, you really can’t like MJ and the city of Chicago this much and continue to piss on Portland.
  3. For recent examples of this position played at a high level see Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan in his prime playing his natural power forward position.
  4. Refer to Greg Ostertag, Shawn Bradley, Darko Milicic, Cherokee Parks, and countless others for strong examples of why you never waste a high draft pick on seven foot white guys.
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1 Comment

  1. Mike

    Good reading!
    Have you ever noticed that all the true great centers to ever play in the NBA for the most part were on good teams.? I don’t ever recall a team that had a great center to be on a poor team. Now guard play is another story. I can go on all day discussing how there are hundreds of great guards who play on poor teams.

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