[1988] “The center position is dead”

[1988] “The center position is dead”

With the Rockets trading away Clint Capela and using 6’5” P.J. Tucker as a center, many have concluded that the big man is done as we know it. We will have tall players in the NBA, but they will be Giannis and Ben Simmons, not Robison and Ewing. The only problem is, the same conclusion was made in 1988.

Jack McCallum wrote a column back in 1988, concluding that Hakeem Olajuwon has failed to assert the importance of the big man in the NBA. His reasoning? Young Olajuwon was yet to average “more than 11.9 rebounds in three seasons with the Houston Rockets.” In the column, McCallum compares Olajuwon to Swen Nater, who averaged 15 rebounds per game in ’97/’80.

McCallum then makes an overview of the centers of note who are under 30: Olajuwon, Ewing, Sampson, Daugherty. All at the time didn’t fill McCallum or conventional NBA wisdom with confidence that they would develop into special players.

“Centers are not only deficient in stats these days, they’re not much in the pizzazz department, either. Jeez, what will the once grand pivot position look like when Abdul-Jabbar, Parish and Malone, the oldies but goodies, hang it up? Will centers become as faceless as offensive tackles?”

Jack McCallum, SI

The new trend that the league was adopting and abandoning the dominant center player? “Versatiles,” wing-size players who could play anywhere on the court except the center position – “Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Fat Lever, Harper, Alvin Robertson.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But, there was hope in sight in 1998, a player that could bring back the glory of the center position.

“Ah, but perhaps the center position will once again take center stage when Ensign David Robinson enters the league, probably for the 1989-90 season. Assuming that he can beat out the Three Amigos currently manning the pivot for the San Antonio Spurs—Frank Brickowski, Petur Gudmundsson and Kurt Nimphius—we will see a center who seems to have the classic tools. Robinson is 7’1″, he plays with his back to the basket (though he can also face up and run the floor), he shoots a hook shot and a turnaround jumper, he dunks, he rebounds, he blocks shots.”

Jack McCallum, SI

Willis Reed, the Kings’ assistant coach at the time, agreed with the premise that Robinson “was the only guy with a realistic chance. It’s very slim pickings beside him.” Why? Because he was the only one who’s game resembled those that came before him. The entire article talks about Olajuwon and Ewing, like players who theoretically don’t have a chance to be great big men because their game was too different. They could dribble, fake, and shoot. Hell, even Robinson came into the league with a lot of skepticism. 

“They talk about this Robinson kid, but he looks to be a finesse player who runs the floor. He’s nothing like Wilt was or even like Akeem is now.”

Willis Reed, SI

A few years later, a young kid by the name of Shaquille O’Neal walked on the NBA courts, and suddenly everyone was drafting players that might stop him. He also wasn’t like Wilt or Kareem, by the way, he was his own brand of center. Just because the new crop of centers isn’t like the last great center we remember, it doesn’t mean the center position is dead.

It just means it’s different. The same way it was when Hakeem and Robinson played.