Basketball was always and will always be a sport that gives an advantage to taller players. But with the evolution of the game and the players themselves, especially in the NBA, centers have been becoming more and more redundant due to the vitalization of the three-point shot. The long bomb has become a must-have weapon for teams, as spacing the floors with all five players has become a common sight in today’s game. But what about the old-school ruff rugged centers that dominate the paint?
Once upon a time, the NBA was dominated by big men. It all started with George Mikan, then went to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, then we had Kareem, and the golden era of centers like Hakeem, Robinson, Ewing, and lastly, Shaq. You can’t mention everyone, but up until the 2000s, most of the great players in history were big men. But that all started to drastically change in the 2000s with the likes of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and other perimeter guys being labeled as the best of all time while totally disregarding the great bigs of our past. Kirk Goldsberry translated the transition from the big man to the perimeter through MVP awards.
Back in 2017, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made an appearance on The Dan Patrick Show and talked about why there is no love for the big guys. Dan explained how we criticize all the great bigs except Bill Russell in history for not taking advantage of all their God-given gifts, even though they had terrific careers while taking Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal as examples. While on the other side smaller players like Jordan or LeBron get the benefit of the doubt. Kareem explained why that narrative exists.
“I think what it is, being long is an advantage on the court. So people admire guys like Michael Jordan and LeBron that can overcome their relative lack of height and still get stuff done. It’s incredible, it’s spectacular, and people are attracted to that type of athletic talent. But tall people dominate this game, still.”Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, The Dan Patrick Show
It is a classic comparison with the story of David and Goliath, as the great Wilt Chamberlain once said nobody roots for Goliath. Fans are biased a lot of the time, cheering for the underdogs or, in this case, smaller players. Some want the little guy to win, while some can identify with them more easily than the 7’0” giants. That led to guys like MJ or LeBron being the most famous players in the world. They aren’t small by any means but compared to guys like Kareem, Wilt, or Shaq, they are, which made them much more comparable to the broader public.
This is the reason why Kareem isn’t mentioned much more in the GOAT discussion, even though he has one of the better cases considering everything he achieved in his illustrious 20-year career. In the eyes of most fans, Jordan is the GOAT, but if Jabbar was a guard with the same accolades he has, I think the debate would be much more heated. A fascinating case and perspective that has led to the great big men of the past being vastly overlooked.