'OUR CENTER SUCKS' -- AN NBA MANTRA by Mike Fisher
by Mike Fisher    Tue, Jan 31, 2006, 09:50 AM

Will This Real NBA Center Please Stand Up?
According to the newspapers, this certain NBA center is "maddening. ... dumb as a bag of hair." And "the fans and the media have wanted more from him and the years have gone by. At this point in his career, it should be clear by now. (He) is what he is.'' Which is "another 7-footer with an attitude problem.'' Who makes you "sick to your stomach.'' Because "people wonder if he even likes basketball.'' He's "soft as pudding.'' And he's the basketball version of the human "appendix. It serves no purpose and you can live without it.'' Oh, and did I mention our Mystery Center is "dumb as a bag of hair''?
Have you guessed the identity of our Mystery Center? Have you picked the winning contestant on "What's My Line?''

The ''winning center'' here is. ... almost EVERY center.
The "dumb-as-a-bag-of-hair'' center is Utah's Greg Ostertag, according to the Deseret News, and that was before he was suspended last week from the team for the fifth time in five years. The "he-is-what-he-is'' center is Rasho Nesterovic, according to the San Antonio Express-News, and that was a perspective from March 2005 that has not changed. The "makes-you-sick-to-your-stomach'' center is Celtic-turned-T'Wolv Mark Blount, according to Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, who is obviously glad to see him go in exchange for Michael Olowakandi. The "doesn't-even-like-basketball'' center is T'Wolv-turned-Celtic Olowakandi, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which is obviously glad to see him go in exchange for Mark Blount. The "soft-as-pudding'' center is the Lakers' Chris Mihm, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Steven A. Smith.
The "appendix'' comparison, finally, is about Dallas' Erick Dampier, and comes from Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News.
All, really, the same analysis. All from six different mainstream sources. All about six ostensibly different people.
A lot of paragraphs written by a lot of scribes about a list of NBA centers that truly could go on and on and on, when really, one three-word sentence would suffice for a couple of dozen NBA teams:
"Our center sucks.''
Or maybe better, "The Center For (your team name here) Sucks.''

This is not meant as a defense of some 7-footer who lollygags through a career pocketing millions of dollars, stepping up to improve only when his accountant instructs him that it's time to pocket some more millions. I will say, though, that the fans and the media (and even coaches and teammates) find it easier to pinpoint a doggin'-it center than they do a doggin'-it shooting guard. Sometimes, a 6-4 guy really looks like he's hustling when in fact, his natural grace and athleticism allows him to move up and down the floor in cruise control. How many 7-footers possess "grace and athleticism''? And because they do not -- because their feet are slower and their skills are duller and their hands are frying-pan'ier -- how much easier is it to notice the shortcomings from Row ZZ when the offending player is gigantic?
You, me, Joe Sixpack, can easily identify him. Joe Sixpack cannot possibly identify WITH him.
I would offer, too, that the "doesn't-even-like-basketball'' accusation is one that could be somewhat accurately directed at any number of athletes (or folks in other jobs) who were born with something that pre-determined their occupational future. There are mathematical geniuses who wish they were rock stars, but their brains work in such a way that they were steered toward algebra. There are classical pianists who dream of being astronauts, but were too prodigal as kids to ever leave the keys. And there are undoubtedly 7-footers - lots of them -- who are playing the sport because it was the most socially acceptable direction for them to take as kids and because it is the most financial sensible job for them to hold now.
There is a book coming out that details how the Chinese government mapped out Yao Ming's basketball future, whether he liked it or not. In a sense, don't we Americans, once we've discovered a child prodigy, do much the same thing?
If you are predestined to be 5-11, you are not predestined to be an NBA player. So if you want The Life, you spend 30 years diving on floors until they kick you out of the gym. And if you are Dampier, Ostertag, Olowakandi, Nesterovic, Blount, Mihm and all the rest, you were going to make the high-school team no matter how many floor burns you accumulated. And as you can see by the dollars and opportunities handed big men, 7-footers are going to make NBA teams without floor burns, too.
Floor burns? If you are 7-feet tall, that floor is a looooong way down there.
Still, I say not only is a team correct to take chances on centers, correct to risk overpaying them, but that also a team should do that with a handful of 'em. To me, one of the keys of the recent excellence of the Spurs, Pistons and Heat is that they employ an army of 6-11 and 7-foot guys. Some were "pre-destined'' stars like Shaq and Duncan. Others were "lightning-in-a-bottle'' guys who became stars, like Ben Wallace. You think Alonzo Mourning's return to Miami didn't represent risk? You think it's only by happenstance that San Antonio's roster includes center/forwards Duncan and Rasho and Nazr and Robert Horry and Sean Marks? That Detroit hasn't given up on Darko? That it took this long for Miami to finally bump Wang Zhi Zhi off its roster? And that when Miami finally gave up on him, the Heat gave fresh new uniforms to 7-footers Michael Doleac and Earl Barron?
Some of those guys have, at some time, been an "appendix,'' too. But in basketball, you NEED your appendix. You need two or three or four appendixes -- as long as the appendix is 84 inches long. The Mavs don't keep DJ Mbenga and Pavel Podkolzin around for their good looks, you know.
Fans who lack this basic understanding scream for a trade of their team's big man. Trade our center? OK, as long as we get theirs. It's not an accident that when Minnesota decided to give up on Olowakandi, they made sure to get somebody else's give-up, Blount, in return.
The NBA keeps Musical Chairing these guys, hoping one of their butts can actually fill more than just a seat way down at that end of the bench. So Lorenzen Wright starts in Memphis and gives them 5.6/5.6. And Nenad Krstic starts in New Jersey and scores some but gives them only 5.6 rebounds, too. New York's Eddy Curry starts, scores 15 ppg, but gets only 6.7 boards. Kurt Thomas is considered a semi-success in Phoenix at 8.9/8.1. Chicago's Tyson Chandler starts and gives them 4.8/7.4. Adonal Foyle, the man Golden State kept instead of Dampier, is a 4.2/6.3 guy. Utah hovers around .500 in the tough West with the Ostertag/Collins tandem in the middle. The All-Star Game's leading vote-getter at the position is Houston's 7-6 Yao Ming, who can't manage to get double-figures in rebounds.
Are we sure we want to tar-and-feather Erick Dampier out of Dallas, just because his 5.7 points and his 7.8 rebounds make him an awful lot like everybody else?
When long-time Jazz fixture Ostertag departed Utah a year ago, the Deseret News wrote a scathing goodbye. "The (team) brain trust, famous for looking at a player's temperament as well as his talent, forgot the "basketball" part with Ostertag. The team got the personable attitude, without the game face. Time and again the coaches tried to light a fire under the big center. And he'd often ignite just long enough to make his lazy periods all the more maddening. ... He should have worked harder, played harder, tried harder.''
Good riddance, right?
Except now, Ostertag is back with the Jazz. And is a part-time starter. And is making $4.4 mil. And is averaging 3 points and 4 rebounds per game. And is getting suspended. And is being "as dumb as a bag of hair.''
But just like every other "lousy'' center in the NBA, it's acceptable to be "as dumb as a bag of hair'' -- as long as said hair is perched atop 7-feet of human.

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