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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Fading of Giants: How the mysterious disappearance of basketball's big man has made him more vital than ever before

  • Author(s): Fixler, Kevin
  • et al.

Since its formation in 1946, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has been dominated by players at the center position who helped establish it as the world's premier professional league. Legendary "big men" like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were nearly unstoppable: players with the height and reach to block shots, capture rebounds and score nearly at will. Since then, contemporary names like Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming have taken their place. Lately though, these impact centers have all but vanished. Duncan is at the tail end of a distinguished career, and Shaq and Yao retired last year. Today, only two players—the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard and Los Angeles Lakers Andrew Bynum—are widely viewed as conventional bigs among the league's 30 teams. And the numbers are not improving.

Former Golden State Warriors center Clifford Ray should know. An NBA assistant coach several times over, the 62-year-old Ray is considered one of the foremost authorities on developing young these big men since his retirement as a player in 1981. He has worked with elite-level talents, from Howard to Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins. In past years, he also ran a big man camp with Hall of Fame center Robert Parish. Since being let go by the Boston Celtics before the start of the 2010 season, Ray has had trouble finding another job. If there are no centers to coach, then why would anyone need a centers coach? 

Basketball has always been a game played from the inside-out, however, from the hoop outwards. A regulation NBA court is 94 feet long and 50 feet wide, but it is within an imaginary region on both sides of the narrow painted lane, known as the key, called the low post, where games are won or lost. It is the space where centers traditionally dominate, as scorers on one end of the court and protectors on the other. 

"A quality center is key for a championship team," says Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time champion and most valuable player, the league's all-time leading scorer, and arguably the best to ever play the position.Many, including Ray, agree wholeheartedly, saying a team cannot win it all without this pivotal piece to the puzzle.

"You've got to have a decent big to take it to the next level to win a championship," he says. "You've got to have bigs in that post that are doing the little things. Being a great basketball player, especially as a center, is being able to give your team what they need to get a win that night." 

With the emphasis on exciting perimeter, guard play as the current direction of the league, it makes even longtime basketball experts wonder how this disappearance of the customary 7-footer happened. In a game fundamentally built on height, it seems the tallest player is effectively being phased out. So where have all the centers gone?

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