By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
The idea that centers were becoming fossil fuels on planet NBA has been a common refrain for much of this decade. Hall of Fame talents like Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson retired; Shaquille O'Neal lamented being the last dominant big man to walk the hard court; some players treated the term "center" -- or even being listed at 7 feet -- as radioactive; and small ball was becoming all the rage.
But there are rumblings in Portland, Ore., where Greg Oden's long-anticipated arrival has Trail Blazers fans harkening back to the glorious "Rip City" past of Bill Walton and even Clyde Drexler. There are tremors being felt in Los Angeles, where the return of Andrew Bynum has Lakers fans believing that the first post-Shaq title is well within their grasp. And, there is commotion in Orlando, where Dwight Howard is fresh off winning an Olympic gold medal.
A new generation of old school, back-to-the-basket centers may prove that the position was merely hibernating instead of heading toward extinction. "It was like a desert for a while," San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said of recent years when few teams had impact players at the position. "Maybe it does go in cycles. Everything was going small for a while and now the pendulum is kind of swinging back."
A lot depends on the development of Oden and Bynum, two young, raw, 7-footers, returning from serious knee injuries.
With the NBA's 63rd regular season beginning tonight, the Boston Celtics will begin their quest to repeat as NBA champions, but much attention this season will also be centered on Oden and Bynum, who tip off against each other in Los Angeles.
Oden, who turns 21 in January, and Bynum, who turned 21 yesterday, are both entering high-pressure situations -- Oden to lead a group of talented youngsters into the playoffs, and Bynum to serve as the missing piece for a title contender. "That comes with the territory," Oden said of the expectations. "We'll try to be the best at what we do."
Howard is just 22, but he's a two-time all-star who has already established himself as a franchise changer, leading the Orlando Magic to the Southeast Division title last season. Another group of big men 26 and younger are also knocking on the door of stardom -- New Orleans's Tyson Chandler, Minnesota's Al Jefferson, Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut, the Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Kaman, Golden State's Andris Biedrins and Charlotte's Emeka Okafor.
The center position may not be all the way back to the era in the 1990s that featured Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson, O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Rik Smits and Vlade Divac. But add in Houston's Yao Ming, whose résumé is filled with all-star appearances, and it could be on its way back. "Well, I hope so," said Ewing, the New York Knicks legend who serves as an assistant coach with the Magic and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last month.
"I think it's too early to really say. I think if you're talking about Dwight or Yao Ming, definitely. Bynum should be, depending on how he comes back from his injury. And Oden, you never know how that knee is going to react to the banging and the pounding. So it's like, 'Who knows?' "
In the 16 months since Portland drafted Oden No. 1 overall, Oden has had season-ending microfracture surgery on his right knee, gained almost 25 pounds of muscle, grown a scraggly beard and momentarily sported a hideous Mohawk. He has bonded with his lazy Boston-Beagle terrier, Charles Barkley McLovin. He has displayed tremendous comic timing in a commercial for ESPN the Magazine ("Who says big men can't sell?") and mocked playing the piano while wearing Elton John-style glasses in a skit with Justin Timberlake at the ESPYs. He has blogged about his personal life, endorsed Barack Obama for president and become recognized as an affable, humble star -- without playing a single game.
"I've been waiting for a long time to get out there and play in a real NBA game. I'm more excited than anybody else," Oden said. "I haven't done anything and people still consider me at that level of being a number one draft pick. I'd rather be a guy that earns it by playing than because I was drafted a certain number."
Bynum isn't an unknown, but he has only sipped success. The 285-pounder averaged 13.5 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks, and shot 63.6 percent from the floor in 35 games last season, his third. Bynum also made Kobe Bryant backtrack from his infamous, cellphone-recorded plea to trade Bynum for Jason Kidd, calling the Lakers a championship contender before Bynum suffered a season-ending left knee injury.
The Lakers later traded for Pau Gasol and advanced to the NBA Finals without Bynum, but his presence was sorely missed during a physical series loss to the Celtics. "I won't say the Lakers could've beat them, although I feel the Lakers feel that they would've done a better job if they had Andrew," Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a special assistant for the Lakers, said in a telephone interview.
Abdul-Jabbar has worked closely with Bynum since Bynum was drafted 10th overall out of high school in 2005, and said it isn't asking too much to expect more of the same, if not more, this season.
"He can do it -- he was doing it. He just had the injury," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It wasn't like it was an aberration or anything. Everybody he was playing against ended up scratching their heads. "I'd been waiting for that," Abdul-Jabbar said. "All those things he could do in practice, but he was just too shy or uncertain of himself before the game. He did a great job for us."
O'Neal, now the Godfather of current NBA centers, serves as a link between the past and future eras. He has watched the influx of talent at the position but tempers his praise. "They're all right but they don't compare to the great Yao Ming," he said.
He added that he doesn't see the league ever returning to the physical "bang-bang" days when he entered the league in 1992. "I'm the last one," O'Neal, 36, recently told reporters in Phoenix. "There's nobody else left."
Abdul-Jabbar is hopeful that O'Neal is wrong. "I have no ill will toward Shaq," Abdul-Jabbar said, but "there are times when Shaq gets a little too taken up by his own rhetoric."