WASHINGTON — For Gene Shue, designing an offense with Manute Bol is like trying to reinvent the wheel without a hub. We'll get back to that shortly, after one final fantasy about basketball's most compelling shot-blocker: Can he get The Sky Hook?
Most of us have been--is there any other way to put it?--Boled over by the 7-foot-7 rookie. He has not been blown out of town by the first fall breeze or the second Patrick Ewing elbow. Who could have imagined that Joe Theismann's leg would have snapped before his? Or that after 22 games, he would be the Bullets' starting center, though by default?
Although he is improving daily and may be quite a respectable NBA center in another year, Bol justifies his court time only by being able to swat away shots at an extraordinary rate. Saturday in Capital Centre comes his ultimate challenge, for, soon after tipoff, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will be unpacking the most devastating shot in his sport.
Even the Bullets are intrigued.
"Some of the fellas got money on it," Frank Johnson admitted.
Growing up, and up, and up in the Sudan, Bol was fascinated by the weekly features about American basketball on television. Like other youngsters about the globe, he became familiar with Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Abdul-Jabbar. Growing up in the NBA, he never figured to keep such intimate company with the game's all-time point machine so often or so soon.
"I'll try," he said. "I'll try."
What Johnson, the other Bullets and everyone else hope happens quickly and frequently is for Abdul-Jabbar to enter that bit of court space he has called home for more than 16 years: several feet to the right of the basket and several inches from the out-of-bounds line.
We assume that another Johnson, Magic, will toss Abdul-Jabbar the ball and that he and the Lakers will be equally curious about the ensuing seconds. When Abdul-Jabbar releases The Sky Hook, on tippy-toe, it leaves his fingertips nine-plus feet off the floor.
Thousands of serious NBA fans have never seen anyone reject The Sky Hook, although The Washington Post's Anthony Cotton said he witnessed Dave Cowens do it. Since Abdul-Jabbar is 7-2, and sort of a shrimpo to Bol, we can dream.
"If he did it," Frank Johnson said, "the place would erupt, wouldn't it?"
It'd be at least 8.7 on the sports Richter scale.
Frank said: "I think he can get it. He got Mark Eaton." Then he paused, embarrassed at having elevated the 7-4 Eaton's graceless left-handed lob so loftily, and quickly added: "Of course, there's nothing quite like The Sky Hook."
"He can block anyone's shot," Gus Williams said of Bol, "but consistency is the key. He's gotta get them consistently."
That is Shue's dilemma. The words he never dreamed would be uttered this early toward Bol came midway though the fourth quarter this week from assistant coach Fred Carter: "Don't leave the floor (and get that sixth foul). We need you in the game."
It is unfair to Bol to be put in such a position, he being the rawest rookie imaginable; it also is unfair to Shue to be judged on games in which he must improvise so drastically. One of the reasons a center is called a center is that much revolves around the position. Nearly every play, in fact.
In addition to scoring and rebounding, centers pass and set screens. Injured Jeff Ruland is an exceptional passer; Bol is not even adequate as yet. And the first pick he sets might be his last. Lots of times, Bol stays as far from the basket as possible, scurrying inside when it seems as though a teammate is about to shoot.
"With a one-on-one player," Shue said, "you could get away with (a non-passing, non-pick-setting center). With, say, World (Free of the Cavaliers), you could set the center somewhere else."
Against the Jazz in his second start, Bol was terrific in a limited sort of way. He was five for six from the field and had six rebounds and six blocked shots in 27 minutes. His lack of quickness also hurt the Bullets badly in the final minutes, as did a rookie who may haunt General Manager Bob Ferry and Shue for some time.
With the 12th pick in the draft, the Bullets chose a one-on-one player whose impact, so far, has been negligible: Kenny Green. With the 13th pick, the Jazz chose an instant-impact player who figures to become a glowing star for years: Karl Malone.
The Mailman also delivers in the NBA. Malone is averaging 13.3 points and more than eight rebounds. In addition to scoring 25 points against the Bullets, he moved near the free-throw line twice, drew Bol out of position and passed deftly to Adrian Dantley down low for layups. Dantley also scored a few baskets against Bol on his own. This suggests that, at about 6 feet 4, he really might be able to find a way to outmaneuver the Washington Monument if it were between him and the basket.
For all his offensive limitations, Bol had one stunning sequence against Eaton. From just beyond the free-throw line, he faked Easton right and dribbled left. In a stride as long as a small-airport runway, Bol was by Eaton and slamming a dunk with his left hand.
A highlight clip a night is about all the Bullets can reasonably expect from Bol at this point. Wise perspective about his fate against Abdul-Jabbar came from one who has experienced The Sky Hook and been humbled by it.
"He might get a piece of one," said Utah's Thurl Bailey, smiling, "after the first five go in."