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Centers Aren't Just Middlemen : Basketball: Big men will always have a dominate role on the court. But what is expected of them has changed, as has the game.

January 22, 1992|MIKE REILLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Besides ducking through doorways and cramming into school desks designed for people a foot shorter, being tall usually means you play basketball.

And playing basketball can mean:

--Wearing a facemask, as Trabuco Hills' Gavin Vanderputten did to protect a broken nose he suffered during a recent game.

--Wearing a thick skin, as Estancia's Matt Fuerbringer did last week when he was warmly greeted by chants of "Lurch, Lurch, Lurch" and humming of "The Addams Family" theme by the Century High student section.

But Vanderputten, an Australian exchange student, and Fuerbringer, a three-year starter at Estancia, have handled all the elbows to the noggin and the verbal taunts.

After all, they enter tonight's Pacific Coast League matchup at Trabuco Hills as two of this season's premier big men in Orange County.

Vanderputten has led Trabuco Hills, ranked sixth in the county, to a 13-5 record, 3-0 in league. Fuerbringer, who has helped Estancia win a section and a state title the past two seasons, has the fourth-ranked Eagles off to a 14-4, 3-0 start.

But could Fuerbringer, a 6-foot-7 forward-center, and Vanderputten, a 6-10 center, match up with the great big men who have played in Orange County during the past 20 years?

How would they do against Woodbridge's Adam Keefe, La Quinta's Johnny Rogers, Ocean View's Wayne Carlander or Marina's Cherokee Parks?

It might be impossible to compare. As the names have changed throughout the past two decades, so has the game.

"There just aren't many true low-post guys in high school anymore," ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale said. "Like the old days, the Kent Bensons, the Lew Alcindors. Most kids today are big and can play all over the floor, like Danny Manning. You need guys who can run the floor and block the shot."

Just how badly does a high school team need a big center in order to win?

Mater Dei's Gary McKnight has coached two of the county's best--6-11 LeRon Ellis and 6-7 Tom Lewis. But McKnight would want to build a team around the player who is usually the smallest on the floor.

"I would want a great point guard before a great center," McKnight said. "The point guard would have to be a great one, though.

"I think that's where you start with a team. The point guard can control a game, the tempo. He's your coach on the floor."

Los Amigos Coach Clayton Olivier said big players don't dominate as they did when he played as a 6-10 center for the Lobos in the late 1970s.

"I remember I had no problem scoring 30 a night," said Olivier, who also played at USC and with the San Antonio Spurs. "And now kids struggle just to get 15 to 20 a night."

This season's crop of centers has solid, but not startling, statistics.

Vanderputten averages 20.8 points a game and Fuerbringer 19.9. Vanderputten averages 10.3 rebounds and makes 62% of his shots; Fuerbringer pulls down 10 rebounds and shoots 61% from the field. Jermaine Galloway, Kennedy's 6-10 center, is averaging 19.9 points and nine rebounds.

Parks is the only center to dominate the county in the past four years, averaging 28.8 points and 14.4 rebounds last season.

"I remember watching Parks dominate the whole game against Mater Dei (in the Southern Section semifinals)," Olivier said. "You used to see that type of center all the time back when I played. Now you're lucky to have a guy 6-4 who wants to play. I mean really play, not just to please his parents."

Against Mater Dei, Parks scored 30 points, including 16 on dunks, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked five shots against one of the county's toughest defensive teams.

"With some centers, once they throw the ball in to them, you can double-team them," McKnight said. "But Cherokee was so quick and was such a good passer, there was no way you could double-team him. If you did, he would find the open man."

Olivier said that when he played, teams had to have a big center to win. Today, smaller players are taking three-pointers, decreasing the emphasis on bigger players.

"The kids you see now average 25 points and are hitting seven or nine threes a game," Olivier said. "We didn't have that."

Parks said centers today are expected to have better shooting range than in the past.

"I see a lot of big guys now are putting it on the floor, and their coaches are much more confident in their outside shots," Parks said. "Guys who are 6-10 are taking 17-footers now; they're not just stuck in middle rebounding all the time."

But big men are still in demand, especially by colleges.

Vanderputten is being wooed by several Division I schools, including UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State and Northwestern. Although Fuerbringer signed with Stanford to play volleyball last fall, schools also were interested in him for basketball.

"Matt is a tremendous athlete, as well as a big player," Estancia Coach Tim O'Brien said. "That's a great package, and that's what separates him from others on the floor. But still, six months from now, he's going to be a skinny 6-7 kid in college trying to make it (in volleyball)."

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