The center's place in basketball has gone through a number of permutations over the century since Dr. James Naismith put up peach baskets in a Springfield, Mass., YMCA to give football players something fun to do inside during the winter. For part of the 20th Century, the center had one big play, the jump ball. To begin each period and after each basket, the referee would loft the ball between two opposing players who tried to bat it to one of their teammates. You wanted a tall guy to win those jumps and then, basically, get out of the way. On offense, the best of the early centers stood at the foul line bumping small defenders so his team's best shooters could get free; the big men rarely scored themselves. On defense, the centers joined the thicket of arms and bodies under the basket to prevent easy layups.
George Mikan was the climactic player of this era. A huge man for his time at 6 feet, 10 inches and 245 pounds, Mikan was the first big star of the NBA, which was formed out of the shards of two other postwar professional leagues in 1949. Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers won four of the first five NBA championships, with Mikan clogging up the narrow 12-foot-wide foul lane and filling up the basket with an assortment of short hook shots and layups. In a boring and bullying game, Mikan's bulk and strength made him stand out.
Upon Mikan's retirement in 1954, the NBA decided to speed up its game, awarding penalty shots after a team's fifth foul in a quarter--which cut down on intentional fouling--and requiring the offensive team to take a shot within 24 seconds, which eliminated the slow, deliberate pace of the old game. Two years later, a new center came into the league to take advantage of the faster game. Bill Russell was a master defender, rebounder and passer at 6 feet, 9 inches. He was strong but lithe, and he led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles in the next 13 years. A typical Celtic play started with Russell rebounding and passing deftly to a guard who would dribble the ball up court before the other team could set its defense. It was the fast break, a new style of play dependent on Russell's savvy defense and rebounding.
Two years after Russell's debut, another center overturned the game. Wilt Chamberlain combined the strength of Mikan with the grace and defensive prowess of Russell. Unlike Russell, who scored only about 16 points a game, 7-foot-1 Chamberlain was an offensive machine for the Philadelphia Warriors, rolling over smaller, weaker and less talented defenders with an assortment of fall-away jump shots, finger-roll lay-ins and, of course, the slam-dunk, rarely shot before the dramatic Chamberlain came into the league. He averaged 37.6 points and 27 rebounds a game his rookie year; no one had ever averaged 30 points or 25 rebounds before. Two years later, he averaged an incredible 50.4 points per game. No longer could a center be a mere massif. He now had to score and intimidate.
"Wilt's coming was second to none. There has never been a player in the history of the NBA to come in with such fanfare and deliver instantly," says Sonny Hill, Philadelphia's acknowledged basketball guru, godfather of its youth leagues and a contemporary of Chamberlain in the Philadelphia schoolyards. "Sure, there is some fanfare with Shawn Bradley, but it is nothing compared to that with Wilt."
As Chamberlain moved to the 76ers and then the Los Angeles Lakers, he and Russell, together and separately, were the prototypes of the modern centers. Their spectacular skills, and their rivalry, coming near the dawn of the television era, gave them massive influence on future players.
"Wilt and Russell were to basketball what Arnold Palmer was to golf. Turn on the television on Sunday and there they were: Wilt vs. Russell. They brought their sport into the living rooms of America, just as Palmer did with golf," Billy Cunningham, a teammate of Chamberlain on the 76ers and now part-owner of the NBA's Miami Heat, told author Pluto in "Tall Tales." "It was never Boston vs. Philly or Boston vs. L.A.; it was Wilt vs. Russell. You have to realize that the dunk as we know it--the scary power play it can be--started with Chamberlain. And the great defensive player, the man capable of stopping the dunk--that was Russell. When you were on the court with them, they so dominated that you'd find yourself stopping just to watch them. I've never had that feeling with any two other players."
After the Chamberlain-Russell era, the search was always on for a center. Shooters are nice, general managers now say, but show us the big guys first. Even the great Michael Jordan, a 6-foot-6 guard, was only the third selection in the collegiate draft in 1984, Houston picking 7-foot Akeem Olajuwon first and Portland taking 7-1 Sam Bowie after that.