Big 3 centers stand above the crowd

March 31, 1991|By Jan Hubbard | Jan Hubbard,Newsday

Hakeem Olajuwon had been in a thoughtful, analytical state for about 20 minutes. He was the only player left in the Houston Rockets' locker room after a recent home game, and he had been calmly discussing the differences among the National Basketball Association's blue-blood centers -- the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing, San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson and, of course, himself.

Finally, Olajuwon no longer could sit. The subject demanded animation. He bolted to his feet and began an impressive show-and-tell session. "I have a different style of game from both of them," he said. "My game is fake, spin, jumper. My game is more like a small forward."

Olajuwon had his back to a wall. He dipped his shoulder, jerked his head quickly from one side to the other, pushed off one foot, spun on the other, lifted an imaginary ball over his head and shot at an imaginary basket. The shot, no doubt, was good.

He wasn't finished. Nor was he holding back. He was dressed casually -- black shoes and slacks, black shirt with three large, bright multi-colored squares down the front of one side. Ewing and Robinson are in Olajuwon's class on the court, but Olajuwon is the most stylish off the court -- at least in the opinion of Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine, which included Olajuwon as its only center on the All-NBA best-dressed team in the February issue.

Street clothes were not confining. Olajuwon was moving quickly again, shifting his body from one side to the other, faking, juking, spinning. It was a breathtaking sight -- a 6-foot-10, 250-pound man performing pirouettes in loafers across a concrete floor with the grace of a world-class ballet dancer.

"That's my game," he said.

Olajuwon turned his attention to Ewing.

"Patrick is so big," Olajuwon said. "He just gets the ball, turns around and shoots."

As he talked, Olajuwon caught the imaginary ball, turned toward the imaginary baseline and shot at the imaginary basket. It was an exact replica of Ewing's trademark shot.

Next was Robinson.

"David is more of a finisher," Olajuwon said. "His basic move is not his strongest point. His strongest point is on a fast break, or when someone gives him the ball to finish a play. He jumps so high, and he's left-handed, so he brings it from an awkward position. He just goes over everybody and dunks."

Olajuwon sat down. "When you're playing them," he said, "you know you are playing your toughest competition. You have to play offense, you have to play defense, and you have to work with both hands and both feet. It's very physical. You have to be at your peak."

Olajuwon and Ewing, both 28, are at their peaks, veterans of seven and six years in the NBA, respectively. Robinson, 25, is in only his second season, but Olajuwon and Ewing acknowledge he is in their peer group. It is obvious that these three currently are not only the cream of the NBA's pivot crop, but one of the best groups in NBA history.

"There are some other great centers in the league," Spurs Coach Larry Brown said. "Robert Parish is still a great center in Boston. I think Brad Daugherty is a great center in Cleveland. And I think Vlade Divac can be a great center for the Lakers. But as good as those guys are, they're not in the class of the centers we're talking about."

Few are. Historically, there is only one group that was better. During the '60s, there was a golden age of centers. Bill Russell was the most dominant team player in history, leading the Boston Celtics to 11 championships in 13 years beginning in 1957. Wilt Chamberlain was the most dominant individual, averaging 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds during his 14-year career, which began in 1959. That included one season (1961-62) when he averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds. Nate Thurmond (a rookie in 1963) and Willis Reed (1964) also were in their prime with the Warriors and Knicks. Each of those four centers is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Yet Knicks assistant coach Paul Silas, who played forward during that era, said in terms of overall individual skills, the current elite crop may be better.

"These guys have a lot more moves inside than the guys of yesterday," Silas said. "The game was rougher then. These three guys could compete, but they'd get beat up pretty good. But they also would be able to score very well against those guys because they're so athletic and have different moves."

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