Robertson decries play of centers
Houston Chronicle - Tuesday, February 17, 1998
Oscar Robertson is a man whose basketball credentials are impeccable, so when he offers an opinion on a basketball-related subject, there is no credibility problem.
Consider that the 6-5 Robertson established the mold for the big, all-around point guards, even putting together a triple-double season in 1961-62, when he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists for the Cincinnati Royals, a feat that has been unmatched in NBA history.
But when Robertson looks back on his era, it's not the guard play that stands out but rather the centers - players like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond, Walt Bellamy, Willis Reed, Dave Cowens and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with whom Robertson won an NBA title with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971.
Robertson feels that, more than any other position, center play in the NBA today comes up short. That fact hit home especially when Robertson, an Indianapolis native, saw that Rik Smits of his hometown Pacers made the Eastern Conference All-Star team this year.
"Yeah, they toss that (the term `All-Star') around pretty loosely these days," said Robertson, shaking his head. "Where I came from, if I had a guy 7-4, he should be tearing the board down. But the guy gets, what, three or four rebounds a game?"
For the record, Smits is averaging seven rebounds a game, but you get the picture. While ripping overall center play in the NBA, however, there is one notable exception in Robertson's eyes - Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon .
"There are no great centers anymore," said Robertson, who was in New York during All-Star Weekend to promote his new book, The Art of Basketball. "Chicago's center (Luc Longley), he's just trying to get out of the way of (Michael) Jordan and (Scottie) Pippen. (Dennis) Rodman is under the basket rebounding. Look at Utah. (Karl) Malone plays the pivot on offense. The other kid, (Greg) Ostertag, he's standing out somewhere, but what is he doing?
"The Kareem type of player is gone forever. I think Olajuwon might bring some hope back once he gets back (fully from knee surgery)."
As one can tell from his comments, Robertson does not hold back his opinion when asked a question. Indeed, Robertson answers those questions in very much the same way he played the game - with as little excess as possible.
So it's easy to see how Robertson cringes when he hears comparisons between players of today, say, Shaquille O'Neal, and players from his day, like Chamberlain. While both are comparable in size (Chamberlain was 7-1 and played most of his career around 300 pounds, while O'Neal is listed at 7-1, 315), that's about as far as the similarities go in Robertson's book.
"In this day and age, Shaq is dominating because of his size," Robertson said. "I don't think he ever saw Kareem play, though. To get a sky hook, for a guy that big, nobody could stop him. But as long as he can power to the basket, who can guard him? Other than (Portland's Arvydas) Sabonis, whose knees are shot, there's nobody.
"Does he (O'Neal) have Wilt-like ability to score 50 points (a game, as Chamberlain did in the 1961-62 season)? No, he does not."
And Robertson doesn't want to hear all the stuff about how players from his era couldn't play the game. He doesn't want to hear how today's players are such better athletes, how they're so much bigger and so much stronger.
"It always amazes me why people think that guys couldn't play (during Robertson's day)," Robertson said. "If Jesse Owens was on a track that was not cinders, no one would catch him. But he ran on those cinder tracks, so all of a sudden you see this kid who broke the record for the 200 meters, (Michael) Johnson, and he's the greatest. Running on the same track with the same conditions, nobody would have caught Jesse Owens.
"But that's history, and America is a country that does not revere its history very much at all. There are great players today. Are there a lot of great players? Probably not."
Especially in the middle.
"I played against the greatest centers in the world, and I wouldn't trade that time for anything," Robertson said. "Look at all those guys who are in the Hall of Fame and the competition they provided on the floor - Russell, Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, Walt Bellamy. You just can't replace that."
Except in one case - Olajuwon .
When asked how Olajuwon would fare against players like Russell and Chamberlain, Robertson again did not hesitate.
"Tremendous," Robertson said. "The guy gave everyone a lesson. Like when he came in and beat the Knicks (in the 1994 Finals). They had everybody on him but the coach (Pat Riley). He just ate them up. They couldn't handle him. He was so quick, so graceful. He never got upset, either. He never got mad when he got hit or bumped.
"I'll tell you, though, I don't know if his religion hurts him because he fasts for a long time (during Ramadan) and he gets hurt. That takes a lot out of you when you're playing. But I think Hakeem is a tremendous star, a tremendous athlete and a tremendous center."
Takes one to know one.
Newfangled scouting - To say that the art of reviewing games has changed over the years would be an understatement. Where once players convened in a dark room and watched films to get an understanding of an opponent's tendencies, today's players often scout an opponent from the comfort of their living rooms.
The proliferation of satellite packages like DirecTV and the like gives not only fans a wide range of game-viewing options but players as well. And while it may sound hard to believe, many of today's players - with Mario Elie at the head of the pack - will hunker down and watch (or tape) hundreds of games so they can keep a competitive edge.
"A lot of our guys do that," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "I hear them talking about it all the time where they've watched the game the night before. That's great. Heck, yeah."
Yeah, and it would have been greater had technology like that been available during Tomjanovich's day.
"No, we didn't have that," Tomjanovich said with a laugh. "We had one of those old reel-to-reel tape deals. I took it home one summer, but it was one of those big, heavy things that was tough to lug around, and then the tape would get all tangled up. It was tough. But before that, it was film, and you'd be sitting in the room and the film would burn as you were watching it.
"That was like my first or second year. In fact, in one of these storage rooms here (at Compaq Center) we still have some old movies of me playing against the Celtics. Now that would be something to see."
The last word - "I never did take that (audio-visual) class, so I always had trouble with the machines." - the technologically challenged Rudy Tomjanovich, on his troubles with the old projectors and tape decks the Rockets' scouting department used during his playing days