Almost since the day Dr. James Naismith first nailed up a peach basket, one of the Ten Commandments of Sports has been, "You win basketball championships with a skyscraper at center."
Hooey. It turns out the notion is an old wives tale, as valid as eating bread crust gives you curls.A ladder helps, but you really don't need a center measuring between 7 and 8 feet tall to cut down a net. Basketball championships nowadays are won with superstar point guards and high-scoring forwards. Teamwork is also trump over a center with overactive thyroids.
On a drafting table you couldn't design a more awesome center than the Houston Rockets' BMOC - Big Man On Court - Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon. Tall as timber and quick as a soccer star (which he used to be in his native Nigeria), Hakeem is a rebounding and shot-blocking machine. He also has a repertoire of unstoppable dunks and turnaround 12-foot jumpers that seem guided by radar. In short, Hakeem looks like he could win an NBA title playing with four guys off the playground as teammates.
He can't. In seven pro seasons, Hakeem - formerly Akeem - is ringless and will stay that way at least until next season. For that matter, even with a fraternity of teammates known as Phi Slamma Jamma, Olajuwon never won an NCAA championship either.
The Knicks' Patrick Ewing is an equally impressive specimen, a circus tall man and strong man rolled into one dominating package. Yet Ewing won only one college title and has won zero NBA championships in six seasons - and won't again this year.
Ralph Sampson, billed as the next Wilt Chamberlain even though he never won a college title, was a 7-4 bust in the pros.
It's possible NBA 7-foot sophomore sensation David Robinson could still bring the NBA to its knees, but don't bet on it. Ditto for LSU's Shaquille O'Neal turning out to be "The Real Deal" when he turns pro.
Indeed, a great Big Man does not guarantee a basketball championship.
Statistically, Wilt Chamberlain is the most dominant center to ever dunk a ball. Though he doesn't hold every NBA scoring and rebounding record, "The Big Dipper" holds so many the record book looks as if the printing press had a stutter. Chamberlain, Chamberlain, Chamberlain: Most seasons leading the league in scoring. Most points season, game, half and quarter. Most field goals season, game and half. Most rebounds this, most rebounds that. You get the picture.
However, one must scrutinize the pages to find Chamberlain's name among NBA championship team rosters - 1967 and 1972. Twice, that's all.
Perhaps most telling is the fact Wilt won seven consecutive scoring titles from 1959 through 1966 - once while averaging 50 points a game - but he didn't win his first team championship until '67 when he ranked third in scoring at a meager 24 points per game. And he averaged only 18 points (third best on the Lakers) in 1972.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA titles, but none between 1971 (with Milwaukee and Oscar Robertson) and 1980 when Magic Johnson arrived. Kareem also won rings in '82, '85, '87 and '88 - or did Magic win them?
Robert Parish, a steady but unspectacular 7-footer, led the Celtics to crowns in 1981, '84 and '86 - or did Larry Bird lead the way?
And what about the 1989 and 1990 world champion Detroit Pistons with Bill Laimbeer at center? "Franchise" big men don't shoot 3-pointers. The Pistons might win without the 6-11 Laimbeer, but not without the 6-1 Isiah Thomas.
Yes, in the old days, the "Big Fellas" won the titles. Bill Russell hung 11 banners in Boston Garden's rafters. Willis Reed won titles in 1970 and '73. Wilt in '67 and '72. Young Kareem in '71. Bill Walton in '77. Even in 1983, Moses Malone was a dominant post man.
But often as not the past two decades, NBA titles have been won by teams lacking a Bunyanesque center.
The Celtics won two championships with a 6-9 "center" named Dave Cowens who finished his career as a forward. The Bullets won a title with 6-8 (in sneakers) Wes Unseld. The SuperSonics won a title without a center by any name and the Warriors won with Clifford Ray (who will never get into the Hall of Fame without purchasing a ticket).
Magic Johnson calls Ewing, Olajuwon and Robinson, "three mean Mamma Jammas." But so far, nobody can call any of the three big fellas "NBA champions."
Thou shalt have a great "Mamma Jamma" at center in order to win a championship? It's nice, but not necessary.
(Woody Woodburn is a columnist for the Star-Free Press in Ventura, Calif.)