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BYU basketball: 'Hutch' and 'Bones' paved way for future BYU centers like Mika

Eric Mika, from BYU, takes a shot during the NBA draft basketball combine Thursday, May 11, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Eric Mika, from BYU, takes a shot during the NBA draft basketball combine Thursday, May 11, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Charles Rex Arbogast, AP

With the departure of outstanding BYU center Eric Mika to a professional basketball career, the inevitable comparisons to previous BYU centers are there to evaluate and pontificate.

In the mid-20th century, early in the Stan Watts coaching era, there were two significant contributors at the center position. Their Cougar careers began a span of centers from the 1950s through the early 1970s that vaulted the play of the post at BYU.

The first was one of the all-time greats in BYU basketball annals ... the incomparable Mel "Hutch" Hutchins. Cougar lore celebrates the BYU 1951 National Invitation Tournament run at famous Madison Square Garden in New York City. BYU was led by Hutchins — its dominating center — and his sidekick, guard Roland Minson.

"Minnie" and "Hutch" and the rest of the highly skilled Cougar squad captivated the New York crowds and press, capping off the NIT experience with a resounding 19-point win over the Dayton Flyers.

After his magic senior year at BYU, Hutchins was the second player taken in the 1951 NBA draft and had a standout pro career that lasted until 1958. That included one year, 1952, where he led the NBA in rebounds.

Not long after Hutchins left BYU, along came "Bones." Herschel Pedersen manned the center position for the Cougars in the mid-'50s. With his tall, gangly frame, the nickname "Bones" suited him.

Pedersen teamed with a short but prolific scorer, Terry Tebbs, for some exciting seasons, highlighted by a Motor City Tournament championship in Detroit during the 1955-56 season.

The next center on the Cougar roster was the undersized, but sharp-elbowed, Roy Thacker. He provided workmanlike performances in the late '50s and played a role in the Cougars' defeat of the third-ranked Kansas State Wildcats and the famed Bob Boozer in December 1958.

On that same Cougar team was an up-and-coming center with a deadly hook shot, Dave Eastis. As recorded in the BYU Basketball Almanac, Eastis scored 44 points against New Mexico in 1960, which was a school single-game scoring record at the time. He and guard Gary Earnest were quite a combo.

The center position was manned by committee for the next couple of years, with the only consistent performer being John Lewis, then gifted center John Fairchild came to BYU from Palomar Junior College in California.

Fairchild came during a two-year recuiting bonanza in the early '60s. Teamed with deadly shooting guard Dick Nemelka, Fairchild led the Cougars to the 1965 NCAA Tournament along with capturing the Western Athletic Conference championship. He was drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers.

Fairchild was the precursor for two more star centers who came to BYU in successive years. Craig Raymond, who liked to be called "Stretch," and Jim Eakins, called "Bronto" by his teammates for his long torso, both succeeded at the professional level after their careers at BYU.

Raymond had some significant high points at BYU, grabbing 21 rebounds in a dramatic win over Utah in Salt Lake City, with the winning shot coming from Nemelka in the closing seconds. Utah wound up in the Final Four that year, even with the two losses to the Cougars.

Raymond and the Cougars won the NIT in New York that same year. "Stretch" and Steve Kramer tied for scoring honors in the dominating win over New York University in that 1966 NIT final.

Eakins shared time with Raymond in his first two BYU seasons, at a time when at one point, BYU was fortunate to have three 6-foot-11 centers, including colorful Orville Fisher.

Eakins went on to a long and solid professional career in the American Basketball Association and the NBA. His pro career stats are at the top of former BYU players, with the Basketball Almanac showing him first in rebounds among former Cougars and second in scoring, behind only legendary Danny Ainge.

Raymond's career was not as long, but he had some highlights. He was drafted in the first round of the NBA by the Philadelphia 76ers. His big year was a title run by the Los Angeles Stars in 1970, who took the vaunted Indiana Pacers to six games in the ABA finals. The next year the Stars moved to Utah with Willie Wise and company.

Still another center made BYU noise in the late 60's, as Scott Warner grabbed 27 rebounds in a 1969 game — it stands as a BYU record even today.

Those sterling performances over those two decades led up to one of the all time greats in BYU history as well as international basketball history, Kresimir Cosic. His career biography would certainly take up more than one article. In short, Cosic was named all-conference three times and earned five All-America honors in his BYU tenure, and the late Cosic is in the BYU Hall of Fame and Basketball Hall of Fame.

Mika had some big shoes to fill in representing BYU greats at the center position, and did so admirably in his short Cougar career. Now comes the period of BYU basketball in the post-Mika era and trust that there will be more gems in the offing at the post position.

Ken Driggs of Mesa, Arizona, is a BYU graduate and served as Cosmo in the '60s. Contact him at kkdriggs@gmail.com.