Saluting the big men who used to make the game go
There was a time in the NBA when the big man ruled the game. Success at the pro level began with the man in the middle; those 7-foot, imposing figures who dominated the game of basketball and dictated much of the action. Now, they don’t even put centers on the All-Star ballot as the game has evolved (for the better or worse) and having a big body around the rim to provide strength and paint presence is secondary to fast, quick, smaller guys who can shoot the trey and pirouette on the perimeter.
We can’t, however, forget the mythical centers of yesteryear who produced some superstar moments during the past half-century of NBA basketball.
Here’s TSL’s Top 5 All-Star Performances by a center.
Wilt Chamberlain, 1962: There’s never been a more dominant scorer in the history of the game and no NBA All-Star ever scored more points than the incomparable Chamberlain did in the ‘62 All-Star Game, posting an eye-popping 42 points and 24 rebounds in establishing himself as the most prolific scoring big man to grace the hardwood.
Bob Pettit, 1958: The 6-foot-9 post prodigy from Baton Rouge, Louisiana played 11 years in the NBA and won the NBA All-Star Game MVP award four times, a feat matched only by Kobe Bryant. His MVP performance in the ‘58 Game was his finest as he poured in 28 points and snatched a game-high 26 boards, and it came in a season in which Pettit led the Hawks to an NBA Championship upset over the mighty Celtics.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1980: As great as Chamberlain was, Kareem took the center position and scoring at that position to another level. At the time of his retirement in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar was the NBA's all-time leader in points scored (38,387), games played (1,560), minutes played (57,446), field goals made (15,837), field goal attempts (28,307), blocked shots (3,189) and defensive rebounds (9,394).
He remains the all-time leading scorer in the NBA, and is ranked 3rd all-time in both rebounds and blocks. Kareem was an All-Star 19 times, so I picked the game that exemplified his all-around dominance and uniqueness as a 7-foot-2 center -- the 1980 game when Kareem scored 17 points, pulled 16 boards, dropped nine dimes and had six blocks.
Shaquille O’Neal, 2004: In the 53rd NBA All-Star Game, the West defeated the East 136-132, as Shaq scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. He was the brightest star on the court despite being a reserve selection, outshining cats like Allen Iverson, Kobe, Vinsanity and T-MAC. It was Shaq’s second of three All-Star MVP Awards and I chose this game because he was the centerpiece of a Lakers Dynasty at the time and at the pinnacle of his dominance. His last All-Star Game MVP came in 2009 as his culturally-incomparable career was coming to a close.
Moses Malone, 1987: It was a typical day at the office for Malone, the first Hall of Fame high school-to-pro hooper in NBA history. Malone poured in 27 points and snagged 17 rebounds as the West fell to the East 154-149 in a barn-stormer. A player with stupid ups named Tom Chambers came out of nowhere to score 34 points and snatched Malone’s best chance for his only All-Star MVP in 12 tries.
The fact that he didn’t win the MVP is indicative of the underrated moniker that plagues Malone’s illustrious yet often overlooked career, as he averaged about 21 points and 12 rebounds over 22 seasons, making him a pioneer of the position.
He played in a golden era of NBA Hall of Famers and the rosters he was on were always flooded with flashy guards and high-octane forwards. Joining Malone on the East starting team were icons Larry Bird, Dr. J, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. Magic, Worthy and Hakeem The Dream were West starters.