Center Stage: Legendary Big Men in NBA History

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nce upon a time, building a successful franchise in the National Basketball Association was seemingly as simple as recruiting the most dominant center available and then getting the ball to him as often as possible. This was a formula that brought championships to numerous teams that were fortunate enough to have acquired the best "Big Man" of the era - "Big Men" such as George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Bill Walton, Moses Malone and Shaquille O'Neal. These were some of the legendary giants that stood at center stage on the NBA's courts, and who threw huge shadows as they basked in the spotlight.

Today, while the NBA is still rich in skilled talent when it comes to centers, the league has begun to see more well-rounded "teams" emerge - a departure from the time when a dominating star was simply assisted by those "other guys" on the court.

Chamberlain
Photo Courtesy of Icon Sports

Now don't get the wrong idea here, the "Big Guy" still exists. We've seen him in the likes of Alonzo Mourning, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone and the imports from the Far East - Wang Zhi Zhi and Yao Ming. But even the biggest fans of these "Big Men" would be hard-pressed to say that most of them are dominating forces on their respective teams or could be credited as the defining hierarchy of the era. Ask yourself - is there any center in today's league that could be considered as dominating of a force as Mikan was when he led the Minneapolis Lakers to four NBA titles in the 1950s? Will there ever again be Goliaths such as Chamberlain and Russell who can rule the league as they did throughout the 1960s?

In the Twenty-first Century NBA, could one single player ever be as singled out as Kareem was during the 1970s and 1980s? And while we're throwing around the names of league-dominating pivots, let's not forget those who hovered just beneath those over-shadowing legends - solid stars and super stars such as Dave Cowens, Bob McAdoo, Bob Lanier, Wes Unsled, Willis Reed, Elvin Hays, Bill Laimbeer, Brad Daugherty, Robert Parish, Artis Gilmore and the aforementioned Walton, Olajuwon, Malone, Robinson, Ewing and Shaq.

But still, the centers of today are no longer viewed as the one-man-teams they once were. Perhaps, that is due to Michael Jordan, who changed just everything about the game of professional basketball, and forced us to realize that there were in fact other men on the court beside the centers. Maybe it was because of a wave of bigger guards and forwards, which has resulted in fewer rebounds and thus, fewer opportunities for the pivots. Or quite possibility, it may have had something to do with double-teaming and defensive sophistication, which has forced others to move outside and take jump shots. Let's remember, it was not that long ago that there was no 3-point shot, which meant that the total emphasis was in getting the ball to the center.

Kareem
Photo Courtesy of Icon Sports

Another factor that may explain the downgrading of the center from dominating superstar status is that young athletes are coming into the professional ranks with far greater versatility than those of bygone eras. Today's players who have the height to play center are often fast enough to also play power forward.

Perhaps, the game of professional basketball has been forever changed and we will not see the likes of the traditional dominating center again. Or, perhaps there are upcoming athletes out there who, like Jordan, can single-handedly change the game - eclipsing current day formulas and returning the "Big Man's" place on the court to its former glory.

Who can say? But one thing is for sure - for those who have played the role of the "Big Man" throughout the past decades, their place in NBA history and the hobby will forever keep them at center stage.

For card collectors who are interested in amassing a set of legendary NBA centers, all of those aforementioned in this piece are "must-haves". But let's take a closer look at the top of the heap - the cream of the crop - the cards that will truly be center stage in such a collection:

GEORGE MIKAN

While no one player has the dubious distinction of ending the center's dominating role, George Mikan is clearly the man who first established the position and blazed the way for the Chamberlians, Russells and Kareems.

Mikan

Along with defining the role of the center, Mikan is as responsible as any player in the NBA for defining the game. Averaging 22.6 points per game during his career, Mikan led the NBA in rebounding twice and in scoring on four separate occasions. He retired as the all-time scoring leader and then went on to serve as the first commissioner of the American Basketball Association.

The most sought after Mikan card is also the most desirable of all basketball cards - the 1948 Bowman # 69. This is THE premier hoops card and it doesn't come easy. Residing in an extremely tough set, Sports Market Report editor Joe Orlando has called it the "crown jewel of basketball cards". "Like the Goudeys, the Bowmans are often found with toning around the edges ... ," said Orlando, who added that centering is also a major factor on this card. "Many Mikans are found with tilts causing the card to qualify as off-center. With the great contrast between the borders and the dark-blue background, poor centering is very noticeable and affects the eye-appeal."

This card's importance cannot be stressed enough and a robust future demand for it is inevitable.

BILL RUSSELL

In every sport there are the stars, the superstars and the legendry icons - Bill Russell is one of the legendry icons. In thirteen seasons with the Boston Celtics, Russell garnered eleven championships. The first center to take defensive play to a true art form, his shot blocking and rebounding was as much a part of his legend as his scoring.

Russell

Russell's only recognized rookie card is the 1957 Topps # 77 which is key to a set that is considered to be one of the toughest issues ever produced. The 1957 Topps #77 is a part of the oft-told story of the dealer who found 1,000 of these cards in unopened vending boxes. In what has become known throughout the hobby as the "Tyler Texas Find", only fifty total cards were believed to garner gradings of NM-MT or better. Think about that - these cards were kept in pristine condition for decades, never being exposed to light or touch - and yet only a scant few were found to be free of major problems. When it comes to centering and print quality, the 1957 Topps # 77 was one of the most inconsistent cards ever produced. Its centering and print quality problems are as legendary as the man himself and are the reasons why it is so extremely difficult to locate this card in high grades.

Russell

WILT CHAMBERLAIN

Arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, Wilt Chamberlain dominated the game in a way that even Jordan couldn't match. He did so by scoring 4,000 points in a season and 100 points in a game. He led the NBA in scoring for seven straight seasons and led his team to two championships. Wilt the Stilt also chalked up legendary "scoring" statistics off the court, but that's for another article - in another magazine.

Chamberlain

Along with the rookie cards of Mikan and Jordan, Chamberlain's rookie offering, the 1961 Fleer # 8, is one of the most desirable cards in the basketball card hobby. Despite its high desirability and demand, this card is not as difficult to find as the Mikan or Russell cards. Although they do not come inexpensively, they are somewhat available in high grades. In lower grades, they suffer from print defects, centering problems and rough cuts that may affect the corners.

LEW ALCINDOR (KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR)

The Babe, The Greatest, Broadway Joe, The Great One - it doesn't matter what you call them, Ruth, Ali, Namath and Gretzky were icons of their respective sports. The same was true of the big man in goggles who, no matter if you call him Lew or Kareem, was one of the most dominating forces in NBA history.

Alcindor

A UCLA Bruin under Coach John Wooden, Alcindor was a part of the legendary Bruin team that chalked up an 88-2 record and three NCAA championships. As a pro, he changed his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and was named 1970's Rookie of the year. He went on to win six NBA championships, six NBA MVP Awards and was named to the All-Star team nineteen times.

A controversial player who sometimes rubbed people the wrong way, Lew Alcindor's rookie card, the 1969 Topps # 25, is one of the toughest finds in the hobby. An oversized card, it has suffered from the inherent damage that big cards are prone to. Couple that fact with a poorly designed card that is usually found severely off-center, and subject to print defects, and you can easily see why it is difficult to find in high grades. However, when you do find one of those rare beauties, it is truly something to behold. The card is aesthetically pleasing and just like the man it represents, will be a legendary component to any collection.

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL

O'Neal

He's not just big; he's bigger than big - larger than life - both on and off the court. At 7 feet 1 inch and 300-plus pounds, Shaq is representative of the new center, able to move up and down the court more like a 6-foot guard. Always a major offensive force, Shaq's final totals are not yet recorded. But it doesn't take a crystal ball to foresee that, when he finally hangs up those huge shoes, he will take his rightful place with basketball's elite.

The 1992 Upper Deck # 1 is Shaq's most popular rookie card. Depicted as a member of the Orlando Magic (in case you forgot he wasn't always a Laker), the high gloss surface of this card is very sensitive to handling. Chipping along the back edges of the card and wear at the tips of the corners show up very easily on this card, and rough cutting didn't do anything to help the chipping problem. This card offers a solid challenge in gem mint condition.

THE OTHER BIG MEN'S BIG CARDS

• The 1969 Topps # 60 Willis Reed is a part of an extremely hot set. The Reed card is key to the set.

• Bill Walton's premier rookie card is the 1974 Topps # 39, which commands around $275 in PSA 9.

Chamberlain

• A PSA 9 graded Moses Malone 1975 Topps # 254 can be found in the $60 range.

• You will have to pony up about $125 to get your hands on a Robert Parish rookie card which is the 1977 Topps # 111.

• Patrick Ewing's rookie card is the 1986 Fleer # 32. A PSA 9 will set you back about $50.

• Hakeem Olajuwon's rookie offering is the 1986 Fleer # 82. Like the Ewing card, this can be found in PSA 9 for about $50.

• Tim Duncan has many rookie cards, with his 1997-98 SP Authentic #128 running about $200 in PSA 10.