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Eric Walden: Big men no longer the center of attention in the NBA, and that’s too bad

Mark Eaton of the Utah Jazz seems to have Los Angeles Lakers player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in hand during their NBA playoff game at the Forum in Inglewood, California May 8, 1988.(AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the reason I became a basketball fan.

At 4 or so years of age, I caught a then-rare national broadcast of an NBA game, and was instantly transfixed by the tall, lanky, lithe, begoggled, balletic, otherworldly, skyhooking center. He was unlike anything I could have imagined (not surprising, I’ll admit, given my admittedly small worldview at the time). That didn’t change much even as I got older, however.

Whether directly tied to Kareem or not, though, my nascent basketball fandom was inevitably most impacted by other similar Colossuses (Colossusi?). The big men of the ’80s and ’90s NBA were enthralling to me — David Robinson’s smoothness of motion, Hakeem Olajuwon’s athleticism and skill, Patrick Ewing’s scowling ferocity, Dikembe Mutombo’s playful defensive mastery, Alonzo Mourning’s burning intensity and Shaq’s brute-force assaults on defenders and rims alike.

Later on, as my appreciation of the history of the game grew, I began to research others who I’d missed — Wilt, Russell, Moses, Walton, etc.

And while there were plenty of other smaller legends I loved along the way (Magic, Worthy, Bird, Dominique, Barkley, Jordan and so on), they couldn’t ever quite match the giants, the behemoths, the leviathans who made the progeny of 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-5 parents wish — against all apparent rational hope — that he might one day grow to be 7 feet tall.

That dream was eventually abandoned. Much like the center position in the modern NBA.

OK, that’s admittedly a bit hyperbolic. Technically, only the Houston Rockets have completely eschewed the position for now. And one Rudy Gobert-Bourgarel of Saint-Quentin, France might have a bone to pick with me the next time our paths cross.

Still, it’s hard not to look at the modern NBA and conclude that a league that was once actually premised upon and dominated by the presence of very tall men now has increasingly little use for them, unless they, too, can hit 3-pointers at a semi-efficient clip.

This is not really earth-shattering news, I know, but it makes me sad.

You will recall a few seasons ago when positional voting for All-Star Game starting lineups was amended to eliminate the one-center/two-forward format of forever in favor of three “frontcourt” positions.

Honestly, once coaches figured out a few years back that efficient 3s are a better percentage play than post-ups, it spelled the position’s doom.

Again, hyperbole. After all, Gobert’s rim protection is still a thing. Nikola Jokic’s all-around offensive brilliance is still a thing. Joel Embiid’s frequent falling down and being rewarded with free throws is still a thing.

Meanwhile, the Suns liked center DeAndre Ayton enough to draft him over Luka Doncic (though I think we can concede that was a mistake). Center James Wiseman is a candidate to go No. 1 in the next draft. So, centers are still kinda sorta a thing.

Just not in Houston, as the Rockets dealt away big man Clint Capela the other day, content to roll all smallball-like with 6-5 P.J. Tucker manning the middle. They’re betting they have enough 3-point shooting and defensive switchability to make life miserable for conventional opposing lineups. And they just might, if recent performances against the Jazz and Lakers are any indication.

I really hope centers aren’t ancient history. Basketball without exceptionally large humans is just weird to me. This whole Houston experiment is kinda making me worried that, in a copycat league, centers may not be long for the basketball world.

Then again, the Rockets lost by 36 and got outrebounded 51-29 by Ayton and the Suns on Friday night. So perhaps all Houston will end up doing is proving the big fellas still have a place in the game after all.

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