LOS ANGELES – He started with Wilt Chamberlain and worked his way down. Bob Lanier. Bill Walton. Moses Malone. Artis Gilmore. Robert Parish, who delivered him three memorable championship battles. Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing, representing the youth brigade, arrived in time to take their turns.
Over some 20 seasons, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stood across from them all. These were the men who helped form his training ground. If you wanted to be the best, to stay the best, you took on the best your peers had to offer. For a center during those two decades, the challenges came one after the other, the next only a night or two away.
"I understood that I had to keep my skills sharp," Abdul-Jabbar said. "If I didn't prepare and be ready to do what I had to do near the basket, I'd be embarrassed."
Now 62 and an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar looks out on the NBA today and says, politely, "It's a different landscape."
Kobe Bryant(notes), LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) have their MVP tug-of-war. Chris Paul(notes), Deron Williams(notes), Tony Parker(notes) and Rajon Rondo(notes) have given the league an ever-burgeoning crop of fleet-footed, game-changing point guards. For franchise centers, however, these are the days of climate change and tar pits.
"There's not a lot of us, so we have to stick together."
They are 23 and 21 years old, respectively, and already fighting extinction. That's why Howard and Bynum would like to use these NBA Finals as an opportunity to show the league that for all the 3-point chucking, 7-foot hybrids joining its ranks, there's still some value in having a hulking, shot-swatting, back-to-the-basket center who can impact the game on both ends of the floor. Chicks dig the long ball, but Howard and Bynum are out to prove size still matters.
"It's a rebirth, kind of," Bynum said.
Kind of not, actually. Or not yet, at least. Howard has established himself as a dominant force, but Bynum still has some work to do, and there's not a whole lot behind him. When it comes to legit franchise centers, there's Howard … and Yao Ming(notes) (seemingly always a hairline fracture away from catastrophe) … and Bynum (maybe). Greg Oden(notes), for all of his injuries, has plenty of time to join them, provided he hasn't already signed up for the Michael Olowokandi(notes) Cruise to Oblivion.
Shaquille O'Neal(notes) is still twittering away and coming off a productive season, but he's not someone to build a team around. If you're looking for a good complementary piece for your roster, he'd be great, if you also have $20 million to spare. Tim Duncan(notes)? He's played like a center for years, but don't dare call him that. When the NBA listed him as one on its All-Star ballot two seasons ago, Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs deemed it such an insult – his candidacy was at risk of being swallowed up by Yao's massive Chinese fan base – they successfully petitioned the league to rank his votes among forwards.
Andrew Bogut(notes) gets paid like a franchise center, but can't stay healthy long enough to prove he is one. Samuel Dalembert(notes) gets paid like a franchise center, but isn't. Kendrick Perkins(notes) is a bruiser and effective, but a role player, just the same. Erick Dampier(notes) takes up space and cap room, but does little else.
Chris Bosh(notes) decided the position wasn't for him. Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) might be ready to do the same after seeing Howard close up in the East finals. Nene is … solid. Marc Gasol(notes) is the younger brother of Pau.
Marcus Camby(notes) doesn't play with his back to the basket. Chris Kaman(notes) rarely plays. Andris Biedrins(notes) weighs, what, 180? Mehmet Okur(notes) would rather hang out at the 3-point line, which, of course, is probably where all the franchise centers started vanishing.
"Everyone wants to shoot the 3-pointer," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It's like lotto fever or something. The 3-pointer just has a lot of appeal to young players and their imagination and everything. They work on that and they all want to be 7-foot point guards."
As a result, the skills required to be a dominant center don't seem to have transferred generations. Kareem has started selling "Skyhook" T-shirts on his website, but there's also a reason why you probably haven't seen anyone but Kareem wearing them. For something to be retro, the cool kids first have to know it existed.
Bynum, however, is different. He's developed the skills. He just hasn't stayed on the court long enough to show he can consistently put them to use. A knee injury cut short last season. Another knee injury threatened to do the same to this one. Not wanting to again miss the Finals, he returned in April. He estimates he's 85 percent of full strength and won't fully get his legs back until he can rest in the summer.
"Other than that, it is what it is at this point," he said.
Translation: These playoffs haven't been easy for him, and he hasn't come close to the level of dominance he showed when he averaged 20.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the 12 games before his injury. Still, he's gradually come to accept that the Lakers need him to rebound and protect the rim, and his play picked up in the conference finals, which led to the opener of the NBA Finals and his best performance of the postseason.
Bynum had nine points and nine rebounds in Game 1, and set the tone for how the Lakers hope to make life difficult on Howard. He didn't let Howard overpower him or beat him down the floor, and the Lakers frequently crowded the Magic center with double- and sometimes triple-teams, limiting him to just one basket: a lay-in. On the other end of the floor, Bynum hovered around in the rim in the opening minutes, throwing down a dunk, jamming a missed shot.
Bynum still ran into some foul trouble, a constant problem for him. But the Lakers noticed from the opening tip on he had an extra bounce to his step. They've also come to learn when he plays like that, they're nearly unbeatable.
"Andrew has really cherished the opportunity," said Abdul-Jabbar, whose primary job is to work with Bynum. "This is a great professional opportunity, so he's gotten into that and he's very happy to be here."
Bynum's ongoing frustration, like that of Howard and even that of O'Neal, is that there are so few legit centers for him to play. For now, Howard is the measuring stick. Howard hasn't developed the offensive repertoire of Bynum and is still searching for a go-to move, but Bynum can't match his athleticism or his experience. While Bynum, like Howard, came to the NBA from high school, he didn't start playing the sport until he was a prep.
"It's funny," Abdul-Jabbar said. "He has the tools, but he doesn't know how to use them because he hasn't competed a lot."
Bynum's game has steadily grown and should continue to grow. Howard watched Bynum shoot a fadeaway jumper early this season and wondered: Where in the hell did that come from? "I was like, 'Is that really Andrew?' " Howard said. The two also have discussed working out together this summer in Atlanta, so Howard can help Bynum "get a little bit more toned up."
And if Bynum stays healthy and continues to develop? If Howard continues to refine his own game?
"Given their ages and their talent level," Abdul-Jabbar said, "they could be around here for a long time."
Two twentysomething dinosaurs slugging it out, hoping to remind everyone of an era when the biggest and the best were often one and the same.