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9.12.2008

How Did Russell & Chamberlain Get All Those Rebounds?

Bob Ryan

The men who watch NBA basketball closest and love it the most are in general agreement: Whereas once certifiable mastodons assaulted each other and shook backboards in aggressive pursuit of free basketballs, now a breed of benign creatures prefers to watch and wait, hoping someone else will do the work. It is almost as if they have forgotten one essential basketball maxim: namely, you can't play without the ball.

American cars, airline schedules and Hollywood films aren't the only things that, regrettably, ain't exactly what they used to be. NBA rebounders aren't, either. We are living in an age where starting 7-foot centers such as Bill Cartwright and Darryl Dawkins average well under 10 rebounds a game (7.47 and 7.17, respectively) and aren't at all embarrassed about these numbers. For a variety of reasons, rebounding has become, in the words of Utah player personnel director Bill Bertka, "a lost art."

It's not just the numbers, for there is a very simple explanation for the dearth of 20-rebound men. The game has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, as befits the more intense control of the coaches and the superior shooting skills of the modern player. Consider that in 1960-61, the Celtics attempted 119 shots per game and every team in the league tried at least 101. The best team shooting percentage in the league, meanwhile, was St. Louis' .419. In the 13 years that comprised the Bill Russell era (1956-69), the lowest shot average among team leaders was 104.7 (Seattle, 1967-68).

We now live in a totally different age. It has been eight seasons since any team has tried 100 shots per game. Even Denver, generally viewed as the only throwback to the good old "run-and-gun" days of yore, was under 100 last year, leading the league with 97. Conversely, Utah has attempted only 83 shots per game in each of the last two years. In other words, the Jazz last season attempted nearly one-third fewer shotsover the course of a 48-minute game than the 1960-61 Celtics. While this radical change in offensive thinking has been going on, marksmanship has improved at an astonishing rate. The last four team field-goal percentage leaders have shot over 50 percent from the floor. Five teams, including Boston, reached that watershed level last season.

What this all means is that teams now take significantly fewer shots than they did in years past, and make far more of them. Put Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, each with seasons of more than 20 rebounds per game (neither ever dropped under 18) in today's league and their figures would drop correspondingly. But the fact remains that they would still lead the league and no one would be close.

Because no matter how far you stretch the numbers and how much you talk about the percentage of available this or the logarithm of that, people who make their money running this league will still go by what they see and feel, and what they feel is this: Not enough players want to rebound.

"Maybe," suggests Philadelphia general manager Pat Williams, "because it's the dirty job, the unattractive job, and takes hard work and determination, nobody wants to do it. You need a passion. It's got to be a high priority to be done well."

Williams will get no argument from Red Auerbach, who has observed every great rebounder from Ed Sadowski to Buck Williams. "Unless you're just naturally a super rebounder or dedicated to a team concept, you're only going to go after the ball to a point these days. If your rebounding average goes up from six to nine, so what? But if your scoring average goes from 14 to 18, you can make more money. The lack of rebounding is a matter of dedication and personal achievements, with a leaning toward economics."

Rebounding takes work, and at the highest level of play, it has very little to do with that most hallowed of all basketball skills - jumping. One might legitimately rate the keys to rebounding in the following order: 1) effort (i.e. "Do you want the damn ball or don't you?"), 2) position, 3) timing (along with its unteachable corollary, anticipation) and 4) leaping.

Some strength is required in order to maintain the position. But one of the greatest of all rebounders was Jerry Lucas, and he could barely bench- press a case of beer. Of more importance is mental tenacity, for successful rebounding requires some stick-to-itiveness. "Take a guy like Bailey Howell on the offensive boards," says Auerbach. "He felt that if he went after every missed shot and got his hand on one out of five, it was good. Lots of guys get frustrated easily."

There is yet another unteachable asset, and that is quickness to the basketball. There is a millisecond when the ball is available, and the rebounder must arrive at the proper instant. Larry Bird, for all his celebrated non-jumping ability, nonetheless gets to the apex of his limited leap very quickly. Dawkins, by contrast, must flex his legs in order to jump, and he is shockingly slow going after the ball. New Jersey rookie Buck Williams will be a rebounding sensation because he is extrordinarily quick to the ball. He can be up on a third effort while Opponent X is thinking about No. 2. Since Williams also fulfills requirements 1 through 4, he simply cannot miss being a force on the boards in the NBA.

Great rebounders excite the professionals. Listen to Paul Silas on the subject of Dave Cowens: "The thing is to have that burning desire to get to the ball. Larry Smith and Larry Bird have it, but Cowens had it most of all. The ball was like a diamond to him . . . a $100,000 diamond."

Cowens entered the league in 1970, at the tail end of what would be considered the Golden Age of Rebounding. Russell was gone, but Chamberlain, then 34 and still averaging 18 rebounds a game, was still in flower. Westley Unseld was in his prime. The top 10 rebounders were Chamberlain, Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor), Jerry Lucas, Bill Bridges, Cowens, Tom Boerwinkle, Nate Thurmond and Willis Reed. Eight of those 10 men would, without a trace of remorse, pick you up and deposit you in the 17th row in order to add one rebound to his total. The exceptions were Lucas, with his uncanny timing and dedication to the art, and Alcindor, to whom rebounding has always been a bother but who, at 7 feet 3, has not been able to escape his obligations. The transition from freestyle offense to today's football mentality was in progress, and the numbers were impressive. Reed was 10th at 13.7 rebounds a game. There were 11 instances of 30 or more individual rebounds in games during the 1970-71 season, and 35 more of 25 or better. Last season 30 was reached on one occasion (Golden State's Larry Smith, 31 against Denver), and 25 was attained in just five other instances. The top defensive rebound total in a given game was 18. Rather than basket-ball, many modern big men appear to think the sport is called porcupine-ball.

In fairness to the contemporary center, especially, it should be pointed out that a further subtle change in modern thinking has led to the reduction in rebounds. Both Auerbach and Bill Fitch are in agreement, for example, that the overall rise in shot-blocking has had a direct effect on rebound totals for certain big men. "Take a good shot blocker," says Auerbach, "and he's generally not a good rebounder." Adds Fitch, "I'm certain that if Robert Parish (1980-81 rebound average: 9.5) stopped concentrating on blocks and went harder to the boards, he'd increase his rebounds to 12 or 13 a game. Kevin McHale has the potential to be a great rebounder, but he's also concentrating on blocks. The idea is intimidation first, but it's still all part of defense."

That Russell somehow managed to intimidate generations of shooters and still pull down 25 rebounds a game only serves to underscore his unparalleled virtuosity.

Fitch, incidentally, must be ranked as one of the leading detractors of modern rebounders. Asked to rank his top five active board men, he listed "Moses" as No. 1, skipped places 2, 3 and 4 and placed the much-admired Smith, Kermit Washington, Swen Nater, Maurice Lucas, Mitch Kupchak and Bird in a six-way tie for fifth. Fitch concedes that Malone's reputation rests, to a disproportionate degree, on his offensive rebounding (in truth, Big Mo is frequently an indifferent defensive rebounder) but points out that "all those offensive rebounds are defensive rebounds you don't get, so what's the difference in the long run?"

One thing is evident in rebounding evaluations, and that is that numbers don't overly impress the pros. Take Phoenix forward Leonard (Truck) Robinson, for example. This former rebound king (15.7 a game in '77-78) is never discussed when the topic is legitimate rebounders. Far more admired is Washington, described by aficionado Silas as "a very, very aggressive rebounder who does it with strength." Robinson gets more rebounds, but the latter is considered to be a "real" rebounder and the former is not.

A rebound, you see, is not just a rebound. Some guys pad stats with rebounds of missed free throws. Others board ferociously during garbage time. General managers try to weed out the "stat" rebounders from the "honest" rebounders. A good rebounder, according to Bertka, is a "creative rebounder, a guy who gets hard-to-get rebounds." Scouts deride "funnel rebounders," players who only get rebounds in a vertical plane. Russell, Silas and Cowens were three extraordinary rebounders who continually got rebounds that "didn't belong to them." Seattle rookie forward Danny Vranes appears to have that knack as well.

There are a few throwbacks - Washington, the wiry Smith and, of course, Bird. Jack Sikma is from the old school, as is Dan Roundfield. LA reserve Mark Landsberger annually piles up impressive rebounds-per-minute figures, but no one thinks he'd maintain that pace given regular time.

"You can't rate them by minutes played," contends Auerbach. "Somebody who comes in for two or three minutes isn't affected by fatigue. A great rebounder is somebody who can play 35 or 40 minutes and still get that clutch rebound."

What really bugs the pros is the knowledge that these gifted athletes of today simply won't put out the required effort to be rebounders. They just don't make Russells, Unselds or Silases anymore. "That Silas," remembers Celtics' assistant Jimmy Rodgers. "You'd spend your pregame talk saying, You've gotta keep Silas off the boards. You've gotta keep Silas off the boards.' It never mattered. Silas would find a way to get to the boards."

The pros hunger for more Silases, which is why a Buck Williams goes third in the country. The pros think Buck Williams is a walking piece of gold.Best active rebounders1. Moses Malone2. Larry Bird3. Larry Smith4. Jack Sikma5. Kermit Washington

Comment: Malone is the best offensive rebounder ever, so far ahead of the field that his proficiency makes up for average defensive rebounding abilities. Bird, Smith and Sikma are superb two-way rebounders. Washington is better offensively than defensively.Bes t all-time rebounders1. Bill Russell2. Wilt Chamberlain3. Paul Silas. Westley Unseld5. Moses Malone

Comment: Chamberlain got more, but Russell got more that mattered than anyone. Silas was a clinic. Unseld proved Russell's contention that 90 percent of the rebounds are taken below the rim. Malone sneaks in because of his offensive work alone.Best all-time offensive rebounders1. Moses Malone2. Paul Silas3. Tom Heinsohn4. Bailey Howell. Elgin Baylor

Comment: Malone and Silas you know about. Howell was a Bible-toting assassin. Heinsohn was good for one stolen rebound a game, usually in the clutch. And Baylor was relentless and as strong as a Russian shotputter.

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