For years, since the boom of collegiate and professional basketball in the United States, the teaching of the game of basketball has long been dominated by varying sets of ideas in playing the game. Some have yielded greater results than others, from team play and ball movement to philosophies shift back and forth from defense to offense, but in America, one major thought has remained constant–the bigger and taller you are, the closer to the hoop you play. Now generally, that is a smart thing, looking the idea from a birds-eye view. Naturally, if you’re taller, it makes sense to be closer to the goal, because it would theoretically mean that you have an easier time scoring; but as the game has evolved and the players have become more skilled and athletically enhanced and the team strategies have become more complex, to simply throw a ball up for an easy score is not as basic as is presented on paper. In recent years, where American coaching has demanded that small guys be perimeter-based and big guys be paint-bound, the NBA’s acceptance of increasingly talented international players have challenged the old school of player positioning, particularly in the NBA, where the change of philosophies is most evident.
With the NBA’s genesis beginning with big man stars such as George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, the idea of winning with the dominant big man archetype is not without its positive results. Many a championship was won on the shoulders of Miken with the Minneapolis (now Los Angeles) Lakers and Russell’s Boston Celtics in particularly, in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Even into the 1980s, the Lakers and Celtics traded blows using tall frontcourt lineups with James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on one end and Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish on another side; but outside of Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett all winning championships within the past 15 years, every other league champion has not needed the big man archetype as the instant winning formula. If nothing else, a moderately competent big man would suffice to reach the NBA Finals, as Bill Laimbeer, James Edwards, John Salley and Luc Longley have all won championships beside non-traditional players or smaller players. Quite simply, an NBA champion is no longer automatically wrapped up in a center’s body and skill set, and this has affected the way that basketball is developed and played in the amateur sectors.
In Europe, coaches have long stressed overall skill development of all players, regardless of size, and while it affected the American opinions of European basketball players for decades, with the amazing American success of Dirk Nowitzki, who came from Germany to the Dallas Mavericks in 1998, the institution of height-position relativity changed how young players wanted to play. But Nowitzki was merely the most obvious player to crack the mold. Being listed at seven feet tall (he’s actually 7’1 1/2″) and playing both small forward and power forward on a consistent basis as a three-point shooter, he joined fellow phenom Garnett as the new breed of players–those whose skills relate strongly to perimeter play, and less toward post play. All this leads to another unspoken white lie that many players in the NBA played under–the fudged height reading.
The height readings in game programs and media releases have been accurate in giving a proper description for players’ height and weight, but with coaches that dictated that certain players man certain positions on the court relative to their height, often players who felt threatened by said philosophy would list shorter heights in the effort to fool their coaches and other teams who would dare to provoke them by using them in unfamiliar spots on the court or stifle them with bigger defenders. One such player guilty of the “offense” was Bird, who was actually closer to 6’10” or 6’11” than his listed 6’9″ height; Magic Johnson, Bird’s arch-rival, was also guilty of the fudged height, but has been known as the tallest point guard in the NBA’s history at 6’9″ despite he also being 6’10”. Dozens of players in latter years have been taller than than what they have been listed as from Scottie Pippen (reportedly two to three inches taller than 6’7″) and Garnett (actually 7’1″, not 6’11”) to Tyson Chandler (an inch and a half taller than 7’1″) and LeBron James (listed at 6’8″, reported 6’9 1/2″ in 2008 and possibly still growing). All of the aforementioned players, with the exception of Chandler, play “smaller” positions with much more advanced skill sets than where older coaches would use them.
Of course, inherent in the hard-line American big man philosophy is an inverse philosophy that presents a soft bigotry held toward smaller players with skill sets that also do not fit neatly into the square pegs that are often presented to them. Said players are typically called “tweeners”, as in “in-betweeners”, players whose size and skills are often problematic in coaches using them in game situations. Tweeners are usually “smallish” shooting guards and forwards; the undersized shooting guards may have the right height to play off the ball, but lack the shooting prowess required as a backcourt player, or they may have the skill to play anywhere from the point guard to small forward positions, but lack the ideal size to effectively be a positive asset offensively and/or defensively; with forwards, the same ideal applies, and from the tweener phenomenon being more heavily placed on forwards, there came the new description for the tweener who can use his “nonequivalent” pairing of size and skills positively as a “combo forward” or “hybrid forward”–those terms refer to the forward that can play both small forward and power forward effectively, using his length, skill and/or quickness against slower big men and his size against smaller forwards closer to the basket to score. And while there are tweener forwards who actually play better at the center position (i.e. Ben Wallace, Alonzo Mourning, Amare’ Stoudemire), the power forward and middle man spots on the court are often interchangeable, according to team matchups.
In actuality, the need for fudging one’s physical build may prove to be useless in future years, as more younger players in America have developed what was once considered unorthodox skills for their height measurements.