By Jeff Merron
Page 2

A few good big men. That's what we're talking about – centers and power forwards who make their marks in the NBA as rookies. This season we've got a couple of keepers. Probable Rookie of the Year Emeka Okafor, the Bobcats' 6-foot-10 center/forward, is fifth in the NBA in rebounding and also averaging 15 points per game (leading the Bobcats in both categories). Orlando's Dwight Howard, who's only 19, gives three years to Okafor and, for that reason, may have an even brighter future. He's pulling down 10 and putting up 11 a game.

That's all good. But great? Neither Okafor nor Howard is having a season that compares with the best rookie big men since 1969, when Wes Unseld won the MVP award as a rookie center for the Bullets. That's where we're starting – hence no Wilt, no Bill Russell.

Remember the ABA?
The ABA was wild – red, white, and blue basketball, 3-point shot (back then the line was 25 feet out), funky unis – and lots of great big rookies.

You could say that the ABA had a thing with height, but that just doesn't do it justice.

Consider this: The ABA's first commissioner, the great George Mikan, had been the NBA's first great big man. Not a bad choice for commish, especially when you take into account his greatest contribution to the game of basketball, the red, white, and blue ball.

Consider this: The Dallas Chapparals opened their first season by showing off "Miss Tall Texan," 6-foot-7 Brendo Darney, who could also be 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-9 depending on how she decided to pile her hair that day.

Consider that in order to get the greatest of the young big men, they raided the Porky Chedwicks of Pittsburgh's YMWHA circuit. That netted Connie Hawkins, who'd been banned from the NBA and became the ABA's first MVP while leading the Pittsburgh Pipers to the title.

Consider that to get other top tallsters, the league invented the "hardship case," which it used to justify drafting players before they graduated college. (This was a rhetorical device to forestall legal action; in fact, the thought of "hardship" came after the thought of "get them before the NBA can.") The first big hardship grab was Spencer Haywood, who left the scholarly life at the University of Detroit to become the MVP and Rookie of the Year for the Denver Rockets in 1970.

The following season the Kentucky Colonels snatched Dan Issel, who led the league in scoring with a 29.9 average (despite going 0-for-15 from 3-point range) and was named to the second-team All-ABA squad.

In 1971, 7-foot-2 rookie center Artis Gilmore joined Issel on the Colonels; the A-Train also won MVP and Rookie of the Year honors. The now-awesome Kentucky squad compiled a 68-16 mark while winning the East Division title by 23 games. But somehow, the Nets beat them in the first round of the playoffs.

And finally, as the ABA wound down in what would be its penultimate season, along came Marvin Barnes. Marvin the Magnificent couldn't do much to improve the Spirits of St. Louis, but the rookie out of Providence averaged 24 ppg (5th in the league) and 15.6 rpg (3rd), despite skipping town once because he wanted a new contract.

10. Alonzo Mourning (1992-93, Charlotte Hornets)
Zo, picked second in the draft behind Shaq, averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots per game, lifting the Hornets into the playoffs and, with a dramatic buzzer-beating 20-footer, past Boston in the first round.

9. Ralph Sampson (Houston Rockets, 1983-84)
Sampson's the only man on this list who had the best season of his career as a rookie. The 7-foot-4 center from Virginia averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds per game, and made the All-Star team. He was named rookie of the month every month. The Rockets more than doubled their 1982-83 output of 14 wins.

8. Dave Cowens (Boston Celtics, 1970-71)
Cowens, picked fourth in the 1970 NBA draft, immediately became one of the best centers in the league. He averaged 17 points and 15 rebounds a game as the Celtics, who won only 34 games in 1969-70, got their heads above .500 again. Cowens was named Rookie of the Year, and two years later would be MVP.

7. Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston Rockets, 1984-85)
Hakeem (then Akeem) made the All-Star team as a rook, averaging 20.6 points and 11.9 rebounds (fourth in the NBA), teaming with soph Sampson to ratchet the Rockets to 48 wins and a playoff berth. A year later, Houston was in the NBA Finals.

6. Shaquille O'Neal (Orlando Magic, 1992-93)
Shaq averaged 23 points (9th in the NBA), 14 rebounds (2nd) and 3.5 blocked shots (2nd) to lead the Magic to a 20-win improvement.

5. David Robinson (San Antonio Spurs, 1989-90)
The Admiral was consistently great from game one, swept the season's rookie of the month honors and finished with averages of 24.3 points and 12 rebounds per game. He was the key ingredient in the Spurs' 35-win improvement from the year before.

4. Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs, 1997-98)
Duncan, a 7-foot forward, averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds and was named to the All-NBA team his rookie season. He finished sixth in the NBA MVP voting as the Spurs won 56 games – a 36-win improvement from '97 (when Robinson was hurt).

3. Wes Unseld (Baltimore Bullets, 1968-69)
Can't get much better than this: In 1968-69, the 6-foot-7 center out of Louisville, picked No. 2 overall by the Bullets, played every game and won both MVP and Rookie of the Year honors. The only other player to accomplish this double: Wilt Chamberlain.

What did Unseld do to get himself in such rarefied company? It's a puzzler. He averaged only 13.8 points – about 15 points fewer than fellow rook Elvin Hayes. He was fifth in the NBA in rebounding, averaging 18.2 – only one more than Hayes. And Hayes averaged 45 minutes a game – nine more minutes than Unseld.

Using more advanced measures – efficiency, approximate value and versatility – Hayes comes out ahead of Unseld, too.

Often cited as a major reason that Unseld took the honor was that the Bullets improved 21 games with Unseld at center, going from 36 to 57 wins and from worst to first in their division. But with Hayes, the Rockets improved just as dramatically, from 15-67 to 37-45 and a trip to the playoffs.

It's been said that Unseld was a true catalyst for Baltimore, that he combined his rebounding skills with quick outlet passes that jazzed the Bullets' fastbreak. That wouldn't show up in the stat lines. But it still seems that Unseld, despite indisputable HOF bona-fides and what was, in fact, a great rookie season, is probably the least deserving MVP of all time.

2. Elvin Hayes (San Diego Rockets, 1968-69)
Leading scorer (28.4 ppg). Sixth-best rebounder (17.1 per game), and second-best rebounding forward. He led the league in minutes played, going 45 a night for all 82 games. The Rockets went from a dismal 15 wins to a hopeful 37 wins (and a playoff spot). Yet Hayes, who made the All-Star team for the first of 12 straight seasons, was not voted first- or second-team All-NBA, and was not among the top five MVP vote-getters. Go figure.

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Milwaukee Bucks, 1969-70)
The No. 1 overall pick in 1969, Kareem (then known as Lew Alcindor) averaged 28.8 points (second in the NBA) and 14.5 rebounds (third) per game, made All-NBA second team and All-Defensive second team. He could dish, too, leading all centers with 4.1 assists per game. The Bucks went from 27-55 to 56-26 and the second round of the playoffs, and he finished third in the NBA MVP voting.

Also receiving votes:
Dikembe Mutombo
Yao Ming
Elton Brand
Pat Ewing