Rare commodity

Only a select few appreciate the craft of shot-blocking

If for some reason you ever find yourself amongst a gathering of particularly large NBA players and need to identify which ones are shot-blockers, look at their fingertips.

This advice comes from Alonzo Mourning , who holds up his own hand as evidence. "Blood blisters on the tips from hitting the backboard," he says. "They'll turn purple."

If this doesn't work, check out their pinkies. Spend a lot of time swiping at balls near the rim and, inevitably, you're going to miss the former yet hit the latter. Adonal Foyle , shot-blocking specialist for the Warriors, has dislocated his pinkie after clanging it against the iron. Mark Eaton , the former Jazz center and human skyline, once broke the little finger on his left hand when he jammed it against the bottom of the rim trying to swat a shot. Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko , who was second in the league in blocks last season, hasn't tweaked any fingers but has sprained his ankle on numerous occasions upon landing awkwardly after flying in for a block. He's also hurt his back.

Not all injuries associated with the craft of shot-blocking are physical. There is also the highlight-induced damage that can be done to one's ego. "You should be ready to be on poster," says Kirilenko. "I think I got lots of posters with my face on it, trying to block somebody's dunk."

Foyle is philosophical about it. "To be a good shot-blocker, you have to stare getting dunked on in the eye almost every time," he says. "People are going to attack you at the basket and you have to be confident enough to stay in there at the last second. Because one of these days you're going to miss, and eventually you're going to miss maybe two or three times in a row and you are going to get dunked on."

NBA's All-Time Blocked Shot Leaders
Player Blocks
Hakeem Olajuwon 3,830
x-Dikembe Mutombo 3,198
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 3,189
Mark Eaton 3,064
David Robinson 2,954
Patrick Ewing 2,894
Tree Rollins 2,542
x-Shaquille O'Neal 2,381
Robert Parrish 2,361
x-Alonzo Mourning 2,256
x-Active players

Being a dunkee is part of the deal for elite shot-blockers, that rare breed of NBA player who possesses the height, timing, quickness and requisite humility to challenge the league's high-fliers and interior leviathans night after night. As I chronicled in a story in this week's magazine , they are a vanishing breed. This season, only one player -- Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal -- is averaging three blocks a game and, if the season continues at its current clip, the league is on pace to average the fewest per-team blocked shots since 1975.

"It's a dying art," says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar , who is third on the all-time list behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo . "I don't think people get excited about playing interior defense any more."

This may be true in general, but there remains a community of devoted shot-blockers, and it practices a craft that relies on subterfuge, strategy and risk-taking. In interviewing a number of the best over the course of a month, I found most reluctant at first to speak about it, both because they didn't want to divulge the secrets of the trade (one player told me how he defended a certain point guard, then asked to retract the information, lest that player get wind of his strategy) and because they were surprised that someone was actually asking them about it.

"You want to talk about blocks?" asked Mourning at first. "Nobody talks about that."

The Bobcats' Emeka Okafor (tied for second in the league at 2.9 per game) was reticent at first but warmed to the conversation, eventually getting up and using the Charlotte training room as an impromptu imaginary court to act out his various techniques, skipping laterally and swiping at make-believe shots.

Alonzo Mourning says timing -- not leaping ability -- is the key to blocking shots.

Most grew up with a gift for it. Okafor said he was "blocking shots before I knew what a block was." Kirilenko played point guard as a boy in Russia but still averaged "probably three blocks a game." Mourning remembers violently spiking anything that came near him as a teen (he's since learned to tap the ball gently, to keep it in play). The 7-foot-4 Eaton, who still holds the single-season record with an average of 5.56 per game in 1984-85, is a different story. An aspiring auto mechanic who was persuaded to play basketball at a junior college, then sat the bench at UCLA, he was largely ineffective before reaching the pros. In the summer of 1981, while playing a pick-up game at UCLA, he received some unsolicited advice from Wilt Chamberlain , who was then in his forties but still running the floor against men half his age.

"I remember we had a guy on our team named Rocket Rod Foster , to this day the fastest guy I've ever seen," says Eaton. "He'd get to basket about the same time that I got to the top of key. So I was standing there, huffing and puffing, and I felt a large hand on my shoulder. It was Wilt. He said, 'You're never going to catch that man, first of all. Second, it's not your job to catch him. Your job is to guard the basket, then cruise up to half-court to see what's going on. Because if a quick shot goes up, you have to go back.' "

Eaton pauses. "That day, a light bulb went on. I figured out my niche in basketball. This is my house, the paint, this is where I live."

Eaton was the prototypical low-post shot-blocker. The Jazz funneled opposing players to him, allowing their own guards to gamble for steals. Today, with so many running teams, not to mention big men who can shoot threes and the defensive three-second rule, few shot-blockers can afford to stay rooted near the basket. They have to show on the pick-and-roll, cover out to the three point-line and get up and down the floor. This explains in part why blocked shots are down -- as does the trend of glorified power forwards playing center -- but Mourning thinks there are also fewer players who have the requisite desire.

"You have to want to go after it," he says. "I've seen many guys who will be in the lane and guys will be coming full speed at them and they'll just get out of the way. You're 7 feet and all you got to do is jump straight in the air and you can make him change the shot or contest it. But you got to want to do it and you got to want to feel contact. Because you're gonna run into bodies."

Secrets of the trade

Blocking shots has surprisingly little to do with leaping ability. In fact, many of the NBA's best-jumping big men are surprisingly poor shot-blockers (such as Seattle's Chris Wilcox , who averages 0.5).

"Jumping's not even important, actually," says Mourning. "It's timing. I don't care how high you jump, you got to come down with the ball. You can jump as high as you want over the rim, but you're coming down. As you're coming down, that's when I time it and I meet you at the rim."

What is important is the illusion of an easy shot. The savvy shot-blocker knows he has to entice an opponent to come to the rim. So many sit back and hide, sometimes behind teammates, hoping to flush out a point guard or an overly confident small forward.

"You got to bait them sometimes," says Okafor. "Wait till the last possible minute when they think they're safe and they'll turn their head, about to make it, and -- boom! People always comment about how fast I get there, it's like, "Where did he come from?' Usually a guard will look and when he sees you're not coming, that's when -- bam! -- he breaks for it."


Mark Eaton (53) credits Wilt Chamberlain with helping him understand the importance of protecting the basket.

Of course, it depends on who it is coming to the basket. Mutombo stresses the importance of knowing your opponent. Some players look for contact ( Gilbert Arenas and Paul Pierce , whom Kirilenko rates the easiest "good" player in the league to block), while others such as Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade hide the ball, only to expose it at the last minute. Certain big men like Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph (No. 1 and 2 in the league in having their shots blocked) like to muscle inside, then go straight up, affording ample opportunity to pick off the ball from behind. Dirk Nowitzki likes to fade on his jumper, so Kirilenko says the way to pick off his shot is to sneak in from behind and time the release. The easiest targets are rebounding specialists whose effort is more commendable than their offensive skills. For example, Denver's Reggie Evans  has 18 percent of his shots swatted, the highest rate in the league.

Offensive players, in turn, study shot-blockers. When Jason Richardson came into the league, he repeatedly had his shot blocked in practice by Foyle. So he started picking his brain.

"OD taught me that if you show them the ball, they go get it. You gotta get into them with that body," says Richardson. "Or if you're going up against a shot-blocker, don't go up with two hands, because you always get blocked with two hands. Just the other game he was telling me, 'If anybody goes up with two hands, I always get it.' Trevor Ariza comes at him and it's two hands and sure enough, OD got it."

Wade agrees. "It's all about timing," he said after a recent Heat game. "I ain't got the hops that J-Rich got, but I got a little hang time, I can hang in the air and maybe use my body to get a shot off. It's tough with a guy like Alonzo because he waits for you to get the shot off, then goes and gets it, so I'm glad I don't have to go up against him."

Wade smiles, looks across the locker room at his teammate. "I would dunk on him once in a while, though." Mourning, immersed in a postgame chicken wrap, misses the jibe.

Rejections to savor

Great swats stick in the memory -- think of Tayshaun Prince somehow chasing down Reggie Miller , of a late-career Michael Jordan pinning the ball against the backboard with two hands, of Mutombo smacking away eight against the Sonics in the climactic game of the 1994 first-round playoffs, then lying blissfully on the hardwood, holding the ball aloft like a souvenir.

Asked to recall his favorites, Foyle gets a dreamy look in his eye, as if remembering a particularly good cabernet. "Well, there was Latrell Sprewell , coming back home after the whole incident. He came in with two hands, he just wanted to take the basket home, just bring the house down, and I met him at the rim. That was pretty cool."

He thinks, continues. "I think I had one on Olajuwon. I had one on Kobe when I first came back. I got one on Shaq once, and that's huge because with that I have the maximum probability that he will break my fingers. I think I got Kevin Garnett once."

Eaton remembers his favorites, but just as clearly remembers the ones who got away. He ranks Olajuwon, Kevin McHale and Jack Sikma as the three hardest players to block, Olajuwon because he was so crafty and the latter two because they released the ball so far behind their heads. He also remembers a run-in with Larry Bird .

"I blocked one of his shots and, if I recall correctly, the next time we played them, he beat one of the players on our team, and as he drove into the middle, my teammate said, 'Mark, help!' And Larry in mid-stride said, "Yeah, Mark, get this,' and launched one of those runners, down the middle off of one leg.



Tayshaun Prince (right) turned in one of the more memorable recent blocks when he denied Reggie Miller late in Game 2 of the 2004 Eastern Conference finals.

Shot it straight up in the air and it hit nothing but net. Then he ran back down the court with a little smirk on his face."

For Kirilenko, the most memorable sequence came when he blocked Bryant three times in a row, a feat made even more difficult because he was guarding him one-on-one, though a foul was called on the third block ("three times in a row, same attack," Kirilenko says, "and the third was a pretty clear block!").

His most satisfying ones come against big men, however. He rates Tim Duncan as a frequent target -- though he's quick to point out that Duncan will also burn you with a pass if you commit too early. And he as well has a Shaq memory.

"One time I blocked Shaq," says Kirilenko, who pauses to savor the moment. Then he laughs, "The next attack, I get elbowed in the face. It is part of the business."





pictures by: NBAE via Getty Images

article found @ cnnsi.com by Chris Ballard