From the same people that brought Mark Eaton out of the auto garage and into the NBA, comes Alan Bannister, the Utah Jazz's latest ground-level construction project.
Eight years ago, the Jazz took 7-foot-4 Eaton from his job at a garage and made him into an NBA All-Star center, feared far and wide for his shot-blocking ability. Now there is Bannister, 7-5, 300 pounds, and looking every bit as unlikely as Eaton did. But as team President Frank Layden said the day after Bannister was invited to camp, "We don't want to get caught up in herd mentality. We don't mind taking a chance on a guy that size."Someone is always willing to consider a guy who can touch the rim without jumping.
Bannister's route to the Jazz's training camp this week was anything but simple. He graduated from something called Rivington and Blackrod (that's a high school, not a power tool) in Horwich, England. There he was a monster in the market, once terrorizing Caldron State for 58 points in a game. It was also at R&B that he lettered in swimming, cricket and rugby. He still lists cricket among his hobbies.
Bannister admits his prep competition was "not very good," but to American coaches he was the hottest item from England since Boy George. He was recruited by 80 colleges, including Connecticut, Providence and Seton Hall. Bannister selected Oklahoma State, in part because it was in a conference that had a healthy respect for dominant centers.
He started 19 games as a freshman for the Cowboys, averaging 7.6 points and 3.9 rebounds, and was runner-up for conference Newcomer of the Year.
But from then on, Bannister's visibility began to shrink. The Cowboys changed coaches and the new head man had plans for a full-court, trapping team. Bannister was better half-court material.
In what he now says was a bad decision, he transferred to Arkansas State, losing a year's eligibility in the process. Instead of improving his lot, he damaged it. Coach Nelson Catalina posted Bannister deep on the bench for much of the remaining two years of his college career. Even though he felt he had some good performances - including one game-winning three-point shot - it didn't get him a starting spot. He averaged only about 11 minutes a game.
"The more good I did, the more he ridiculed me," says Bannister. "It was a mistake to transfer to Arkansas State. But I was young and I didn't know which way to turn. It was a bad decision. I had a coach who didn't have a clue about how to coach big men."
Through the ordeal, Bannister didn't lose his sense of humor. He laughs when telling the story of how Catalina was quoted in the paper when Bannister left as saying "he wished he had me for one more year."
If Bannister looks unimpressive to the ordinary observer, he has the attention of the NBA's coaches. He attended pre-draft camps at Chicago and Portsmouth, Va., and was noticed by several teams. He was invited to rookie camps of two other NBA teams during the summer.
Most of Bannister's gifts aren't as noticeable as his arm span. He is undeveloped in some of the basic mechanics of playing the post. His vertical leap could be measured in with an electron microscope. He doesn't run well. His body fat is 19 percent (By comparison, Eaton's is about nine percent).
But, reminds Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, Eaton had 18 1/2 percent body fat when he joined the Jazz. Team weight trainers are already working on Bannister.
"I'll tell you what," insists one Jazz assistant, "the big guy is going to be hard to cut. He's got some skills."
"He's 7-5," says Sloan.
"He has a feel for passing the ball and he doesn't shoot too badly. He has pretty good awareness on the court of what's going on."
One awareness he is sure to have is of his unique spot among the rookies and free agents at Utah's training camp, going on this week. Although some consider the Jazz well-stocked at center with Mark Eaton and Mike Brown or even Karl Malone available to play center in different combinations, others point out that Eaton is the Jazz's only true center. At age 33, he isn't likely to be playing many more years. Enter Bannister.
"We look at it this way," says Sloan. "How many chances do you have to draft a guy 7-5? There's not usually opportunity to draft height, so you can sometimes get it other ways."
For his part, Bannister says he is flattered at comparisons with Eaton. And who knows? Eaton wasn't given a prayer by many coaches eight years ago. Maybe lightning does strike twice in the same place.
Camp notes: Former BYU star Andy Toolson had his hyperextended knee drained on Monday. Meanwhile, guard Eric Johnson is out with a bruised heel . . . Swingman Blue Edwards took a hard elbow shot to the nose by Brett Vroman, who was also responsible for Delaney Rudd's broken nose. Edwards' nose wasn't broken, and he returned to play after icing it for several minutes . . . Karl Malone went down with a twisted left ankle at Monday's workout. Predictably, the crowd gasped and then a hush came over the gym; but trainer Don Sparks said he didn't think the injury was serious . . . On the possibility of cutting anyone soon, Sloan said, "That's not a priority just yet."