WHEN YOU'RE 7-FOOT-4, you see a lot. You look at the world from a high vantage point, checking out things from the big-picture perspective. And so when former Jazz center Mark Eaton was asked whether it's more important to have great big men or great guards in the playoffs, the answer was no surprise.
Being a big guy himself, he chose the big guys all the way."I think they're both important, but if you made me choose, I'm going to want to have big men to control the paint," said Eaton. "Three-point shooting is great and all, but the teams with the most layups and offensive rebounds are probably going to prevail."
Eaton knows a lot about controlling the paint. For most of his career, he pretty much obliterated it. Getting around Eaton was like getting around Cape Horn. You didn't go through him, you went all . . . the . . . way . . . around. There was no shortcut to the basket when Eaton played; you always took the scenic route. You shot over the top, and if you were lucky you sneaked in behind. But you never went at him straight on. There are a few dozen players still in the league who would have to agree with Eaton, having tried to get around him themselves.
The matter of big men is a major issue as the Jazz move into the second round of the playoffs against San Antonio. The Spurs are one of the most fortunate franchises in all of sports, thanks to the addition of this year's Rookie of the Year, Tim Duncan. He's 7-feet tall, has wonderful footwork, is a great athlete and - as if he needed more - has what coaches refer to as "basketball sense." He's the type of player who could carry a franchise for a decade.
And he's just their No. 2 big man.
The Spurs also have David Robinson, he of the sculpted body and poet's soul. He's the piano-playing superstar who can perform a concerto both on and off the court. Robinson, the NBA's Rookie of the Year in 1990 and MVP in 1995, has been carrying the Spurs into the playoffs every year, all by himself. Now he has Duncan. The two graceful giants put aside their egos to terrorize other teams this season.
While the Spurs obviously have the advantage against Utah centers Greg Ostertag and Greg Foster, the guardline is another matter. There the Jazz have dominated the Spurs for years. John Stockton, Jeff Hornacek and Howard Eisley are far superior to Vinny Del Negro, Avery Johnson and Jaren Jackson. Over the years, when the Jazz have defeated the Spurs in the playoffs and during the regular season, the knock on the Spurs was that they needed to get a point guard like Stockton.
While Eaton favors centers, Jazz President Frank Layden doesn't hesitate to choose a guard. "It's easy. I think the turning point of the Jazz franchise was the acquisition of Rickey Green," Layden said. "You've got to be able to run the team and get the ball up the floor if you're going to win. You've got to protect your lead. As Wilt Chamberlain once said, if he were picking someone to start a new franchise, he'd take Stockton. Look at Wilt and the great centers. They'll all help you, but all the great centers had great guards with them - Russell had Cousy, Jabbar had Magic and so forth."
On the one hand, a dominating center remains the most-prized possession in basketball. From Bill Russell to Robert Parish to Moses Malone to Hakeem Olajuwon to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Chamberlain, championships were won with great big men. At the same time, Chicago has won five titles in the 90s with nothing more impressive than Luc Longley, Will Perdue and Bill Wennington at center. Detroit won two titles with James Edwards and Bill Laimbeer playing the middle.
"I think you can win it if you're strong at other positions and have an adequate player at center," said former Jazz coach and KFAN radio host Tom Nissalke. "He can even be average, but he can't be terrible."
Nissalke would take L.A.'s Shaquille O'Neal "over any other player in the league, because of his youth and his size. A lot of franchises would trade all their players to get him."
He considers a deep post-up player the rarest of commodities. "I personally would take one of those over anything else. Other than Michael Jordan, you could never trade a top guard to get a top center."
What all this means is that Tuesday's game should be an intriguing matchup. In the Spurs you have the guys who control the paint; the guys who alter the ebb and flow of the game. In the Jazz you have the guys who will get the ball up the floor and protect the lead; guys who control the tempo. Who will win? It all depends on your vantage point.