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Big men reduced to support role

Chicago Stadium being both ancient and funky, Bulls players enter their crumbling 18,000-seat home arena through a prison-like steel door called Gate 3{.

NBA's oldest backdoor play.

You can tell Chicago's stars by their cars. Parked in a fenced compound outside Gate 3{ was a smoke-gray $132,000 Mercedes sedan with "Mr Pip 33" license plate, belonging to Scottie Pippen.

Most identifiable wheels of all at Tuesday's NBA Finals workouts were attached to a slinky, black $225,000 Ferrari Testarossa. It sat like a sleeping panther. Golf clubs were in the passenger seat and "M-Air-J" on the tag.

Michael Jordan's toys.

Hero One for Chicago's back-to-back NBA champions is 6-foot-6 Michael, and Hero Two is 6-7 Scottie. Everyone else is a candidate for best supporting actor. Least imposing of Bulls starters is cumbersome, aging 7-1 center Bill Cartwright.

No longer are NBA Finals ruled by the tallest players, like championship centers past named Abdul-Jabbar, Russell, Walton and Chamberlain.

"When Wilt, Russ, Kareem and Walton came along to dominate," Phoenix coach Paul Westphal said, "all the guards were 6-2. I was one of those little guys out front in the early 1970s. Franchises tried to build around 7-foot centers who stood like redwoods towering above all us squatty houseplants.

"Those talented old giants could anchor in the lane, taking down 20-plus rebounds and putting up all the shots they wanted. Many games they were all but uncontested. But when was the last time an NBA champion revolved around a dominating center?"

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, right?

"You got it," Paul said.

In tonight's pivotal Game 4 of the NBA Finals, each center is his team's uncelebrated fifth wheel. It's graybearded 35-year-old Cartwright for Chicago against 6-10 Suns journeyman Mark West, who has averaged just 6.8 points through a 10-year pro career.

"In this series, the centers are role players and not stars," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "They accept that the major offense will come from elsewhere, primarily from Michael and Scottie on our side and Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle for Phoenix."

So why has it happened? How can the Bulls, with the slow and awkward-looking Cartwright at center, be expected to win a third consecutive NBA championship? How can the Suns be finalists from the West with a center so mediocre as Mark West?

It's the total evolution of the game. On many NBA teams, all five starters are strong rebounders. Seven-footers no longer are unreachable, unstoppable monsters. Behemoths are demonstratively challenged by players 6-6 to 6-9 with the quickness of Pippen and the leaping gifts of Jordan.

Let's make a little list, naming the most prodigious 1993 centers in the National Basketball Association. Mine would include 7-foot Patrick Ewing of New York, 7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston, 7-1 David Robinson of San Antonio and Orlando's 7-2 wonder child, Shaq O'Neal.

But, among those hulking and desirable NBA talents, not a single championship has been won. "It's still good to have a tremendous 7-foot center," Westphal said. "I'd take Shaq or a Robinson and take my chances.

"But it's never again going to be like the old days of bullying the competition just because your team had a Russell, a Wilt or a Kareem. There are just too many marvelous athletes all over the court."

New York Knicks coach Pat Riley once declared, back when he was running the Los Angeles Lakers, "Give me a lineup of five 6-9 players who can run, shoot, dribble and pass. We'll win championships. It's a new day in the NBA." That was before Riley had skyscraper Ewing as his catalyst.

NBA Finals since the late 1980s have been controlled by Chicago and Detroit. Neither the Bulls nor the Pistons have been blessed with much of a center. Bill Laimbeer of Detroit spent most of his offensive time loitering around the three-point circle.

No matter who wins between Chicago and Phoenix, it'll mean more of the same. Quick, mid-sized producers like Jordan, Barkley, Pippen and Majerle are in charge.

When will the day of the centers return? When will a Ewing, a Robinson, an Olajuwon or an O'Neal be the hot, high-pockets story in an NBA Finals?

Ever?

NBA Finals

Phoenix vs. Chicago

(Bulls lead 2-1)

Game 1: Bulls 100, Suns 92

Game 2: Bulls 111, Suns 108

Game 3: Suns 129, Bulls 121 (3OT)

Game 4: Today, at Bulls, 9 p.m.

Game 5: Friday, at Bulls, 9 p.m.

Game 6-+: Sunday, at Suns, 7 p.m.

Game 7-+: June 23, at Suns, 9 p.m.

WFLA-Ch. 8 will televise the games; WFNS-910 AM will broadcast the games on radio.

+ - if necessary.

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