Rich LaRocco

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My favorite basketball players

by Rich LaRocco

My favorite current players are LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili and Kevin Durrant while my favorites of all time are Larry Bird, John Stockton, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Jerry West and "Pistol" Pete Maravich. Bob Cousy probably would have made my list, but he was well past his prime by the time I started watching basketball. Oscar Robertson bored me by holding the ball a great deal, so he didn't make my favorites list even though is probably one of the top 10 players ever to play basketball. Few people nowadays realize how good Jerry West was. His nickname, Mr. Clutch, was well-deserved. Here is a fine article about West.

As a BYU fan, I enjoyed watching Jimmer Fredette last season and was there with most of my family the night he scored 47 points against the Utes. He's a great shooter, dribbler and scorer, and I hope he gets a chance to play enough minutes to show what he can do in the pros. He had the misfortune of being drafted by one of the worst teams in the NBA — the ball-hogging, matador-imitating Sacramento Kings. Only the slow-trotting lazy New Jersey Nets of the late '90s exceeded the current Kings in lack of defensive efffort. Jimmer was also drafted with one of the most underrated players in the draft, the University of Washington's Iaiah Thomas, who probably doesn't quite measure up to the 5'9" mark at which he is listed but is incredibly quick, a good passer, a good shooter and a fair defender, who has earned the minutes he has taken from Jimmer.

The most dominating player of all time was Wilt Chamberlain, who scored more than 50 points a game for an entire season at a time when the league had very few teams and, therefore, concentrated talent. He went up against a great center almost every night and almost always got the best of his opponent, once scoring 100 points. At any given year in Wilt's career, there were probably eight centers that would be among the top dozen centers in the NBA for the past 15 years.

Chamberlain won a championship with Philadelphia and another with the Los Angeles Lakers and got to Game 7 of the Finals several times. He was a truly unbelievable athlete and was said to have a vertical jump of 54 to 60 inches. Wilt the Stilt probably blocked more shots than anybody in the history of basketball, but shot-blocking records were not kept during his era. He was the greatest rebounder ever and possibly the best defender ever.

I had the good fortune of watching Chamberlain and the great Jerry West play against Zelmo Beaty and Willy Wise when the visiting Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA went up against the Utah Stars of the ABA in an exhibition game in the Salt Palace, which was quite new at the time.

One year Wilt decided to do as his coach suggested and shoot less and pass more. He led the league in assists. Some of his critics said he had lost his scoring ability. Chamberlain went out and scored something like 65 points the next game and more than 40 to 50 the next two games before deciding that he had made his point and went back to passing. (I can't find a reference to this time, so please send me a link if you can find the facts.)

Chamberlain is thought by many to be the greatest defensive basketball player of all time. Michael Jordan was a great defender, too, but he might not have been the best defender on his own team. And it's because of his defense as well as his offense that I choose Chamberlain as my No. 1 individual player ever.

Wilt had his failings, supposedly bedding 20,000 women and failing to keep his ego in check. These shortcomings cost him greatly in popularity among basketball fans. He later expressed regret over his promiscuity, saying that he would have been happier if he had chosen one woman and remained faithful to her. Read this article as well as the reader comments for some good information about Chamberlain in comparison with Jordan and the great Bill Russell.

If I were a rich man, I would have paid half my vast fortune to attend the NBA All Star Game in 1996 and to get a basketball autographed by the 48 or 49 players who were there to be honored as the Greatest 50 Players in National Basketball Association history. I would rather have that ball than any baseball ever hit by Babe Ruth or anybody else, but too many Celtics and Knicks made the top 50. Connie Hawkins, Jerry Sloan and Dennis Rodman, despite his occasonal antics, should have been included.

The most underrated college player I ever watched was Greg Grant at Utah State (look him up, and you'll see how he dominated the stat sheet, but he was much greater than the numbers indicated because he played much like Stockton and Bird, who always seemed to steal the ball at the right time or tip it in the right direction and who made defensive plays that were just as unbelievable as the offensive moves that made them famous. Grant was drafted in a late round by the NBA Champion Detroit Pistons and never got on the court to show what he could do under pressure with that slight body of his. Grant was listed as 6'8", but he was not imposing in real life. I walked by him a time or two at a local department store, and it was just unbelievable to me how he could rebound, score and defend so well against some of the greatest players in the NCAA at the time. He ended his career as the No. 1 scorer in USU history, the No. 1 ball stealer and the No. 2 rebounder and the No. 7 assists man. He was taller than my 6'4" but not much.

Grant never lost to BYU, and he never beat UNLV when it had its great teams even though two or three games went into overtime and one of them went into triple overtime and turned out to be the highest scoring college game ever to that point.

Another game went into double overtime if I'm recalling it right, but a referee made a strange call that ensured a Rebel win. Aggie fans suspect a gambler's influence. Grant blocked a shot late in that game and in the followthrough his arm touched the shooter's face. The referee called it an intentional or flagrant foul and gave the Rebels two shots and the ball.

In those days flagrant fouls were called only when a player obviously intended to hurt an opponent, and intentional fouls were called only when a team was behind and was trying frantically to stop the clock. Nowadays anytime a player takes a swipe at the ball and hits an opponent's head or face, he should expect to have a flagrant foul called on him. But that wasn't the case in those days.

My wife and I and our family were present the night of the famous green water bomb in the USU Spectrum, a fiasco in which an engineering student managed to rig beneath the court a water cannon that sprayed green water from a vent at Jerry Tarkanian and his team shortly after halftime. The resulting technical foul prevented Utah State from winning in regulation, and the Aggies ended up losing in overtime.

I once had the chance to play two-on-two against Greg Grant and another player who made Utah State's all-century team, Dean Hunger. It was at a church-sponsored fundraising event. None of my better teammates wanted to be embarrassed, so I drafted a casual player. We got beat twice, but we were able to score on them, and I stole the ball twice. That was about 25 years ago when I was much quicker and a better defender, but these guys were just playing with us as a cat plays with a mouse.

Both players had a good time shooting three-pointers over my partner and me, knowing full well that neither of us had the height or athleticism to bother them. I realized that if either one had played at a big school, such as Duke, they could have played small forward or shooting guard and probably would have developed their ball handling skills and outdoor shooting to the point that they would have been a cinch to make the NBA.

Another time I had the opportunity to play against Utah State jumping jack Troy Rolle in a pickup game in Logan. This was after he had graduated and was working out and trying to make an NBA team. He played for the Jazz summer league team that year and did well, but the team had no room for a player of his height. Rolle was known for his jumping ability and had competed in the NCAA slam dunk contest.

Rolle, who stood about 6'2" or 6'3", was just inside the foul circle on the dotted line, while I stood on the dotted line, trying to prevent him from getting to the hoop. To receive a pass, he jumped and landed on the foul line, where he established a pivot foot, spun, placing his free foot on the dotted line and jumped completely over me, stuffing the ball in one smooth and stupendous motion.

Now, plenty of college and pro players can dunk from that dotted line if they are on the run, but I've never seen anybody dunk it from that distance with just one big step. I would like to know how high Rolle could jump.