When we delve into conversation of the history of the NBA’s greatest pivot men, the same names are often brought up: Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor), Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal.
These athletes were undoubtedly the best big man in their eras. However, with their greatness in mind, we tend to forget past players who were equally as important and vital to their team’s success, and perhaps even equally as skilled as these other legendary big men. For one reason or another, they did not leave the same lasting legacy as what we consider to be the greatest NBA centers ever.
Today, we explore the careers of the underrated centers that also helped to revolutionize the game.
The 6’9”, 225 bruiser was today’s equivalent to Al Jefferson; a big man playing out of position, but making it look easy and doing so at an effective rate.
A little known fact about Johnston is that during the 1954-55 season, one year before the Most Valuable Player came into existence, Johnston was voted the Most Valuable Player for that season playing for the Philadelphia Warriors and, had the award been official, he would have gone down as the only undrafted player in history to win the MVP award.
Johnston was a dynamic scorer, winning the scoring title three times in his eight year career, but was also a force on the glass, winning the rebounding title once, with an average of 15.1 rebounds per game.
Though his career numbers are boast-worthy in any era—averages of 19.4 points per game, 11.3 rebounds per game and a strong (for the time) shooting percentage of .444, as well as a better than average free throw percentage of .768—his injury-hampered career forced him into retirement after only eight years in the NBA.
This, as well as the rise of the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics during the late 1950s, were the factors that stood in the way of Johnston being universally recognized as the first truly dominant offensive center.
Johnston was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990 as a player.
Hoopedia describes Reed’s playing career with the words “endurance, pride, dignity, obligation, hard work and courage." Certainly, they all seem to fit the persona of Willis Reed.
No other memory stands out, which exemplifies all these qualities as well as Game Seven of the 1970 NBA Finals, in which an injured Reed, whom many thought was not going to participate, limped onto center court, miraculously won the jumpball versus Wilt Chamberlain, and proceeded to score the first four points of the game.
Though his contribution was minimal, as he was substituted out immediately following this string of plays, the lift that Reed gave his teammates ultimately led the Knicks to the 1970 NBA Championship. This one moment described Reed’s passion and contribution to basketball.
Reed began his career out of Grambling State University as a second round draft choice by the Knicks in 1964, primarily as a power forward. However, with the departure of Walt Bellamy, Reed was free to assume the center position.
With Bellamy gone, the Knicks emphasized defense, and with Reed in the post and Frazier pressuring the ball, the Knicks stingy defense eventually led them to two NBA Championships, both of which Reed was the Finals Most Valuable Player.
Though he was a unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame, being elected in 1982—10 years after his retirement—the 1960s and 1970s were the time when Abdul-Jabbar amassed over 25,000 career points, Wilt Chamberlain reigned as the supreme and ultimate center, and Bill Russell secured multiple championships and spots on All-NBA Teams.
Robert Parish’s NBA career lasted 21 seasons and 1611 games, which still stands as the most games played in NBA history, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar trailing Parish by 61 games.
Parish was nicknamed "The Chief" by a former teammate because of his stoic nature; fellow Hall of Fame teammate Bill Walton called Parish “the greatest shooting big man of all time." You can see that Parish’s skills and his persona were held in high regard by those around him.
A spectacular defensive presence, Parish anchored the Boston Celtics defense during three NBA championships during the 1980s and was also named to two All-NBA teams as well as numerous selections to the NBA All-Star game.
He was known as the third player in Boston’s original "Big Three" behind star forwards Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. However, in his own right, Parish was a very effective player; his season high in points and rebounds stand at 19.9 and 12.5, respectively.
Though he had a spectacular career, Parish was always known as the third option behind his more skilled and famous teammates. However, that has not stopped NBA analysts from acknowledging how gifted and important to the Celtics the 7’1” center really was.
He, along with Bird and McHale were named as part of the list of the 50 greatest players of all-time. In 1996, his famous No. 00 jersey was retired by the Boston Celtics in 1998 during a halftime ceremony, and he was also inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003.
Mark Eaton’s story takes a different turn than the others mentioned here. Eaton, standing at 7’4” and 290 lbs., was discovered by scout from Cypress Junior College while he was working as a mechanic.
He led CYC to a California title before transferring to UCLA for two seasons. Eaton applied for the NBA Draft in 1979 and went in the fifth round (72nd Overall), but did not play a game until 1982. He began his NBA career at age 26 with the Utah Jazz.
Though he wasn’t a dynamite scorer, and often looked clumsy on offense, many say that Eaton is and was one of the best defensive players to ever play the game.
In his first season, Eaton averaged over three blocks per game in less than 18 minutes a game. He then led the NBA in blocks for the next two seasons. In the latter season, he averaged a league-record 5.56 blocks per game, along with 11.3 rebounds per game and 9.7 points.
He won the Defensive Player of the Year trophy twice, in the 1984-1985 and 1988-1989 seasons, was voted to the All-Defensive team four times and, surprisingly, played in an All-Star game.
Eaton, along with John Stockton and Karl Malone, helped to establish the Utah Jazz as one of the premier NBA teams of the late '80s and early '90s.
Although his defensive skills were top notch, his offense left a lot to be desired, and thus, he isn’t remembered as clearly as others of that era. However, Eaton is a fan favorite of the Utah Jazz, having his No. 53 retired by Utah in 1996.
With Daugherty, we step foot into a more modern era of basketball. Coming out of college, Daugherty was highly touted and is usually considered one of the greatest Tar Heels ever, promptly being inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Standing at 7 feet tall, and weighing 245 pounds, Daugherty was a can’t-miss prospect who was going to change the direction of any NBA franchise he played for. After averaging 20 points per game in his senior year at North Carolina, Daugherty entered the 1986 NBA Draft and was unsurprisingly taken with the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Daugherty came out of the blocks strong and averaged a strong 16 points and eight rebounds per game along with nearly four assists per game for his rookie season, but was unfortunately edged out of the Rookie of the Year award by Chuck Person.
Daugherty, unsettled by this, continued his development and by 1991, was a 21-point, 11-rebound-per-game center that championship teams built their teams around.
Unfortunately for Daugherty, his NBA career only lasted eight seasons as he was forced to retire in 1993-1994 at the age of 28 due to recurring back problems that forced him to miss a large chunk of his final season.
It seemed Daugherty was headed for superstardom, constantly appearing in NBA All-Star games and even earning all-NBA team honours.
As a tribute to Daugherty, his No. 43 was retired by the team he spent his entire career with, the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1997. However, it seems unlikely that Daugherty will grace the NBA Hall of Fame due to his career shortened injury and rise of many prominent centers at the same time.