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The Center Has Been Pushed Aside, and Not Just In Politics

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Kareem Abdul Jabbar Would Be Called A Guard or Forward If He Played in College Today


Had the hard T sound been excluded, and its main venue the church, I could perhaps understand the exclusion. After all, the world be a much better place without sinners. Instead, part of our society has been on a mission to rid of us the sinner's near homonym, defined as a middle position.

Not only has the center been discarded in American politics, but it has disappeared from one of the country's major sports as well. Check any basketball roster, either in the NBA or in the NCAA, and you will find few teams who actually list a player as a center.

Head coach John Calipari of the University of Kentucky, a school which once won a National Championship with two starting centers (Melvin Turpin and Sam Bowie), recently announced that he would not be starting only guards and forwards.

He pronounced as if it were an earth-shattering, while the reality is that centers have been missing from starting lineups for a long time. In fact, among the first three hundred players ranked on RotowireDraft, not one player is designated as a center.

Nearby Ohio State, which is ranked as the fifteenth best team in the country, has no center listed on its 15 man roster. Nor do eighty percent of the teams ahead of the Buckeyes in the NCAA polls.

Of all the top ten teams, fewer than half of them list a player as a center. Not one of those players is a starter, so their teammates have obviously maintained success with a center.

Gonzaga has a seven foot freshman as its only center, and former number one Auburn's only center is seldom used foreign exchange junior Babtunde Akingbola. Arizona's only listed center is non-starter Oumar Ballo, a native of Mali, who transferred from Gonzaga.

The player with the fewest minutes on the Houston roster, sophomore Kiyron Powell, is the team's only center. UCLA's only center is a seldom-used grad student named Myles Johnson, who transferred after four years at Rutgers.

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Baylor University lists no players as a center on its current 15-man roster, nor does the University of Purdue. According to the Jayhawks roster Kansas University has not one player designated as a center, and the same can be said of the Spartans of Michigan State.

Why has the NCAA obliterated a once esteemed position, which had for generations comprised stars from Wilt Chamberlain to Bill Russell to Patrick Ewing to Akeem Olajawan? The answer probably starts much earlier than college, possibly even before a player reaches the high school level.

“Nowadays, there's often a premium placed on players with versatile skill sets, which is part of the reason why the heights of basketball players has gradually increased over the years,” said Andy Wittry of NCAA.COM on January 18. “Who wouldn't want a player on his or her team that has the physique of a power forward but the skill set of a shooting guard?”

Therefore, even coaches in youth basketball often shy away from labeling a player as a certain position. Taller kids are are taught ballhandling and skills as much as their smaller teammates, who are also expected to learn the traditional roles of post positions heretofore limited to bigger kids.

Advanced development for all skills has certainly boosted basketball, but there is still no reason to have abandoned designated positions. It is easier for fans to visualize the role of a center as opposed to the role of a third forward or third guard or, as in the case of the 2017-18 National Champion Villanova, a fourth guard.

Another major sport has seen a similar trend of emergence from traditional position roles, as Major League Baseball has been transformed by the shift. The second baseman is often playing in right field, while the shortstop sets up on the right side of the infield.

Yet we still refer to each of these players by their traditional positions, for even though he is now far from the bag, he is called the second baseman. It would sound ludicrous were announcers and managers to refer to start four outfielders and three infielders, and such a designation would wreak havoc with voting selections for All-Star games and Hall of Fame benchmarks.

We need to bring back the center in both politics and basketball, so we need to convince a popular singer to revive a famous Elvis Presley song. Instead of using the original object in the song, its title should be “Return To Center.”

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