The Running Center

  • What will it take to keep playing this well? That is the question on board rats minds.

    One answer is: nothing. Peak performances cannot come again and again.

    But another answer is that certain things must be cemented to be able even to get back to that level from time to time–to be our best when our best is needed.

    Lots of things have to be mastered to cement playing as well as the team did versus Texas.

    But the cornerstone is the team has to be willing to keep playing this hard and this crisp and this unselfishly.

    It is crystal clear to me now what this team’s identity is going to become, if it were to reach its full potential. And it is crucially cornerstoned on an aspect of Cliff Alexander that neither I, nor anyone else including board rats and our coaching staff understood sufficiently early on this season.

    There is a short champion team from the distant past that our Jayhawks played similar to: the 6-8 1/2 Dave Cowens-led Boston Celtics. They won not one but two championships with Cowens. And they beat Kareem Jabbar and Oscar Robertson for one of the rings. Jabbar averaged 34 points per game one on one with Cowens the first several games of the series, but it did not matter. Boston was winning the rest of the game because Cowens incessant running and outlet passing were creating transition cracks the Celts kept exploiting, either in transition, or half court. And Jabbar was slowly, inexorably wearing down. And in the final game, the Celts switched to a help defense on Jabbar and Cowens kept running. In the end it was Jabbar and an aging Robertson that broke. The great Jabbar, easily one of the three greatest centers of all time, who had broken so many teams with his great conditioning and great sky hook for John Wooden, and would later do the same for the Lakers, finally was broken by another guy willing to run more for more games in a series, a guy with no skyhook, a guy 3.3-4.0 inches shorter.

    Cliff, are you listening? Cowens took a beating of 34 ppg for several games, but finally one of the three greatest centers in the history of the game cracked…not the little guy.

    And Cowens didn’t just win one ring by breaking centers with running the floor. He won two consecutive rings doing it.

    Cliff, it can be done.

    OK, all you Shermans, Mr. Peabody here, you are going to have to trust me and get in the way-back machine.

    Dave Cowens, the not-so-big, but quintessentially tough red head from Florida State, the 6-9 guy who wasn’t tall enough, was who defined that great Celtic team. Every other starter was incredibly good and could have started for other teams, playing other ways, but the incomparable Red Auerbach understood that what Cowens could do was something no other great center in the NBA of that time could do. Run for a season. Run for seven games. Run in overtime. Run till no one else wanted to run.

    Cowens could run the floor, baseline to baseline, buzzer to buzzer. He could put so much cardiovascular pressure on opposing centers, regardless of what size they were and regardless of whether they were hall of famers or not, and regardless of whether the Celtics pulled up and ran the stuff or scored in transition, that a team built around Cowens relentless baseline to baseline running could be an NBA champion. And they became one…as I said…twice.

    Two straight rings in the NBA is proof for all time that a short, running center is a very dangerous weapon.

    Those Celtics played the good team defense this KU team can play. They had the good shooters this KU team has. And they had the big man with greatest motor the NBA has ever seen before or since. And the other four guys could play fast or slow, full court or half court, with anyone opponents could put on the floor. The other four could (and did) hang with anyone. But it was Cowens relentless running of the opposing teams’ centers that broke down all the opponents over the course of a game and the course of a season, and the course of a play off and the course of a championship series. Time after time, big brawny, or super long, or super athletic, centers brimming with confidence ran into the running, flailing, jumping, perpetually moving, shooting, dribbling, passing buzz saw that was Dave Cowens, and though they swaggered and scored, eventually, over time, as the minutes accrued and the cardiovascular challenge continued unrelentingly, the big men broke, their eyes ceased to glare confidently and menacingly, the long bodies once erect, and their hands once raised calling for the ball, began to bend at the waste, their hands began to clutch desperately at their shorts, their eyes glanced to their benches to see if they were being substituted for yet, their faces searched the scoreboard for the minutes till the next break, and still the big red head ran like there was no tomorrow, no next period, not next minute.

    There is nothing finally in basketball as unnerving as someone that can go harder, run farther, longer, and keep running that way after you realize you will not be able to keep up.

    Wooden’s UCLA teams endlessly broke teams competitive will with superior conditioning.

    Shaka Smart’s VCU team broke our superior KU team’s competitive will.

    It is an awesome thing to watch better players break.

    One never forgets it.

    And one never forgets being broken.

    And one never forgets breaking others.

    It is the single most empowering thing in sport to outlast an opponent until he breaks.


    This is the rule that gives the exception such great value.

    Big men like to step outside and shoot treys.

    They like to rim protect.

    They like to cram shots down peoples throats and dunk on their grilles.


    Therefore, when you find a big man that CAN run, and WILL run, buzzer to buzzer, sooner or later, the other team cracks from the inside out.

    A running center does not mean a fast breaking team.

    A running center is a mano a mano thing: center vs. center.

    A running center that can out run an opposing center lets you break another team’s strength.

    Guards and wings can slow the ball game down all they want, but THEY CANNOT SLOW DOWN A RUNNING CENTER. When your center out runs their center, over time he arrives first to deny easy baskets, he arrives first to get easy baskets, and by the last ten minutes he is playing against a big man that fatigue has made a coward of.

    There are a lot of fundamentals and inches that Cliff lacks that make it very difficult for him to play against other big men left in their comfort zones to play the game the way they like to play it.

    But put Cliff in motion at the speed that he ran against Texas, and for the length of time that he ran that way, and Cliff is an overwhelming force on a basketball floor the same way Dave Cowens was.

    Thomas Robinson had a great motor.

    Great motors are fine.

    But Cliff is FAST for his size, faster for his size even than TRob was.

    Cliff is Dave Cowens fast.

    Cliff is only now learning what a great weapon his relentless running with his great speed can be. He has only scratched the surface of what he can do with it, of how disruptive he can be to a bunch of big, slow centers like UK has, or any other centers. Once he breaks a few more centers, and sees how good it feels to break them, Cliff will be out running to class, and running to weight work outs and running to tutoring, and running to girl friends, and running just to run. Once Cliff sees that when he runs baseline to baseline for 40 minutes he is BETTER than all the footers, and all the OADs and all the Okafors, and Turners, because of that running and the ability of that running to put those strong shoulder and good hops into positions that the others cannot get to first, Cliff will learn that he too can become a master of the game.

    Cliff is not a power forward playing out of position when he runs, any more than Dave Cowens was.


    Cliff has within his grasp becoming that rarest of all great centers–the running center.

    Few coaches understand them.

    Self didn’t at first.

    He had some vague idea of what Cliff could be, but if Self and staff had fully understood what they had on their hands from the beginning, they would have been showing Cliff video of Thomas Robinson and Dave Cowens from the moment he signed with KU.

    Cliff Alexander is a rare find, if he has the heart to commit TO getting into condition to run baseline to baseline for 40 minutes.

    He is playing with the perfect point guard in Frank Mason to be this kind of center.

    He is playing with the perfect complementary players in Selden, Graham, Greene, Oubre and Perry to be this kind of center.

    And the cool thing for Cliff is that he has the perfect complementary center in Jamari Traylor to split time with. Alexander and Traylor, or Traylor and Alexander, flat out running opposing centers into the cracks for 40 minutes make this KU team something different, something special, something not only Coach Self could fall in love with, but all KU fans could fall in love with.

    But if you read interviews with Auerbach and Cowens and other players that played against and with Cowens, it takes a kind of competitive fury and will that few big men of any era have ever had.

    Cliff Alexander can become a good, or journeyman, or may be just a backup tweener in the NBA as a 6-8 4.

    But he could become a very, very, very rich man as the next great running center to hit the NBA.

    It is something some NBA centers try to do, but few have ever had the fire, or teammates, or coach, required to bring it off.

    At this level of running we are talking about something far beyond motors.

    We are talking about the fire inside AND the fire next time, as Jimmy Baldwin called it.

    Competitive fury.

    Maybe even rage.

    Force of nature stuff harnessed and directed.

    Will breaking.

    Ego crushing.

    Turning college and then NBA bad boys in to cowards not with muscle and skills but with running.

    Cowers could do it at center.

    Russell could do it at center.

    Dennis Rodman could do it at forward.

    Frankly, Jordan’s real secret was that he could do it a swing 2/3, plus have the once in a generation gifts he had.

    Auerbach used to say that basketball was about running.

    Wooden called it being quick, not fast, but Wooden’s quick meant getting ever where including end to end before the others could.

    Allen advocated running always, but especially when he began to quarrel with Iba, whom he deeply respected up until Iba slowed the game down to a crawl with his perfectionist, deliberate offenses.

    But running is not the same as fast breaking.

    A running team can fast break, but it can and does do anything. It can play any way, it just gets there to play that way fast.

    What we have forming out of the a nebula of this season’s frustration is a short, running solar system of a team potentially beginning to orbit around the running of Cliff Alexander’s star. Stars only look stationary in comparison to planets orbiting them. Stars are hurtling at phenomenal speeds in an expanding universe. Cliff universe, and our universe, is expanding. And he’s got to fly for our planets to orbit him well. and with maximum effect.

    KU can play quick, not fast (as Wooden used to say) in half court or in transition, and always have a plus 1 advantage in player count for a couple seconds on either end of the floor, if Cliff (and Jamari) can achieve the level of conditioning that running for 40 minutes requires of a big man that has never played at this level of intensity before. And I think the intent to play this way may be sustaining Self’s committing Cliff and Jamari at the 5. Self is not sure either one COULD go that way for 40 minutes, but he is confident that two CAN.

    And we’re are not even implementing the rapid outlet passing that was another part of Cowen’s game.

    Go, Cliff, go!!!

    Go, Jamari, go!!!

    Go, KU, go!!!

  • @jaybate-1.0 I like it! But, he’s also gotta run back on d if he is playing against that hair flipping McKay from ISU.

  • I like to think the “ceiling” is a mythical limit – a threshold that exists only in our minds.

  • @jaybate-1.“JIMMY” Baldwin?

  • @jaybate-1.0 Great post. I remember those days. Lots of great basketball. Boston won the Championship in 1974 against Milwaukee and again in 1976 against the Suns. Rick Barry’s Golden State Warriors won it all in 1975. Boston had lots of talent back then, including our guy JoJo White who was a real difference maker. Cowens was nowhere close to Abdul-Jabbar in terms of skillset, but he made the most of his abilities with heart and hustle. Excellent post!

  • @KansasComet

    Cowens was hugely responsible for me really wanting to learn how teams actually win.

    I was so sure Boston could not win with him.


    And the reason he didn’t win more was injury and fatigue.

    This is what makes Bill Russell’s accomplishment tower over all other team accomplishments in the history of the game.

    Big Russ was the same size as Cowens. He wasn’t even as good of an offensive player as Cowens. Cowens probably had a better release pass off the rebound than Big Russ. They both jumped about the save. They had the same kind of competitive fury.

    But Big Russ had the durability to win TEN rings.

    Both Cowens and Big Russ are the reasons I wrote this post.

    Jabbar was head and shoulder more talented at most aspects of the game than Cowens.

    Chamberlain was head and shoulders more talented at most aspects of the game than Big Russ.

    But Cowens won TWO rings while Jabbar was in the league!

    And Big Russ won TEN rings while Wilt was in the league!

    The running center is the most under-recognized, under-utilized, awesome weapon in the game.

    I could add Walton at Portland to Cowens and Big Russ, but he as 6-11, and so he was not a tidy analogy for Cliff.

    But when you add Big Russ’, Cowens’, and Walton’s rings together that’s THIRTEEN championships with running centers!

    We can do this.

    Cliff and Jamari can run this team to a ring.

    I didn’t get it for awhile.

    But with the quality of the rest of the players being high and rising, this team, if it will buy into this running center concept, it can win a ring.

    In fact, if the team really masters the running center game, KU might just be the ONLY team with a good chance of beating Kentucky.

    Rock Chalk!

  • @jaybate-1.0 Absolutely love the running, hustling, undersized big man comparison. That was an outstanding post!

  • @wrwlumpy

    Read Baldwin.

    REALLY read him.


    James was the persona he had to craft.

    Underneath was the Jimmy.

    And to really appreciate him you have to discover both.

    So many authors are robbed from us by the esteem machine.

    He was so human in addition to being such a good writer.

  • @jaybate-1.0 Nice! Thats cool stuff. I hope Coach Self is making a list of how many ways he can win games. Outside in, inside out with a running center and whatever else he has done and may have up his sleeve. I’ll also admit that mid way through the non con schedule, I had my doubts about this KU teams ability to last into March. They are making me a believer now.

  • @Lulufulu said:

    I had my doubts about this KU teams ability to last into March. They are making me a believer now.

    I’m right there with you. The number of things that could prevent a deep run is dwindling day-by-day.

    The one that is constant is injuries. That is hard to control… but among the things in our control, the only things I think could stop us are:

    1. Stop learning or peak-out. I don’t see it happening. The team is oozing with talent at every position.
    2. Inconsistency… If they play with passion one game and then let down for supposedly lesser opponents, that will catch them. Because, even though they are good, there’s evidence that teams with less talent can destroy them (ahem, Temple).
    3. Chemistry… They didn’t have much of this in November and December. The whole was not more than the sum of it’s parts. But it seems like they are gelling. This is a key for winning in March and April.

  • I hate running and I’m just tired from reading that post!

  • @wissoxfan83

    Me too. That’s why we’re posting and not winning NBA championships, or NCAA championships.

    Champions in basketball are a very special breed.

    Talent and luck are required.

    But those guys on the 2008 ring team, and the 1988 ring team, and the 1952 ring team have a level of competitive greatness that are different.

    The only non champion KU team I have ever seen that I would put with the champions is that 2012 runner up team. They were champions that just didn’t have enough players. Self said of them something like they did’t get beat, they ran out of games. That’s how I felt about them. They were the greatest “team” I have ever seen based on what they had. They just didn’t have quite enough to beat Cal’s proto Nike stack.

  • “Ninety percent of the coaches in the NBA are guards, and there aren’t very many big men people coaching, I happen to be one of them and when I coached, everybody on my team, including the guards, had a hook shot, so that it was their bail out shot.”–Tom Heinsohn

    D-A-N-N-Y M-A-N-N-I-N-G!

    Just imagine if Cliff were to come back next season and add a little jump hook!

    Hell, just imagine if every player on the team came back with a little jump hook!!

    Then when you attacked the rim against these Four Footer Nike stacks at UK, Duke and UA, you wouldn’t always have to go through the ritual the 9-10 block game.

    When you penetraded and couldn’t pry the footer away from the rim, and couldn’t dish it for whatever reason, at least you could fire up a jump hook high enough up the glass that the footers had to goal tend, or our guys could have a chance for a stick back.

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