Rebounding tips from Dennis Rodman, Larry Miller and Ollie TaylorDennis Rodman's new book, I Should Be Dead By Now, is filled with stories of his adventures/misadventures involving drinking, gambling and women. The real golden nuggets for serious basketball fans are a few passages buried near the end in which Rodman explains his approach to rebounding. When the only player to ever win seven straight NBA rebounding titles discusses his craft, I pay attention. Rodman's thoughts inspired me to write an article about rebounding as seen through the eyes of accomplished rebounders. I supplemented Rodman's brief comments from his book with concepts gathered from my interviews with Larry Miller and Ollie Taylor. Miller is one of the greatest players in ACC history and he averaged over 9 rpg at North Carolina despite standing only 6-4. During his ABA career he averaged more rebounds per minute than accomplished backcourt rebounders Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Sidney Moncrief and Kobe Bryant. Taylor led San Jacinto to the 1968 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) championship and then took Houston to the Sweet 16 in 1970. The 6-2 Taylor was a powerful rebounder in college; during his ABA career he averaged even more rebounds per minute than Miller, nearly matching the legendary Oscar Robertson in this category.
Dennis Rodman is a Phi Beta Kappa student of basketball who seemingly wants everyone to believe that he is the class clown. His most recent book, "I Should Be Dead By Now," contains a lot of tales of drinking, gambling and women and drinking while gambling with women and, well, you get the idea. The five-time NBA champion who is the only player to lead the league in rebounding for seven straight seasons says very little about the game that he played so proficiently at the highest level of competition--and that is truly a shame, because the few morsels he provides whet one’s appetite for more.
Rodman devotes less than two pages to explaining his rebounding prowess. He states that while traditional coaching theory extols the virtues of boxing out he rarely if ever did so because he was a 6-foot-6, 220-pound player going against much taller and bigger opponents; he felt that if he attempted to box out Shaquille O’Neal or other behemoths that they would just reach right over his head and get the ball before he could do anything.
Rodman’s approach was to apply judo techniques to basketball; he would interlock his arms and legs with his opponents until he could determine where the ball was going to go and then he would use his quickness and agility to untangle himself and get to the ball. The added benefit of his style was that it annoyed his opponents, who soon were focusing more attention on battling Rodman than pursuing the ball.
What Rodman doesn’t mention is that he also spent a lot of time watching film of his teammates’ shots and his opponents’ shots in order to determine which players’ shots tended to rebound long or short. I confirmed this with Rodman’s former Chicago Bulls teammate Steve Kerr, who agreed with my contention that Rodman was a student of the game who does not like to publicize that aspect of his personality. While Rodman has not seen fit to explain at length his ideas about rebounding, I have discussed the subject with two great undersized rebounders from a previous era: Larry Miller and Ollie Taylor.
Larry Miller is one of only two players to win two ACC Player of the Year Awards and two ACC Tournament MVPs. The 6-4 Miller was able to rebound in traffic against bigger opponents; in a 91-72 North Carolina rout of undefeated St. Bonaventure in the 1968 NCAA Tournament he outscored Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier 27-23 and outrebounded him 16-9. Miller averaged 21.8 ppg and 9.2 rpg during his Tar Heel career. In his seven ABA seasons he averaged more rebounds per minute than All-Star guards Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Sidney Moncrief and Kobe Bryant did during their careers.
Miller says that a big part of rebounding is positioning: “We learned that a lot at Carolina. I practiced a lot. I took pride in practicing rebounding.” His relentless workout regimen enabled him to improve his vertical leap tremendously: “I used to jump with weights on, 20 pound weights. I worked at it really hard. In high school, when I was a little thinner, I was just starting to learn what I could do and I could put both elbows on the rim at the same time. You're also talking about having canvas shoes and jumping from cement floors basically, because those gym floors were like parquet over cement and there was no give, no spring."
According to Miller, the ability to read the ball in flight and anticipate where it is going to go is vital to being a good rebounder: "I think that it is partly inherited, like hand-eye coordination. I still have that. If I drop something or something falls, I can still snatch it out of mid air. We used to have a test when Coach (Dean) Smith was recruiting you. He'd put a dollar bill between two fingers, let it drop and see if you could catch it. It was just a little test. It wasn't a big thing, 'see if you can do this,' but they did that to all of the recruits. Slip a dollar bill between your forefinger and your thumb and you don't know when he is going to drop it, right? Try it on somebody sometime and just see if they can do it. I mean you can do it if you are doing it to yourself (because you know when you are going to drop it) but try it on somebody else. I could catch it as soon as he did it. I still have that part.
"I played a little baseball and--nobody ever taught me this--I would always watch the baseball from the pitcher's hand, instead of reacting to what happened after it hit the bat. I would watch the ball as it was leaving our pitcher's hand, so I could see the ball and then see when it hit the bat, so I could anticipate where it would go, as opposed to reacting to when it was hit. It is the same thing with any ball. When playing a game with a ball and the ball goes up, I used to watch the ball and anticipate where it was going to go--I could kind of judge if it was going to hit the front or the side or go over."
Doing this enabled Miller to get a head start over his opponents. He adds, "Maybe everyone wasn't following it the way I was. It's like a game within a game, I guess. I'm sure a lot of major league players do that same thing. Like I say, they watch the ball as soon as it gets out of a guy's hand. That's a big part of it. You're reacting, but you've got to react to where the ball is. If you don't follow the ball and you just go after it later, at the last second, you're behind already. If it's an outside pitch and a guy swings at it, then it might go to right field. It's something that I still do when I watch games. I can watch a game--a basketball game especially--and I can kind of sense where the ball might be going."
Miller believes that his baseball experiences translated to the basketball court: “Basically, most sports are hand-eye. If you are blessed with that part, you really have a head start."
In an interview with The Sporting News, Houston Coach Guy Lewis once noted, “Ollie Taylor out-jumped Alcindor (UCLA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) at the start of the game. He was 6-2 and played the post for me. One of the best post players I ever had.”
Those are pretty strong words considering that Lewis coached Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler (a college forward who mainly played guard in the NBA). Taylor led the Cougars to a 25-5 record and Sweet 16 appearance as a senior in 1969-70, averaging 24.4 ppg and 11.5 rpg. He was selected as a Helms Foundation All-American that year. Taylor averaged 22.0 ppg and 10.3 rpg in 56 games at Houston.
Before playing for Houston, Taylor set the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) record for points in a season (1409 in 1967-68; 30.7 ppg) and a career (2456; 26.2 ppg). He was inducted in the NJCAA Hall of Fame in 1994; other NJCAA Hall of Famers include Bob McAdoo, Spencer Haywood, Artis Gilmore, Larry Johnson and Shawn Marion. Taylor led San Jacinto to the national title in 1967-68, setting the school’s single game scoring record that year with a 53 point effort.
Taylor played at DeWitt Clinton High School with Hall of Famer Nate “Tiny” Archibald and was on a Rucker League team with Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Charlie Scott and Billy Paultz. Taylor’s rebounds per minute average during his ABA career was even better than Miller’s and virtually identical to the average posted by the legendary Oscar Robertson during his Hall of Fame career.
Taylor says, “I jumped center every year that I was in college. The thing that made me different from a lot of other guys who could jump was that I was physically strong. When you rebound, you have to be strong. I played guard and I played forward. I guarded (George) McGinnis and Dan Issel and--while my leaping ability played a part--my physical strength really made the difference. You have to be able to leap in a crowd. If you can’t move people off of you it doesn’t matter how high you can jump. I loved to rebound. It was a thrill.”
There is a lot more to rebounding than being strong or a powerful leaper. Taylor explains, “The secret to rebounding is you have to read the apex of the ball. Once it reaches it’s apex you can judge whether it’s long or short. The second thing is you have to determine who is shooting the ball. If it is a good shooter, you have two choices: it’s going to be short or it’s going to be long. You try to get to the side of the basket where the ball is likely to go.”
When a bad shooter shoots, Taylor notes, “It’s just pot luck. You don’t know what part of the rim he is going to hit. A good shooter either hits the front or the back of the rim (when he misses). If it hits the back it’s going to be a long rebound, if it hits the front it’s going to be a short rebound.”
Taylor adds, “You read the rotation of the ball. If it’s a guy like Rick (Barry) shooting then you know the ball is going to have a lot of backspin on it. If it hits the back of the rim it’s going to go deep; if it hits the front of the rim it’s going to hang around there because of the backspin. You look at all of those aspects and then you pick the spot on the floor that you want to get to and then you fight for that spot. You have to want to do it. I loved it because it was body on body, man to man. The real key is to read the ball at its apex and read the trajectory of the ball to see if it is going to come down short or long.”
On the surface it is hard to imagine three more different players than Dennis Rodman, Larry Miller and Ollie Taylor but the one thing that they had in common was an ability to rebound. Accurately reading the flight of the ball, fighting for position, quickness and strength all played a part in their success on the boards. Rodman was a high flyer early in his career but even as an older player he was still an exceptional rebounder; this shows that while jumping ability certainly is useful for rebounding it is not the most important thing.
The best rebounders have a knack for figuring out where the ball is going to go and a combination of tenacity and quickness in beating other players to that spot.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:11 PM