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Nobody on the court plays a more vital role than the small forward, but what is that role, anyway?

If NBA general managers used the classified ADS to get small forwards, they would have a hard time settling on a job description.

Consider the Utah Jazz's Karl Malone (page 72), in whom we see all the possibilities of the small-forward position—and all the contradictions and limitations of it, too. How can Malone, a 6'9", 254-pound giant of a man, be a small anything? Which leads us to these questions: Where does the term small forward come from, anyway? And does it have meaning anymore?

There are small forwards who are very tall, like the Chicago Bulls' 7-foot Brad Sellers, and small forwards who are relatively short, like the Detroit Pistons' Adrian Dantley, who's listed as 6'5" but probably isn't more than 6'4".

There are small forwards who are stocky, like the Dallas Mavericks' 6'6", 235-pound Mark Aguirre, and small forwards who are very lean, like the Denver Nuggets' 6'7", 190-pound Alex English.

There are small forwards who can jump out of the gym, like the Portland Trail Blazers' Jerome Kersey, and small forwards who seem nailed to the floor, like the Charlotte Hornets' Kelly Tripucka.

There are small forwards who at times play point guard, like the Milwaukee Bucks' Paul Pressey, small forwards who can play shooting guard, like Golden State's Chris Mullen, and small forwards who frequently play power forward, like the Phoenix Suns' Tom Chambers, Cleveland's Larry Nance and Malone. There even are small forwards who occasionally play center, like Seattle's young Derrick McKey.

And finally, there are small forwards like these: the Atlanta Hawks' Dominique Wilkins. the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird, the Los Angeles Lakers' James Worthy, the Philadelphia 76ers' Charles Barkley and, again, Malone. They're the Big Five, a group so elite that the extraordinary likes of English, Dantley and Milwaukee's Terry Cummings aren't in it. No other position can claim so many marquee attractions. Once you get past guards Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas, which players do the fans pay to see? Small forwards. They're the NBA's best and brightest.

Moreover, in recent seasons, small forwards have had more impact on the game than players at other positions. Consider:

Though Magic and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar obviously have a big role in determining the Lakers' destiny, it's the play of Worthy, Laker insiders feel, that ultimately decides their fate. When Worthy is uninspired, so is his team. When he's worthy, as he was during his team-high 28-and 36-point performances in Games 6 and 7 of last season's playoff finals against Detroit, L.A. is O.K.

What Bird has done for Boston since he came into the league in 1979 is well-known and indisputable. Period. It took longer for Wilkins to establish himself as an all-around team player, but once he did, the Hawks soared. All Barkley did last season was lead the 76ers in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, minutes played, personal fouls, technical fouls, foul outs and foul comments. It has been said that Philly can't live with him; maybe so, but what's incontestable is that the Sixers can't live without him.

And once Malone, the estimable Mailman, joined the Jazz, he got his own delivery service in the person of point guard John Stockton. Malone then hoisted the Jazz upon his shoulders and carried them to within one game of the Western Conference championship last season.

Other small forwards have made their presence felt too. For all of Isiah's greatness, the Pistons sputtered, coughed and died in the playoffs until Dantley arrived in 1986. Result? In 1 A.D. (After Dantley), Detroit came within one victory of the Eastern title, and in 2 A.D., it came within one victory of an NBA championship. Cavalier general manager Wayne Embry made the trading coup of last season when in February he plucked a dissatisfied Nance from Phoenix and got Mike Sanders in the bargain; that forward thinking helped turn Cleveland, which had its first winning season since 1977-78, from farce to force. And the transformation of Kersey from a sixth-man high-wire act to a solid 19.2-points-a-game starter helped Portland to a 53-29 record in '87-88, its best since the 58-24 Blazers of'77-78.

Conversely, lack of production at small forward has been an important, and sometimes central, failure for more than one franchise. For example, the Kings' progress has been stymied by injuries to their small forward, Derek Smith, a circumstance that put far too much of the frontcourt offensive load on power forward Otis Thorpe, who was recently traded to Houston for Rodney McCray and forward Jim Petersen. The Knicks designated Kenny Walker as their small forward of the future by selecting him with the fifth pick in the '86 draft, but they now realize that Walker may not have the small-forward skills that a championship team needs.

And no NBA team has agonized over its small-forward spot more than Dallas. Since 1981, when he was the first pick in the draft, and an answered prayer for a fledgling expansion team, Mark Anthony Aguirre has been taking most of the shots and making most of the headlines for the Mavs. He's either the primary reason for Dallas's steady climb to respectability or the main reason the Mavericks' championship ambitions remain frustrated. Take your pick. Aguirre's shortcoming has been that he isn't Bird, he isn't Worthy, he isn't Wilkins. (In playing style and body type Aguirre is closest to Dantley, in production he's closest to English, and in temperament he's closest to Barkley.) Now Aguirre faces a new obstacle as Dallas continues its pursuit of its first Western title—he's not Malone, either.

For its first two decades, the NBA got along with an uncomplicated pentagonal lineup—center, two guards, two forwards. That's all. Adjectives for the position didn't exist.

Sure, Boston's Bob Cousy was a magical passer and clearly the prototype for today's point guard, but in the 10 seasons (1951-52 to '60-61) he teamed with Bill Sharman, who many would think of as a shooting guard today, Cousy actually scored more points (13,699-12,287) than Sharman. Cousy and Sharman were guards. Similarly, the Hawks' 6'9" Bob Pettit (1954-55 to '64-65) did things that power forwards are known for today—scoring near the basket and rebounding—but he was also a deadly outside shooter. "They ran double picks to get him long jumpers—things you don't see teams running for even their small forwards today," says Tom Heinsohn, a former Celtic and frequent opponent of Pettit. Further, Pettit's running mate, 6'4" Cliff Hagan, was a diminutive forward who nonetheless scored close to the basket and specialized in the hook shot. Pettit and Hagan, and for that matter, Heinsohn, were simply forwards.

Though the Lakers' Elgin Baylor (1958-59 to 71-72) is clearly the model for today's small forward, there were times when Baylor, at 6'5" and 225 pounds, had to play defense against monster forwards like the 76ers" Luke Jackson and the Hawks' Bill Bridges. And Baylor rebounded with a ferocity—he averaged 13.6 a game over his 14-year career—that's not associated with modern-day small forwards, Barkley and Malone excepted. "I never thought about which forward was this or which forward was that," says Baylor, who's now the Clipper general manager. "I just went out and played." Baylor was simply a forward.

No one seems quite sure whom to credit (or blame) for coining the specialized terms for the positions that prevail today. The need for a power forward grew, Heinsohn and others theorize, out of the rapid expansion that took place in the NBA in the late '60s. (There were nine teams in 1965-66 and 17 by '70-71.) "There simply weren't enough good centers with the skills to play the traditional center position down low," says Heinsohn. "So teams looked for someone else to go down there and score. Naturally it was a forward, and he became the power forward." And that power forward evolved into a slightly smaller, more athletic and just as rugged version of the center, a forward who intimidated opponents with his rebounding skills and with his defensive tenacity.

Paul Silas, who helped Boston win championships in 1974 and '76, was just such a player. Suddenly it all seemed so clear: To win, you needed a tough inside "power forward," like Silas, and a much quicker forward on the other side who could take up the scoring slack, like John Havlicek, Purely to contrast the Havlicek position with power forward, it became known as small forward.

Ah, but it didn't take this subspecies long to get an identity of its own. Take a bow, Julius Winfield Erving II. From the moment the good Doctor stepped into the league in 1976 he was the ultimate small forward: graceful, acrobatic, quick, lithe, with finesse oozing from every pore, big (Erving is 6'7") but not too big, strong but not too strong, tough but not too tough. He could shoot outside (even though he didn't always look smooth doing it), but his forte was driving to the basket, breaking down the defense, creating plays and new moves as needed and leaving opponents in slack-jawed awe. He was a white-collar scorer, a dunker, a fast breaker, a game-saver, a headline-maker. That's what a small forward was.

And what wasn't he? Well, he wasn't a great defender, but then no one expects Bruce Springsteen to sweep the stage between sets. And the small forward was usually quick enough and cunning enough to get more than his share of steals, as Erving—who averaged almost two per game in his 11-year NBA career—did. Erving wasn't a consistently strong rebounder, but he got rebounds when necessary, sometimes in bunches and often on the offensive boards, where he could put back his own shot. He wasn't an intimidator, but his leaping ability and overall athleticism made him a shot blocker, someone to be aware of at all times.

By the time Erving was through, small forward was a big deal. Bernard King, Jamaal Wilkes, Walter Davis (he once preferred playing small forward to playing shooting guard), Mike Mitchell, Orlando Woolridge, Wilkins, Worthy—they all searched for those small-forward footprints that Erving left. And some are still searching.

Bird is indisputably the best small forward of the '80s—and maybe of the ages—yet he doesn't own the position as his former sparring buddy, Erving, did. Why? Because Bird brings to mind the forwards of old, the "justa forward," as English calls them. Forwards like Dolph Schayes, Pettit, Baylor, Dave DeBusschere (though his stalwart rebounding would lead many fans to think of him as one of the first power forwards), Rick Barry. Bird has point-guard presence and shooting-guard marksmanship, while possessing neither small-forward quickness nor small-forward jumping ability. He rarely even guards the opposition's small forward, usually taking the power forward or the center, laying back with hands poised and eyes peeled, in what's commonly known as the Bird zone. Bird is designated a small forward simply because he's clearly not the Celtics' power forward, a position owned by 6'10" postup master Kevin McHale. In Bird's case, the modern terminology is meaningless.

As it is with Barkley. At 6'6", he's small forward in stature, yet there's nothing small about him, surely not the zeal with which he rebounds or the abandon with which he drives to the hoop. Like Bird, Barkley is justa forward.

And finally, there's Malone. Teamed as he is with 6'10" token starter Marc Iavaroni and 6'11" designated closer Thurl Bailey, Malone is most often Utah's "smaller" forward. But, like Barkley, he's both a take-no-prisoners power rebounder and a devastating finisher on the break. He doesn't have the outside touch of some of the justa forwards like DeBusschere, Barry, Bird and even Barkley, but his versatility demands that he be listed with them.

All around the league, in fact, the small-forward position has simply outgrown, or outevolved, its designation. It's known as the 3-spot in the numbering system that has gained favor among NBA coaches (1 is point guard. 2 shooting guard, 4 power forward and 5 center), but that designation is meaningless to the average fan. And the antecedents of the term small forward aren't satisfactory. Take "quick forward." That doesn't describe Bird. Or "shooting forward." That doesn't fit McCray or Sanders. And is not, for example, McHale, a power forward in the orthodox sense, also a shooting forward?

We need something new to describe the justa forwards, not only the Birds, Barkleys and Malones, but also the versatile perennials, like English and Chambers, and the young comers, like McKey and Xavier McDaniel of the Sonics, and Danny Manning of the Clippers.

Perhaps we could use the terms "pivot," "center," and "forward" to designate the roles played in contemporary offensive schemes. On the Lakers, for example, Abdul-Jabbar would be the pivot; A.C. Green the center; and Worthy the forward. For the Celtics, McHale would be at pivot, Robert Parish at center and Bird at forward. In Detroit's alignment, Dantley, the smallest frontcourtman, would be the pivot because he plays with his back to the basket. Bill Laimbeer, now the Pistons' center, would be the forward because, while he does more than his share of rebounding, he shoots well from the outside. That would leave an inside player, like Rick Mahorn or John Salley, as the center. But those designations are complicated and not applicable to every team.

Maybe small forwards could become "finesse forwards?" Nah, too precious. How about "floating forwards?" Nah, too airy. "Free forwards?" Nah, too political.

Many observers, like Laker general manager Jerry West, would prefer that the smalls and powers and numeral designations be junked. "You're always going to have a difference in scoring and rebounding production between two people playing forward," says West, who in his playing days was justa guard if there ever was one.

Terminology aside, turn your attention to whatever role these guys fill for their teams. The play of Worthy may determine whether the Lakers win a third straight league crown. If Detroit is to fulfill its promise, Dantley must continue to weave his unnerving, deliberate magic in the paint. Boston will get back on top only if Bird conjures up another splendid season. Atlanta will be magnifique only if Dominique is. Aguirre must rev up his engines a notch if Dallas is to take the checkered flag. Denver needs English to hold fast as the glue to its intricate passing game. And the Mailman must go the route if Utah is to go all the way.

In short, you can call today's small forward whatever you want to—except insignificant.






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