Nikola Jokic and a band of believers are keeping the dream of post play alive

In the summer of 2009, shortly after winning his fourth championship with the Lakers, Kobe Bryant flew from Los Angeles to Houston. From there, he headed an hour west by car, past exurbs and strip malls and into rolling farmland. A winding road brought him to a set of iron gates and, just down the way, a gymnasium. Inside awaited the man Kobe had crossed the country to see—a man Bryant believed could take his game to the next level.

Hakeem Olajuwon had retired seven years earlier, after winning two titles and an MVP award with the Rockets. Though a dominant defensive force, he was perhaps best known for his graceful post moves, a series of spins, feints and fadeaways that caught defenders wrong-footed, leaving them trying to defend a man who had, in a split second, vanished. His signature shimmy even gained its own nickname, “The Dream Shake.”

After retiring, Olajuwon had purchased a 400-acre ranch near Katy, Texas, and converted a livestock barn into a state-of-the-art gym with a full-length NBA court. The gym soon became something of a mecca for lead-footed big men. Coaches and NBA general managers called, beseeching Olajuwon to tutor one of their centers. (Such was demand, it is said, that teams paid up to tens of thousands of dollars per session.)

In Kobe’s case, he tracked down Olajuwon after the Lakers played the Rockets in Houston. “I want to come out this summer and work with you,” Bryant said. At first, Olajuwon couldn’t tell whether Kobe was serious. But this is Kobe we’re talking about. Yes, he was very, very serious.

And so, later that year, Bryant stood under the basket in Olajuwon’s gym, listening as Hakeem covered the subtleties of the craft. How to feel a defender’s presence and react to the slightest weight imbalance. How to jump when catching the entry pass, so that, even before landing, you’re already on the move. How to use footwork and agility to build moves, much like how a boxer constructs a combination, jabbing and misdirecting.

Bryant caught on quickly—“fastest learner I ever coached,” Olajuwon says—and began deploying the moves that fall. Two years later LeBron James flew out and stayed for three days of instruction, hoping to learn how to punish smaller players on the block. (Olajuwon didn’t charge Kobe or LeBron.)

That the two best players on the planet would travel to the farmland of Texas to train under Olajuwon, seekers ascending Drop-Step Mountain to see the guru at the top, tells you just how valuable these skills once were.

But that was more than a decade ago—and a decade is an eternity in NBA time.

At first slowly, and then all at once, the game evolved, migrating ever farther from the basket. Seven-footers left the trenches to roam the perimeter, launch threes and create off the dribble; modern bigs aspired to be Kevin Durant, not Kevin McHale. Fewer people called Olajuwon. Now, he says, “Nobody posts up anymore.”

Indeed, the most prolific post-up teams today, like the Nuggets and the 76ers, attempt only six or so shots per game from the block, or half as many as the league-average team in 2010. Meanwhile, even the least prolific three-point-shooting teams today, the ones that are generally pretty terrible at it, like the Lakers, launch 30 threes per game.

Some—perhaps most—would say this isn’t such a bad thing, that the current pace-and-space league is an upgrade over watching centers methodically backing down defenders, like the typewriter giving way to the keyboard, or the landline to the cellphone.

But with all evolutions something is also lost. Sometimes it’s just a nuance—the satisfying metallic clack of an old-fashioned typewriter. Other times it’s an entire culture or a language.

So, what now becomes of the post game and the true believers who still teach it and preach it? I flew to Houston to find out what it’s like to watch something you love fade away.

In early November, I made the same drive Kobe and LeBron once did, following I-10 west from the city. Olajuwon has generally kept a low profile these past years, and his name is rarely mentioned anymore. The reference points are fewer. After all, we see echoes of Magic, Michael and Larry in today’s game. But Hakeem? He’s like a relic from another era.

Olajuwon, 59, once dominated with a wide array of post moves. Now, he says, “Nobody posts up.”

Olajuwon, 59, once dominated with a wide array of post moves. Now, he says, “Nobody posts up.”

It may be hard to envision today, in a time of Victor Wembanyamas and Bol Bols, but eons ago, in the Pleistocene age of the NBA, big men ruled from the block.

Back then, a coach’s job was simple: Send your giant as close to the basket as possible, then supply the ball. So dominant was George Mikan that the NBA doubled the width of the key from six to 12 feet in 1951, in an attempt to push him farther from the rim. A decade later, the league added four feet in hopes of slowing Wilt Chamberlain, who was two seasons removed from averaging 50 points—not for a stretch of games, but for the season—while rarely attempting a shot outside of eight feet. (The ploy worked—sort of. His scoring average dropped to only 34.7 ppg.)

Chamberlain’s successor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, set the all-time scoring record largely by unfurling one graceful skyhook after another, the same song on repeat for an entire career. During one stretch ending in 1980, a back-to-the-basket center won league MVP in 20 out of 21 seasons. (Oscar Robertson heroically bucked the tide in ’64.) Because of this, teams ruthlessly vied for talented centers and took chances on untalented ones, hoping they might pan out. As the saying went: You can’t teach height. But you can teach post moves, and, during that era, one man became the oracle of the post.

Pete Newell didn’t intend to take on the mantle; it just sort of happened. A Navy man during World War II, he became a decorated coach, leading the U.S. to the 1960 Olympic gold and racking up victories at Cal. Such was his intensity that, in season, Newell subsisted on what seemed like little more than coffee and cigarettes, regularly dropping 20 pounds. Doctors told him he’d die young if he kept it up, so, after a stint as the Lakers’ GM, he retired and instead started tutoring players informally, beginning with two forwards, Kermit Washington of the Lakers and Kiki VanDeWeghe, then at UCLA. The workouts were unlike any either man had ever experienced.

For three hours at a time during the summer, in a gym in Los Angeles, Newell provided a crash course in the dark arts of post play, reframing a physical game as a mental one. He taught that players were not just right-handed or left-handed, but also right-footed or left-footed. He explained that basketball is a game of counters—and there’s a counter to everything. As long as you waited for your opportunity, it would present itself. “It sounds simple, but it takes a little while to get the idea,” says VanDeWeghe.

Word got out. In the years that followed, others called upon Newell: Bill Walton, James Worthy, Bernard King. Even Abdul-Jabbar came, hoping for help. Defenders were sitting on his left shoulder, waiting for the skyhook. So Newell helped him fashion a new counter—a left-handed hook. Even if Abdul-Jabbar shot it only 5% of the time, that would be enough to give defenders pause.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

NBA big men used to rule from the block, but the game has moved farther from the basket.

In time, Newell formalized his approach into Pete Newell’s Big Man Camp, which he held for three decades. (Newell never made money. “It was his way of giving back to the game,” says Pete Newell Jr., his eldest son, a decorated high school coach.) If you were an NBA GM and had a big, gangly draft pick, you made damn sure you sent him to Pete. Same went for the stars, including Olajuwon, whom Newell deemed one of his best students. When Shaq arrived, he was frustrated that defenders pushed him before the catch, so Newell taught him a counter, spinning to the baseline. (Patrick Ewing famously refused to go to the Big Man Camp, despite the Knicks’ pleas, and New York sportswriters later wondered if this was why he never developed elite interior post moves.)

In 2000, the National Association of Basketball Coaches began handing out the Pete Newell Big Man Award to the top collegiate frontcourt player. The following year, Newell ran his first Tall Women’s Basketball Camp. Even in Newell’s late 80s, resourceful parents like Deborah Ledford, the mother of high school 7-footers Brook and Robin Lopez, came calling, driving from Fresno to L.A. seeking tutelage for her sons.

Even so, the game was already changing. Three years before Newell died in 2008 at 93, he lamented to the Los Angeles Times that a generation was being “over-coached but under-taught.” One wonders what he’d think of the era that ensued.

Exactly how and why the post game vanished is a matter of debate. Some go back to the addition of the three-point line, in 1979, originally installed as another anti-big-man measure. Others point to the long-term effect of rule modifications. Tired of low-scoring wrestling matches, the NBA in ’94 began strictly enforcing existing hand-checking measures on the perimeter. Now, a wing like Michael Jordan could attack without an enforcer’s grappling hooks in his hips. But a big with his back turned? “You could still maul him,” says Jeff Van Gundy, who coached a succession of top centers, from Patrick Ewing to Yao Ming to Dikembe Mutombo.

Eight years later, in 2002, the NBA went one step further and legalized zone defenses, effectively eliminating a post player’s air space. Whereas coaches once had to choose whether to send a hard double team on the catch, now help D could float nearby or sandwich a big before he even got the ball. Even the most basic post entry pass became perilous.

Then, of course, there’s the Dirk-ification of the game. That traces all the way back to FIBA’s superwide trapezoidal lane, forcing American bigs away from the hoop. (As you can see, the history of basketball is largely a history of penalizing tall people for being tall.) This encouraged international bigs to learn the game by facing up, away from the basket, and thus Dirk Nowitzki begat Kristaps Porziņģis and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić.

Sure, you may be thinking, but we all know what really killed the post-up, the stake through its old-school heart. NBA teams finally did the math: 3 > 2. Hoops analytics may have begun on the fringe, espoused by Caltech grads like Dean Oliver and tracked in spare bedrooms by hobbyists like Roland Beech, but by the mid-2010s, the revolution was complete. Three-pointers and free throws were the new Holy Grail. Midrange shots and post moves were anathema. By ’15, Grantland’s Zach Lowe was asking whether, in its zeal to make the game more exciting, “the league inadvertently killed the back-to-the-basket game.”

No player’s career better illustrates that sea change than that of Newell’s former pupil Brook Lopez. First at Stanford and then with the Nets in the early 2010s, Lopez starred on the block, deploying an array of soft half hooks and bank shots. For the first eight years of his NBA career, Lopez scored 20 a game while rarely, if ever, attempting a three-pointer. “I absolutely loved posting up,” Lopez says. Then, in the summer before the ’16–17 season, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson told him to start practicing his threes. That season, Lopez launched five threes a game, or two more than Larry Bird did in any year of his career. Lopez adapted and survived, but others struggled. (RIP, Greg Monroe’s NBA career.) The Warriors asked bigs not to post up but to set screens, roll and become pocket passers, preaching, “on time, on target.” Centers who couldn’t shoot became a liability—as did those who couldn’t guard on the perimeter on a switch, leaving them marooned against the likes of Trae Young and Steph Curry, launching 26-footers off the dribble. By 2019, The Ringer declared: “The Post-up Is Deader Than Dead in the NBA.”

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Spacing became the new currency of the league. Everyone needed to be able to shoot. “It’s like mining for gold or going after oil,” says Bucks assistant coach Mike Dunlap. “Everyone’s fighting for more space to operate, because the players are so quick and long.”

Dunlap has a unique perspective. He got his start helping Newell at his workouts in the early 1980s, bringing towels for Washington and VanDeWeghe, then stuck with the coach through the Big Man camps. Dunlap is as close as there comes to a living disciple of Newell not named Newell. And yet now he coaches Lopez and Giannis, two prime examples of the game’s evolution. “The game used to be east-west,” says Dunlap. “Now it’s north-south.”

This is not to say skilled post-up players don’t still exist in the NBA; it’s just that teams don’t give them many opportunities. This season, only one player, Jokić, has posted up more than five times per game. To find other post-up specialists you often need to look down to the end of a team’s bench—we see you, Kenneth Lofton Jr.—or, more often, to its guards. (In particular, Jalen Brunson and Marcus Smart are good at exploiting mismatches.)

For the most part, though, the post-up is, as Van Gundy says, “dying a pretty quick death.” Whereas guards like Kobe once hoped to acquire the skills of big men, now big men, such as Joel Embiid, seek out training gurus like Drew Hanlen, a former collegiate point guard, to help them play like Kobe.

Every summer, you see footage of lumbering NBA bigs like DeMarcus Cousins and Steven Adams launching threes. The upshot, as Van Gundy says: “Kids are being taught this idea of positionless basketball, and they’re not being taught how to play in the low post.”

And why would they want to learn it? The 6’6” high school post player may score a ton of points, but by playing on the block he also effectively hurts his chances of playing in college and beyond, where he’ll likely need to move to the perimeter.

This feeds into a continuous cycle, as Newell Jr. sees it: Players today don’t recognize how to play and pass to the post. Why not? Because they’re not taught. And why aren’t they taught? Because no one wants to—or knows how to—teach it anymore. “Most coaches [across the sport today] were perimeter players when they played,” he says. “So they can’t see the game through the center’s eyes.”

Indeed, ask around and there is no Pete Newell Sr. of today. This is not surprising. Supply and demand, etc. If the Warriors post up only twice a game—the pace they’re at this season—why would they focus on teaching it?

One guru does remain, of course.

At 11 a.m., Olajuwon meets me at the gate to his ranch in a black SUV and leads the way down a cracked driveway, past a chicken coop, to his gym. Inside, mementos fill glass cases in the foyer, not far from a plaque with Quranic verses that Olajuwon finds inspiring. (Raised in Nigeria, he rededicated himself to Islam in the early 1990s and maintains a second home in Amman, Jordan.) To the left is a sort of press row, with stools and a long table. To the right, men’s and women’s locker rooms.

At 59, Olajuwon is fit and trim, and his hair is shorn close to the scalp. His laugh is deep and warm. There is a lightness to him. He is a gracious host and, to my surprise, alone: no assistant or helper. Just Hakeem, his gym and a cooler of drinks he brought.

Olajuwon leads the way across the court to a pair of chairs. We start at the beginning. How he grew up playing handball, soccer and table tennis. How a basketball coach at Lagos State recruited him, then pointed to the paint and said, “That is your jurisdiction,” a dictate he took to heart. Back then, Olajuwon says, a big man was “like the police.” He explains: “When you are driving on the freeway, and all of a sudden you see someone check the speed limit and everyone slows down, and then you see the police car and you go, ‘Oh, O.K.’ ” He pauses. “That is the shot blocker.”

From the University of Houston, he joined the Rockets. He worked with Newell and learned to take advantage of his quickness and agility. He developed counters to his counters.

Upon retiring, he began teaching. A host of players came through: Emeka Okafor, Marcin Gortat, Rudy Gay, Dwight Howard, Amar’e Stoudemire. He says working with Kobe was especially gratifying. “He loved the post! He said any time he’s playing, he’s beating the big guys to the post, and they say, ‘Get out of my post!’ And they push him out, but he wants to stay there.”

Because of Bryant’s skill and footwork, the pair could jump straight to advanced moves; the following season, Kobe executed one flawlessly when the Lakers played in Houston, shaking free of Shane Battier for a fadeaway and then winking at Olajuwon, who was courtside.

LeBron James

Post moves were once so integral that stars like James sought tutelage.

As for James, he showed up months after losing in the 2011 Finals with the Heat. “What was lacking in his game was the post,” says Olajuwon. “I told him he should use his leverage. Just muscle and seal against guards.” James started at the beginning, but Olajuwon says he level-jumped in three days. “It was a joy to work with guys like that, who are already great on their own and want to add to their game.”

These days, Olajuwon trains only Rockets players, part of an exclusive deal he signed with the team. At practice, and as time permits, he tutors those interested, including 6’ 11” center Alperen Şengün.

That means he watches today’s stars from afar, and he sees the possibilities. Take Embiid. Olajuwon likes him and has given him advice, but he has questions. “He’s got all the moves, but leveraging the moves is different. Why would he be shooting threes?” Olajuwon asks. “He has the advantage every night, and if I have the advantage, I’m going to wear you out.”

But threes? “That’s settling! When I’m tired, I settle. You don’t settle when you’re trying to win. You don’t start the game settling!”

Olajuwon loves watching Golden State (“that ball is moving!”), and Curry in particular. But he also wonders what would happen if they had to face any real big men. “Golden State’s system works well and why? Because nobody is punishing them,” he says. “They have Draymond Green guarding the real big guys. He is really a small forward. It’s too much of a mismatch. They score three, you score two right back. And if they miss? We still get two!”

Olajuwon imagines Shaq today and lights up. “He’d be a monster! Who’s going to stop him?” (I received a similar reaction from Van Gundy, who calls Shaq “the greatest distorter of defenses who ever played,” as well as his brother Stan, who coached Shaq in Miami.)

Next is Giannis, whom Olajuwon generally loves. But oh, the missed opportunities! He brings up a recent game where Antetokounmpo spun baseline for a dunk. “Beautiful move,” The Dream assesses, “but the step was not right. The idea was right, and it was successful, but he spun from the wrong leg.”

This, Olajuwon says, is the next level, one hidden to most, like a secret stage in a real-life video game. The next time Giannis makes that move, Olajuwon explains, the defender might know it’s coming, and then Giannis won’t get by on athleticism. But spin off the left foot . . .

We head out to the court so Olajuwon can demonstrate. I’ve recruited a former collegiate and overseas center as a workout partner. At 6’7” and 235 pounds, Tom Poser is built for inside banging. But that’s not the only reason I’ve asked him to come.

Poser came of age during the heyday of post play. As a tall, skilled teenager in San Anselmo, Calif., in the 1980s, he modeled his game after Olajuwon’s. Working at Broadway Video, he’d check out the Hakeem the Dream instructional video, watch a move, pause it and then head out to the driveway to mimic it. Poser walked on at UCSB and then chased his basketball dream. He played for the Salina Rattlers in the IBA, earning $1,000 a month. An Austrian pro team signed him, then ran out of money. So Poser made his own VHS highlight reels, bought a ticket to Switzerland, and traveled city to city, sleeping at hostels, handing out the tapes and asking for tryouts. Sure, he was strong and worked hard, but that isn’t what kept him around. “Any success I had was due to learning those moves,” he says.

When he gave up chasing the game, at 28, Poser went on to a career in commercial real estate, but he never relinquished his passion, running big man clinics, coaching at camps and, now, at 46, overseeing a CYO program and deploying his array of post moves and countermoves in adult rec leagues (which is where I first met him). Poser is the kind of guy who, if you buy him a beer, is liable to use it, along with a salt shaker and his cellphone, to start diagramming proper post-entry position. All of which is to say that, were you to search for devotees of this particular, peculiar craft—standing with your back to the basket, isolated in a moment and within the geography of the court, tasked with outthinking the human behind you—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more committed. My hope is that, by getting these two together, I might better understand their shared passion.

Olajuwon still enjoys passing down his knowledge to others, like Poser, so they can master the craft.

Olajuwon still enjoys passing down his knowledge to others, like Poser, so they can master the craft.

Out on the court, Poser is already warming up with crab dribbles. Olajuwon takes an immediate interest. “Why are you dribbling with two hands?”

Poser explains: the better to secure it for going up strong. Olajuwon responds: no, no. You should use one hand, like in a game.

And with that, they’re off, talking about angles and positioning and move progression. Poser begins demonstrating Olajuwon’s moves to Olajuwon, and, as he does, Olajuwon turns to me with a huge smile. He was expecting to go through the motions for a journalist, and now this? “This guy is a master!” he says, cackling. “It’s beautiful!”

They head to the baseline, breaking down that Giannis move. In fact, they spend five minutes talking solely about foot placement on the baseline. (Olajuwon: “This foot here, we spin—whoosh!—and then we jump in.”) Next come fadeaways and pivots. (Poser: “What I find is that if I dip and then you commit, this whole other thing shows up.”) Olajuwon underlines the importance of reading an opponent’s body. (“This is a surprise move. If you challenge it, then I read it wrong.”)

It’s all very high level. Their geeky joy is evident, like two Tolkien nerds discovering, Hey, someone else can speak fluent Elvish! Every once in a while, they remember me and turn to explain something, dumbing it down as if I speak a different language, which I guess I do. I feel a bit like I’m crashing someone else’s high school reunion.

Soon enough they’re on the block. Usually the NBA wears down big men—their knees and backs go first, then they gain weight. Not Olajuwon. He remains fluid and graceful, spinning and pivoting. (His only workout, he says, involves lunges and low-chair squats.) He wouldn’t look terribly out of place if you stuck him into an NBA game for five minutes and asked him to guard, say, Kevon Looney. At one point he demonstrates how to create space and lowers his shoulder into Poser—boom!—who goes flying back one foot and then turns to me, astonished. This dude’s 60?!

By the time they’re 30 minutes in, Olajuwon is really getting into it. He’s calling for the ball to fire wing jumpers, drenched in sweat, Poser rebounding and exhorting him. Finally, Olajuwon declares himself worn out and heads to the sideline. He distributes a few smoothies from his cooler and starts telling stories.

He talks about post-up guards like Gary Payton and Tim Hardaway. (He says he was told to double Hardaway in the post.) He talks about the defenders who gave him trouble. Not Anthony Mason. (“Too small.”) Not Mark Eaton. (“Tough, but you could face him up.”) No, the really challenging ones were heavy and mechanical. Like . . . Greg Kite.

“Greg Kite?” Poser asks. “I didn’t expect his name to come up today.”

Olajuwon nods. “And Frank Brickowski.”

Poser and I look at each other. Then Olajuwon says something even more surprising—something that makes me pause: “I never really liked being a center.”

Hakeem Olajuwon

The Dream? Olajuwon was an MVP and a two-time champ, but admits he didn’t like playing center.

In fact, Olajuwon says he totally understands why the game turned out the way it did. “The traditional big-man game is boring!” he says. “I didn’t want to play center. I wanted to handle the ball like guards. When I played in the summertime, I got the rebound and I didn’t want to pass to the guard. I’m bringing it down! I’m freelancing! That’s more fun. You’re more engaged in the game.”

Indeed, Olajuwon is one of the old-school bigs who would likely translate best to today’s game—long, rangy, athletic, agile. “He’d be just as dominant,” says Stan Van Gundy. One can imagine Olajuwon handling on the perimeter, Eurostepping to the hoop.

That wasn’t allowed in his day, though. He wasn’t even allowed to dribble—“Not one bounce!” He says that if he ever floated to the wing and a guard passed him the ball, his early coaches would immediately sub out that guard. The message to Olajuwon: Get back in your cage!

He shakes his head. “The moment the season starts, it’s back in the cage.”

He can’t help but watch the modern game and be envious of the freedom allowed to players like Antetokounmpo. Which brings Olajuwon to another modern big. The one who he thinks shows the way forward—who provides a glimmer of hope for the survival of the post-up game, perhaps not as the only thing but as a thing. Not just an afterthought.

“The Joker,” Olajuwon says. “I love the Joker!”

Ah, yes, Nikola Jokić, product of the northern Serbian city of Sombor, ungainly son of an agricultural engineer, who grew into an ungainly teenager and, eventually, arguably, the best basketball player in the world.

In Jokić you can see the game’s history come to life—a lumbering big man who overpowers smaller defenders with an array of post moves. But you also see the future. He shoots threes not to settle but to complement his other moves. He plays point center, a Don Nelson fever dream in the flesh. He is not only the best-passing big man ever—sorry, Arvydas Sabonis—but also arguably the best passer alive. (No doubt LeBron would take umbrage at this claim.)

The biggest reason someone like Olajuwon loves Jokić is that Jokić does it all, not with overwhelming athleticism and strength, like Giannis, but with craft and timing. With counters for his counters. “He’s playing the game, and you think he’s not serious, but he’s so effective,” marvels Olajuwon. “He doesn’t look strong, but I see he gets such deep post position. I think maybe it’s the mismatch, but then he does the same thing against bigger guys. His shot, his fakes, they are very difficult to time. You don’t know when he’s faking and when it’s real. He has tricks!”

Olajuwon nods. “He’s the one.”

This season, only one player, Jokić, has posted up more than five times per game.

This season, only one player, Jokić, has posted up more than five times per game.

Indeed, despite all this talk about the death of the post-up, you could argue that we’re currently watching something of a renaissance for NBA bigs. In the past four years, Giannis and Jokić have both won two MVP awards, with last year’s race coming down to one giant center, Embiid, versus another, Jokić.

This development can lead some, like Poser, to feel optimistic. Sports are cyclical, after all. Maybe the post-up could still return to glory. It remains a force in the high school and college game, where someone like Drew Timme can dominate on the block. Why not in the NBA?

That would make someone like Jeff Van Gundy happy. He says he understands why the game has evolved—you can’t fight the math. “But it’s all so homogeneous,” he says. Gone is the variety of offenses, from the triangle to the post-up to motion. “Everybody plays the same style [and] who makes the most threes in a game wins.”

Van Gundy doesn’t think the game will change unless the rules do—just as it took new guidelines to kneecap the post game in the first place. Here’s one idea to diversify the game: Literally create more space, to accommodate longer, larger players and advanced defenses. Maybe add a few feet to the sideline—“and why not behind the backboard, while you’re at it?” he says. In the end, he dismisses this as a near impossibility, because of the revenue lost from reducing courtside seating. Or what about, he suggests, eliminating the corner three below the break? Then you wouldn’t have two guys stationed in the corners like they’re waiting for a bus all game long.

No matter what, the days of the lumbering big are clearly numbered. Thirty years ago, Boban Marjanovic might have been an All-Star. Today, who’s to say that someone like Yao Ming wouldn’t be Boban? “I don’t think we’ll have a lot of the old big power centers anymore,” says Stan Van Gundy. “If you want a low-post game, you’re going to need guys who can do both,” he says. “Go down there, but also defend in pick-and-rolls and move their feet and cover some ground. And there’s not a lot of them coming into the league.”

Brook Lopez sighs when asked about the future of the post game. “Man, I ‘d like to say it’s coming back and at one point it might, but the game has changed so much.” He recounts a moment from early in the season in the training room with his teammates. “Someone was talking about how Steph was posting up the night before, to get a turnaround jumper. You look at the league and you see me shooting deep threes and Steph posting up.”

Stan Van Gundy is more optimistic, believing it will eventually cycle back. Already, he says, you can see glimpses, for example, in how all the switching defenses lead to mismatches that beg to be exploited, something the Suns do well. Or how the Warriors use the post as a passing position. Or how the Mavericks post Luka Dončić, who may have the best footwork in the league, or the way the Kings often use Domantas Sabonis as the fulcrum of their offense. Even in a three-point-centric league, you still have to create those threes. “Forcing defenses to double-team or help, that’s never going to go away as a concept,” he says. “And depending on your team, the post-up may be one of the most effective ways you’ve got to put two guys on the ball.”

So maybe this is how the post game will survive, not returning as it was but mutating. Maybe the evolution is just multifaceted. Maybe post play will become many things. Guards will deploy it as part of their arsenal, the way Jrue Holiday does today with the Bucks. Bigs will use it to keep defenses honest for their face-up moves, like Jokić. And, on occasion, it will have its moment in the sun, like during a recent run of Bucks injuries. Looking around his roster, coach Mike Budenholzer got an idea: There in the back of his offensive closet, a little dusty but still quite usable, lay Brook Lopez’s post game.

As the game evolved, Lopez became a perimeter threat. But he still knows his way around the block.

As the game evolved, Lopez became a perimeter threat. But he still knows his way around the block.

So, for a glorious stretch in November, Lopez feasted in the post. He dropped 25 against the Thunder, then 24 two games later. “I gave them the full repertoire,” Lopez says, laughing. “My teammates called it ‘Brooklyn Brook.’ ” Part of his effectiveness no doubt had to do with the relative novelty of what the Bucks were doing; teams now scout Lopez as a three-point marksman, not a beast on the block. “They probably don’t even remember which shoulder I’m going to shoot my jump hook on.” (It’s the left; always the left.)

Count Lopez among those who long for the glory days of the post game, even as he prides himself on being a complete player. “I won’t lie. I miss it,” he says. “The one-on-one aspect, going up against someone and seeing if your arsenal of moves could beat theirs.”

And here’s where it’s worth trying to distill what, exactly, is being lost. To many, a post-up may just be a rather methodical offensive move in a generally unmethodical game. But to aficionados? To them, the post game is swooping hooks and sneaky step-ins. It’s Tim Duncan’s elbow bank and Zach Randolph’s earthbound wizardry. It’s defenders staying down on the second, third and fourth fakes, only to bite on the fifth. It’s your dad backing you down in the driveway, old and slow now but still nails on that reverse up-and-under. It’s the game, and life, distilled to its simplest and most primal form, stripped of all the noise: just two humans facing off, each hoping to outwit the other.

To try to master the craft—to find joy in the trying—perhaps that is the appeal to men like Poser and Olajuwon. Take what happened at the end of our time together in Houston.

One hour at Olajuwon’s had turned into two, then three. He had to get back to the city, to his day job in real estate. (“My new go-to move.”) And yet he couldn’t help himself.

As we stood on the concrete patio behind his gym, surrounded by hayfields and cornstalks, he watched as Poser tried once more to perfect that spin move—the one where you pirouette on the baseline without going out of bounds.

Olajuwon took the ball and demonstrated. “See? Very simple.”

Poser tried again.

Olajuwon frowned. He took Poser’s shoulders and pivoted him 20 degrees toward the baseline. “That’s what you’re doing wrong.”

“Ahhh!” said Poser. He swung his inside leg in a tighter arc.

“Yes!” said Olajuwon. “Then it becomes easy!”

The old center grinned, watching as Poser tried it again, then again, then again, drilling the move into his muscle memory, fitting one more piece into the puzzle. Keeping the flame alive. “Now,” Olajuwon said, “you take it back with you.” Â


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