Few days ago I talked with 2-time member of the All-NBA Defensive Team, who led the NBA in blocks three times, and was selected to the 2001 NBA All-Star Game – Theo Ratliff.
Pistons and trade to Philly
As a rookie you played with veterans Otis Thorpe and Mark West. How big influence did they have on your development as a defender?
Huge. I think they were professionals. To walk into the arena with guys who have been playing for fourteen years, and them telling you, basically giving you the formula to have a similar career. They were instrumental in bringing me as a young big coming into the NBA. Especially during that time, with big centers. The league was much bigger at that time. I was more of the size of what the league is now!
Then you were traded to the 76ers. Were you sad because of the trade, or were you happy because you would get more minutes?
Well, I was definitely happy to get into a situation where I was wanted. Coach Larry Brown, who is a legend, Hall of Famer, had incredible knowledge when it came to coaching, and being able to play for him and knowing his background of big guys he helped grown, like David Robinson, Antonio Davis, Dale Davis. And it held true for us, being on the Sixers, after two or three years, we were at the top echelon in the East, and ready to fight for a championship.
What makes a good shot blocker? Is it size, timing, combination of both?
Well, I think to really be an elite shot blocker, you need to have vision, anticipation, and you have to, if you are not very tall guy that has good chance to block shots like Whiteside – he is just so big, he is able to block shots in his particular area. But to be person like myself, who covered distance, blocked shots, you need to be visual, anticipate, and you got to have heart, because I took many stiches, elbows to the face and everything else. You definitely need to be courageous to be a consistent shot blocker.
Playing with Allen Iverson
You played with Allen Iverson for three years. How would you describe him as a teammate and as a person?
Man, when you talk about energy, I have never seen one with the energy that Allen had on and off the court. He ran off the court just as hard, and that was his DNA. He was a guy that never got tired, I have never seen him get tired throughout the time I played with him. Allen was a guy with a heart of a lion, the biggest animal that you can have. Especially when we were down and we were trying to comeback, his energy level would take everybody’s energy to another level, and thus the respect he has throughout the NBA and the history of the game, as being a guy of his size, and being able to will his energy, his ability to be able to dominate the game and takeover when his team was down, to push them over the top.
The 2000-01 76ers. What was it about this particular year, that everything clicked?
I think in that year, in 2000-01, which was my best year in the league for that first half of the season before the trade. We had been under coach Brown for the last three and a half years, and that particular group that we had, gained all the knowledge and the experience through playing and through practice, and we understood each other as a group, we were all as one. We knew each other’s roles and we knew what we had to do as a team to win. I think that we were able to stop the opponents from scoring on us, and we were able to generate enough points. It gave us the ability to control the game with our style of offense and put us over the top.
Allen had his MVP year, I had All-Star year, so everything was trending up – a young team coming into its maturity. I think when they traded me for Dikembe, that kind of upset what we did, although he was a shot blocker, but different type of shot blocker than I was, and a different type of offensive player than I was. I was a player that could make 15-17-footer, step outside the box, was athletic enough to play in a pick&roll, and all those different things that helped push our team and build our chemistry to how we played, and how we were successful in the game.
Trade to Atlanta
Later on, you played for the Hawks with Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Glenn Robinson, and Jason Terry. Why do you think this team struggled a lot?
I think it was couple of things. We definitely had the talent, but when you bring inexperienced coaching, inexperienced assistant coaching, that cannot bring guys together to be able to play in a certain way, we really had no identity as a team. We had a coach that was fresh out of college, did not have NBA experience, and we were all veterans who got experience with tough, quality coaching. And when you have inexperienced coach, it becomes different.
And respect is a big thing when it comes to coaching in the NBA. When you have guys like myself, “Big Dog”, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Jason Terry, who had been playing in the league and had some success, it becomes a challenge for a coach who does not have credentials behind his name that other coaches have. That is a big stepping stone and kudos to coaches that are able to do that, but as you can see there are not many coaches that come directly from college who have success in the NBA.
Joining the Trail Blazers
How do you recall being traded to Portland and three seasons you spent with the Blazers?
I thought we had a pretty good team. We were on the verge of making the playoffs and rest in peace to my brother, Kobe Bryant, who hit that last second shot over me to seal our fate. We definitely improved as a team, that year when I came in for those final games of the season. The Trail Blazers had a reputation which the ownership and the management were trying to change. It was one of the reasons they brought me over, as a veteran, with a worthy type of career to be kind of looked at as a face of the change that was happening.
Portland was a great experience for me. But when you play for many years and you still had not had the taste of being where you want to be as a player, a championship opportunity, you tend to try to figure out how to get to that next level.
From 2006 to 2008 you went through a series of trades and waives. Did you think about retiring from basketball at that moment?
Actually, in 2001 in injured my hip, and I did not think that I would be able to come back from. I had many issues with that and discovered that I had nutritional deficiency. I also got the knowledge about athletes and mineral loss, and how athletes actually die earlier than most of regular people, because of the mineral loss and the energy they use to play the sport, and if they do not put those minerals back in their body, body tend to break down. That is what was happening to me. I had early osteoporosis because of lack of calcium.
Thanks to my doctor I was able to build myself back up by the time I was going to Portland and ended up leading the league in blocked shots. So yes, definitely during that time I thought about retiring. But it is always difficult, because I had kids, the family, and we were constantly moving about. When I decided to retire after going to the Lakers for that year, that pushed me to that limit, because I had teenage daughters, I wanted to be around in their precious years, to make sure they will be successful in what they are doing. I was pretty comfortable and satisfied with my career and how things went. Being a young skinny kid from Demopolis, Alabama, having a fifteen-sixteen-year career in the NBA was a dream come true.
Kobe Bryant and the Lakers
In the 2010-11 season you were a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Even though you played very rarely, how do you recall being around the late Kobe Bryant and watching him play?
Oh man. He actually had toned down by the time I got there, because they had just won back-to-back championships and they were going for another one. They decided that he would not be participating in all the practices. They tried to manage his minutes on the floor, but you still had a guy that worked out three times a day. And that was more impressive than anything. He would come in, work out before everybody started practice, then go to weight room and work out during practice a lot of times, and then go home and work more.
That was his mental drive, his passion for the game. A guy who already won five championships, but this was his approach to the game. You understand, when hearing names like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, all these guys. You understand that that type of work ethic, type of focus he had, and mental preparation is what really impressed guys throughout the league, including myself.
University of Wyoming
In 2005 you were inducted into the University of Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame. How much does it mean to you?
Oh, it means a lot to me. It is my alma mater, and really being able to be a guy who came out of Wyoming and have the success I had in the NBA, you know, there are not that many NBA players who came out of Wyoming and had a success. I believe I kind of paved the way to a few of them. I think more players come out of that program now, than it was before, and I appreciate being able to be the one that helped put that university on the map, when people actually knew where it was, and make people look in different places.
I definitely think that is what I was considered, coming from University of Wyoming, with my background. Not being on the big stages, Nike and Adidas camps, and all those different things. But being a guy who just worked, worked, worked and just let all other things fall into place.