|Alonzo Mourning and Billy Owens with
By John Gillis
In the game of basketball, tall players who can effectively play the center position have long been revered by coaches.
Appropriately called “aircraft carriers” by the late coach Al McGuire during his college basketball telecasts, such height-gifted players can have a profound effect on a game. Their size can enable them to score more easily and to be dominating rebounders, while their interior presence can make them defensive stalwarts by blocking any shot sent their direction.
As such, it’s not surprising that college coaches have long scoured the high school ranks for those tall and talented post players who they hope to entice to enroll at their respective universities.
While many highly skilled centers have come out of high school over the years, there is perhaps no single graduating class that has produced as many talented big men as the Class of 1988.
The best center from that class was 6-foot-10, 230-pound Alonzo Mourning, who was ranked the nation’s top player during his senior year at Chesapeake (Virginia) Indian River High School. Among his accolades, he was named National Player of the Year by USA Today, Parade, Gatorade and Naismith.
Mourning led Indian River High School to the Virginia High School League state title during his junior year and to 51 consecutive victories. As a senior, he averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds a game. However, his greatest individual skill might have been as a shot-blocker, as he averaged a very impressive 12 blocked shots a game.
Following high school, Mourning played for Georgetown University, where he led the nation in blocked shots as a freshman and was an All-American during his senior year. He was selected second overall in the 1992 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets and was second in rookie-of-the-year voting. A seven-time NBA All-Star, he was twice chosen NBA Defensive Player of the Year and helped lead the Miami Heat to the 2006 NBA championship.
Christian Laettner, who was listed at 6-11 and 235 pounds, played high school basketball at Buffalo (New York) Nichols School. Laettner wasted little time making an impact at Nichols School as he scored 67 points in a game as a freshman. During his career, he scored more than 2,000 points, and helped lead the squad to two New York State Public High School Athletic Association state titles and to the state semifinals another time.
After graduating, Laettner played for Duke (North Carolina) University. There, he became the only NCAA men’s basketball player to start in four consecutive Final Fours. He averaged 16.6 points and 7.7 rebounds during his Duke career, and was perhaps best known for his dramatic last-second, back-to-the-basket, turnaround, game-winning jump shot that lifted the Blue Devils to a dramatic 104-103 win over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final.
In addition, Laettner was the only college player chosen for the 1992 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team, which became known as the “Dream Team.” He then went on to enjoy a 13-year NBA career.
Considered to be one of the top four high school players in the nation, the athletic 6-10, 230-pound Shawn Kemp led his Elkhart (Indiana) Concord High School team to the 1988 Indiana High School Athletic Association state championship game. He ranks 23rd on the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s boys basketball career scoring list with 2,134 points.
Kemp attended the University of Kentucky and Trinity Valley Community College in Texas and then declared himself eligible for the 1989 NBA Draft. Kemp played a collective 13 seasons for four teams (Seattle, Cleveland, Portland and Orlando), averaging 14.6 points and 8.4 rebounds for his career.
At 7-0 and 285 pounds, Stanley Roberts clearly lived up to the title of “big man.” He helped lead Hopkins (South Carolina) Lower Richland High School to two consecutive South Carolina High School League state titles, and was chosen a Parade first-team All-American.
After high school, Roberts played at Louisiana State University, where he formed half of the Tigers’ twin-tower configuration with 7-1, 325-pound Shaquille O’Neal. After starting his professional basketball career with a year in Spain, he played for five NBA teams, one ABA team and three foreign teams.
On the West Coast, 6-10, 235-pound Don MacLean was a high school All-American for Simi Valley High School in California. As a senior, he averaged 31 points and 12 rebounds as he led Simi Valley to the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section championship. That season, he made 70 percent of his field-goal attempts, including a game in which he made 20 of 22 field goals.
MacLean then played for UCLA, where he still holds the school record for career points (2,608), which is also the Pac-12 Conference’s all-time scoring record. As a senior, he helped lead the Bruins to the 1992 NCAA Elite Eight, and he was inducted into the UCLA Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. MacLean played for seven teams during 10 seasons in the NBA.
On the opposite end of the nation in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area were two skilled East Coast centers ‑ Donald Hodge and Crawford Palmer.
Hodge was a very athletic 7-0, 230-pound center at Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C. He played college basketball at Temple (Pennsylvania) University and then played five years in the NBA and one year in Belgium. Palmer, a 6-10, 231-pound center, played at Arlington (Virginia) Washington-Lee High School and later for Duke University and at Dartmouth (New Hampshire) College.
Although perhaps not tall or big enough to be considered true centers, three other frontline players in the Class of 1988 distinguished themselves at the national level.
As a 6-8, 220-pound swingman, Billy Owens led Carlisle (Pennsylvania) High School to four consecutive Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association state titles. During his senior year, he averaged 34 points a game. Owens was generally considered to be the nation’s second-best player behind Mourning, and the two of them were co-MVPs of the 1988 McDonald’s All-American Game.
Owens then played for Syracuse (New York) University, where he was both Big East Conference Player of the Year and consensus NCAA First-Team All-American in 1991. He also played for the U.S. national team in the 1990 FIBA World Championship, winning the bronze medal. Owens played 10 seasons in the NBA, with his best run a three-year stint with the Golden State Warriors when he averaged 15 points and eight rebounds.
In 2011, Owens received the highest honor that can be bestowed to anyone involved with high school athletics or performing arts activities when he was inducted into the NFHS’ National High School Hall of Fame. Perhaps appropriately so, he was inducted in Philadelphia within his home state of Pennsylvania.
At 6-9 and 220 pounds, Eric Anderson was a very skilled forward at Chicago (Illinois) St. Francis DeSales High School. He was named 1988’s Mr. Basketball for the state of Illinois, and was named to the McDonald’s All-American team.
Anderson then played at Indiana University, where he scored 1,715 points and had 825 rebounds. As a senior, he was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1992 NCAA Tournament’s West Regional and led Indiana to the Final Four. Following college, Anderson played six years of professional basketball.
Another standout Illinois player was LaPhonso Ellis, a 6-8, 240-pound power forward who played at East St. Louis (Illinois) Lincoln High School. Ellis helped lead the Tigers to consecutive Illinois High School Association Class AA boys state titles in 1987 and 1988.
Following his senior season, Ellis was named a Parade Magazine and a McDonald’s high school All-American. In 2007, Ellis was voted one of the “100 Legends of the IHSA Boys Basketball Tournament.”
Following high school, Ellis attended the University of Notre Dame (Indiana). He concluded his career with 1,505 points, 1,075 rebounds and 200 blocked shots. During Ellis’ freshman and sophomore seasons, the Fighting Irish men’s basketball team qualified for the NCAA tournament and they were runner-up in the 1992 NIT Tournament.
Ellis, who was the fifth overall selection in the 1992 NBA Draft (taken by the Denver Nuggets), played 12 seasons in the league. In 2009, Ellis began his career as a college basketball analyst for ESPN.
John Gillis is the associate director of publications and communications of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at firstname.lastname@example.org