The Suns finally have a bona-fide franchise center.� Will he lead the team to its first ring? (NBAE Photos)

Sure, maybe not a bona-fide franchise center at the peak of his powers, but the Suns have never, ever, had a pivotman the caliber of Shaquille O’Neal. And we’re talking forty years here. They’ve had good centers (Neal Walk, Mark West), and great players playing out of position (Alvan Adams, Amare Stoudemire), but never a guy who commands the attention, whose very presence alters a game, like Shaq.

Every year on draft day, whenever a franchise center was coming out of college or high school, the Suns were like kids at some other child’s birthday party. It’s only so much fun to watch them open their gaudy new presents, knowing you’re maybe going home with a party hat or, if you’re lucky, a noisemaker.

Here, let’s hop in my trusty Suns Way-Back Machine and trace the course of Phoenix’s tangled history with franchise centers. As you’ll see, it’s been a trail of “just misses” and of being too good to merit picking high enough to grab a superduperstar.

1968: In their inaugural year, the Suns are given a middle-round draft slot by the league, keeping them from taking famous oak stump Wes Unseld, who’d go on to win the Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player award.

1969: Everyone knows this one. Lew Alcindor, coming out of UCLA and headed for the most famous name-change in basketball history (sorry, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), is the target for both the Suns and expansion brothers Milwaukee. Milwaukee wins the coin flip, and the Suns take Neal Walk and then win the rights to Connie Hawkins. Both of whom, while not adding up to one Abdul-Jabbar, nevertheless help make the Suns good enough to miss out on…

1970: …Bob Lanier. And Dave Cowens. Sigh.

1974: Having passed the peak years of Neal Walk’s career, the Suns would have loved to land a franchise center in this draft. However, they weren’t quite stinky enough, and could only watch division rivals Portland snap up Bill Walton. It’s Portland’s second number one overall pick in three years, by the way. Good for them. Couldn’t happen to a lovelier city. No, really, we’re happy for you.

1975: The Suns fill their center void with future Rookie of the Year, future All-Star, and future Ring of Honor member Alvan Adams. A sensation his first year because of his versatility, quickness and the matchup problems he provided opposing centers, foes soon turned the tables, and Alvan would come to have just as much trouble with them as they did with him. Essentially playing out of position his entire career, today Alvan would likely be a small forward…or a big guard (he was that good a ballhandler, shooter and passer).

1976: With Alvan manning the post, the Suns don’t feel the need to trade up to go after some kid from a school called Centenary named Robert Parish, preferring to stay two spots behind and pick up Ronnie Lee. The Suns may not have gotten a franchise center, but they unquestionably got the better Afro.

1980: Hype surrounds the professional debut of Purdue center Joe Barry Carroll, the consensus top pick and purported next great middle man. The Suns aren’t players in this draft, having no first-round pick, but they’d have the great joy of seeing Mr. Carroll in a purple and orange uniform some years later, after he spectacularly flamed out in a blaze of wasted potential. He didn’t rediscover that potential in Phoenix, either, and Suns fans saw up close how he earned his nickname, “Joe Barely Cares.”

1983: Ralph Sampson! Everybody wanted this guy. Seven-feet-, four-inches tall, with a guard’s ballhandling abilities and limitless athleticism. Alas, the Suns didn’t have a first rounder this year either, but it’s just as well – their center position was in the good hands of James (Buddha) Edwards, who never took a shot when he wasn’t fading away from the basket, never averaged more than 8.5 rebounds per game in a season, and was most famous for being the last player to convincingly wear a Fu Manchu mustache.

1984: Houston gets a little of that Portland luck, getting the first pick all over again, and getting themselves a second franchise center in two years, Akeem (I’d Like To Buy An H, Pat) Olajuwon. Keep track of these Houston franchise centers. There’s more to come.

1985: Patrick Ewing just happens to be available in the first year of the NBA draft lottery! So where do the Suns find themselves? Picking just outside the lottery at number ten.

1986: Brad Daugherty? Who needs him?! The Suns, picking sixth, draft a bona fide, big-time, franchise-potential center named…William Bedford. Here’s my William Bedford story: One afternoon shortly after the draft, I’m shooting baskets at the old Phoenix Jewish Community Center. In walks Suns Assistant Coach Al Bianchi with Suns star forward Larry Nance and young master Bedford. Bianchi watches them play one-on-one to assess the magnitude of the Suns’ newest megatalent. After Nance has flattened Bedford’s soft scalp with a series of dunks, poor Mr. Bianchi punches himself in the eye seventeen straight times (figuratively speaking, of course). Bedford winds up in Detroit where, naturally, he wins a championship ring as a benchwarmer.

1987: The Suns have their highest pick since they year of Almost-Lew…and it’s still not quite high enough to snag David Robinson. But it’s not all bad…Picking second, the Suns still managed to wind up with Armon Gilliam! Why aren’t you smiling?

1992: We have to wait a while for the next batch of franchise centers, and two of them turn up this year – Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning. But the Suns are smack in the middle of a great run, anchored by the legendary Chambers-KJ-Majerle nucleus, and hey, they’ve just picked up Charles Barkley besides. So there’s no way the Suns are bad enough to qualify for either of the above super prospects. Nevertheless, the Suns manage to land a center loaded with potential near the end of the first round: Oliver Miller. Unfortunately, the Big O was also loaded with about sixty extra pounds. There’s no telling how far Oliver might have gone in his career had he stayed in shape – but that’s because he ate the road in front of him.

1997: San Antonio snags the top pick and the right to select Tim Duncan, which is only fair because, hey, it’s only been ten years since they selected their last franchise big man. The Suns sit out the first round entirely, possibly in protest of the injustice of it all.

1998: Michael Olowokandi. Okay, sometimes it’s all right not to have the first pick overall.

2001: Kwame Brown. See 1998.

2002: Remember when I said to watch this space for another Houston sighting? Well, here comes Yao Ming. That makes three franchise centers in fewer than 20 years! Anyone want to join me in a good primal scream?

2004: Dwight Howard. Sigh. Can’t you picture him playing alongside Amare Stoudemire, reducing opponents’ arenas to rubble every night? Why do we have to be so freaking good all the time that we miss out on players like this?! (I’m not really angry about it – I’m thrilled we’ve had a team of such consistent high quality to root for, but still…Rrrgh!)

2007: Well, welcome back, Portland. We were worried you’d led Houston and San Antonio keep having all the fun. Here, have a Greg Oden.

So there you have it. After all these years, the Suns finally have one of the guys mentioned above in uniform, in a position where he really might be able to get the franchise over the hump. Here in Los Angeles, there’s been lots of gleeful hysteria over how the Shaq trade “just isn’t working out, and boy, is Phoenix in trouble!” Which, seeing as how we’re five games into the Shaq era, is a little like reviewing War and Peace after the first nine words. You don’t add a Shaquille O’Neal to an established club in mid-season and have everything flow perfectly right away. And as I’ve said before, this trade was made with April and May in mind, not February. Besides, as anyone who’s seen the Suns since the trade can tell you, while Shaq may not be Shaq circa 1994, he’s a far cry from being William Bedford. Thank goodness.

After all this analysis, I still don’t know if Shaq will help carry the Suns to their first championship and break the franchise’s “center jinx,” but my hopes are as high as they were the day of the trade. I only know one thing for certain: If another franchise, superstar center emerges from the draft…Houston, San Antonio or Portland will likely be there to greet him. Which is only fair.

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