"I would block a guy's shot and say ... 'And if you come back again, we'll do it another time. So you'll have to find something else to do.' "
-- Bill Russell
It's the early 1990s. Dikembe Mutombo is walking around Georgetown, where he once blocked 12 shots in a game, with Bill Russell. The retired Boston Celtics star tells Mutombo that he could become a great shot-blocker in the NBA, even better than he was.
Mutombo considers Russell the best ever, and watches every tape he can find of him. He listens to Russell's tips, about timing, about studying opponents' moves, but Mutombo wonders, "How can he tell me I might end up being better than him?"
It's 2012. The Los Angeles Clippers' DeAndre Jordan, in his fourth season in the NBA, is leading the league with three blocks a game. He's fine-tuning that technique too.
"I'm working on it now, like Bill Russell did, blocking (to keep the ball) inbounds or blocking to a teammate," says Jordan, 23.
About every element of a blocked shot can be traced back to Russell, the patriarch of every swat, denial and rejection, who won 11 championships in 13 seasons with Boston.
"He changed the entire history of basketball. Bill Russell controlled the entire sport and he never even had the ball," says fellow Hall of Fame member Bill Walton.
Yet, the blocked shot remains a high-risk, high-reward gamble of a play that coaches and players say has an impact far beyond the stat sheets.
"A good shot-blocker will deny the other team within 10 feet of the basket, even if he doesn't block a shot" because of intimidation, says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose 3,189 blocks rank No. 3 in NBA history.
Abdul-Jabbar says he learned about blocked shots in high school in New York by watching Russell play against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
The NBA didn't even begin recording blocked shots until 1973-74, five seasons after Russell retired. But he made the play an art and a science.
"I call it action, because it's not a reaction," Russell once said. "When you block a shot on reaction, then you're lucky. In other words, it's just jumping ability. There's more to it than that."
Length and height help, says Jordan, who's 6 feet 11 with a 7-6 wingspan. His size really helped in high school when he could easily block 10 shots a game.
But in the NBA, he's learning that a successful block often depends on timing. "I didn't realize until later that I could jump after people released a shot," he says.
Because of his height and wingspan, Jordan might still block a shot even if he doesn't time his jump just right.
But that's not true for a player like Ben Wallace.
Listed at 6-9, Wallace, of the Detroit Pistons, is the shortest NBA player ever to record 2,000 blocks (he had 2,100 before Monday, 16th all time). He credits timing, but also selectivity -- knowing which shots to go after. Wallace's relative lack of height might have helped too.
During games bigger players figured they had a mismatch against him, Wallace says. They'd say things like, "There's a mouse in the house, (meaning) I've got a little guy on me and I'm going to score."
He suckered them into a false sense of comfort, then struck when they didn't expect it.
"Shot blocking is like being a hunter," says Houston Rockets center Samuel Dalembert, who has averaged about two blocks per game during his 10 NBA seasons.
Dalembert says you can bait an offensive player into a move he's not used to attempting. Often, that takes the player out of his comfort zone, making a bad shot more likely.
"Forcing the opponent to take a bad shot, that's the real skill," says Walton, who blocked 1,034 shots and led the NBA with 3.2 per game in 1976-77.
Mutombo spent hours before games watching tape and reading about opponents to discover their favorite moves. He credits that for helping him become the No. 2 shot-blocker in NBA history with 3,289 rejections, behind only Hakeem Olajuwon's 3,830. Otherwise, Mutombo says, "They will be getting 30 or 40 (points) a night, no matter how good of a shot blocker you are."
Like Mutombo, Wallace does his homework. "You can tell most guys' shots from their footwork," Wallace says.
NBA players usually work with the same group of coaches and trainers in the off-season and are taught similar types of footwork, he says. After about six years in the league, Wallace discovered that players position their feet in certain ways when they are ready to shoot.
Of course, a block may seem like any other statistic, but it isn't.
There are about six minutes to go in the third quarter and the Houston Rockets lead the Los Angeles Lakers by five points. A Lakers forward draws two defenders and dumps the ball off to 19-year-old center Andrew Bynum, who has a clear path to the rim for a dunk.
Not far away is 40-year-old Mutombo, who steps toward Bynum as the pass is made. Bynum's feet leave the floor first as Mutombo crouches just before he takes off. Mutombo extends his right arm straight up as Bynum soars for a two-handed slam.
The Houston fans roar as Mutombo swats the ball away to a teammate, as Russell told him to, and wags his right index finger, his signature after a rejection.
After that play, on Jan. 10, 2007, Mutombo's Rockets went on a run to take a 20-point lead, on their way to a 102-77 victory. It's one of many examples of a block changing a game.
Wallace says even star players become deflated after a block, because "you took something away from them."
Having a shot-blocker in the middle also allows perimeter defenders to be aggressive, because even if an opposing player gets to the basket, the stopper will be waiting.
"I used to tell Tracy McGrady, 'I understand you cannot guard anybody, but just stay on him, track him all the way to the basket, I will take care of the rest,' " Mutombo says.
In the broadest sense, there are two kinds of shot-blockers: those who block players they're guarding, and those who bail out their teammates.
"Some of my blocks come from guarding my man," says Bynum, "but I can do a better job on the help side."
Bynum is averaging 1.8 blocks this season, eighth in the NBA. He has worked with Abdul-Jabbar on his defense.
Some of the lessons were simple: Keep hands at shoulder height, knees slightly bent, wait to extend the arms until the ball is shot, and be the second one to jump. "(Bynum's) idea on guarding was to get in their way and put both arms up," Abdul-Jabbar says.
Many factors go into a blocked shot: angles, anticipation, body positioning, hand placement, leaping ability, height, length.
Even then, it's risky. "It's definitely a gamble," Wallace says.
Russell was perfectly built for the play: tall and agile, a former college track-and-field star. But more impressive than that was his intelligence.
"Psychologically, you have to make the offensive player question what he's doing," Russell once said. " 'Will this work? And can I make this shot?' And you have to create doubts."
The blueprint hasn't changed.
BULLIES OF THE BLOCK: THE LEADING SHOT BLOCKERS IN THE NBA
The NBA's leading shot blockers this season, through Sunday:
1. DeAndre Jordan/L.A. Clippers/ 14/42/ 3.0
1. JaVale McGee/Washington/16/48/3.0
3. Marc Gasol/Memphis/15/39/2.6
4. Serge Ibaka/Oklahoma City/16/40/2.5
5. Dwight Howard/Orlando/15/35/2.3
6. Andrew Bogut/Milwaukee/10/20/2.0
6. Samuel Dalembert/Houston/16/32/2.0
8. Andrew Bynum/L.A. Lakers/14/25/1.8
9. Josh Smith/Atlanta/17/30/1.8
10. James Johnson/Toronto/16/27/1.7.