Top NBA rebounders not all skyscrapers

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Often fans who can spout current scoring figures down to their last decimal point know little about pro basketball's top rebounders. Ask them to tick off the National Basketball Association's current top 10 and they might begin with Moses Malone and Artis Gilmore, but it's doubtful many could complete the list: Jeff Ruland, Mark Eaton, Bill Laimbeer, Buck Williams, Jay Vincent, Larry Smith, LaSalle Thompson, and Larry Bird.

Some of these players, to be sure, are of the ''tall timber'' variety, but a goodly number are only average by NBA frontcourt standards. Then too, the list includes a handful of guys with no better than average jumping ability. So much for the commonly held notions that height automatically makes might around the boards, or that leaping skills are paramount.

Bill Russell, the Hall of Fame center who once led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships in 13 years, has frequently made these points.

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''What most people don't realize,'' he says, ''is that 75 percent of all rebounds in pro basketball are taken below the height of the rim. While the ability to jump well helps, often the bottom line is anticipation, or simply being in the right place at the right time.

''Since no two objects can occupy the same place at the same time, it's important to get there first.''

Pound for pound, or maybe it should be inch for inch, the best rebounder in the NBA for the past three years has been 6 ft. 8 in. forward Buck Williams of the New Jersey Nets. Williams's 1,000 grabs last season were exceeded only by 6 ft. 11 in. center Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons. Far from being a one-dimensional player, Buck (who was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1981-82) is also a good scorer and a better-than-average shot blocker.

''I played for a junior high school coach who would rather see you get a rebound than score a point,'' Williams said. ''Somehow that impressed me. It made me want to get rebounds for a coach who never failed to praise a player whenever he worked hard under the boards. Anyway, I got good at rebounding. Hitting the boards became part of my game, and it never seemed to take away from my scoring.

''At the University of Maryland (which he left after his junior year to turn pro), there was no reason to change,'' Buck continued. ''I just kept hitting the boards the way I had in high school, and the payoff was the same. I helped the team and I also created scoring opportunities for myself.

''When New Jersey drafted me, I was told that if I showed the referees right away that I was a physical player, that if I kept going to the boards like I owned them, they wouldn't call any more fouls on me than they did on anyone else. Looking back, it was good advice.''

Desire, of course, helps explain why even non-leapers like Laimbeer, Ruland, and Bird are forces on the boards.

Probably the chief reason why so many writers and broadcasters voted Bird the NBA's Most Valuable Player for 1983-84 - aside from his leadership - was his ability to rebound in the clutch.

Bird was the league's seventh-leading scorer, more than 500 points behind champion Adrian Dantley of the Utah Jazz. But in a game that owes most its popularity to high-visibility scoring, his rebounding and defense were never lost on the experts.

Bird has only average speed and has never been able to soar like Julius Erving or spectacular Chicago Bulls rookie Michael Jordan. But he is a tireless battler who had more defensive rebounds last season than Philadelphia's redoubtable Malone.

While this is probably an exaggeration, defensive rebounds are said to be worth four points - the two points the other team didn't get by losing the ball and the two points the team that gained possession is going to score.

Oh, were it all that simple! Sometimes, of course, it does happen in just that manner. But to assign a specific value to all rebounds is to also assume that all baskets count the same.

Technically they do, if taken within the two-point shooting perimeter. It's clear, however, that baskets tossed in by either side when one team leads by 20 points in the last minutes don't mean as much as those scored when the game is in the balance.

The one thing everybody agrees on is that no NBA franchise has ever won a world championship without benefit of strong and consistent rebounding.

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