Tag-you’re it

By Natalie Dicou

Even in our free-market, capitalistic society, kids don’t always get to choose their careers. Kids who learn to drive a bulldozer when they’re 9 often end up driving a bulldozer when they’re 40.

Since they’re living in a democracy, they probably entertain the idea of becoming a rock star or plastic surgeon while they sit atop the rumbling John Deere; but in the end, they often realize that it’s just not in the cards. They were bred to be farmers, and farmers they will be.

This brings me to the case of Greg Ostertag, who retired this year, and who also had a career thrust upon him, not because his father was a soft center and his father’s father was a soft center, but because the poor guy just kept growing until he became a biological anomaly-a man more than a foot taller than the average guy and therefore became an NBA center.

Ostertag would have been pleased as punch to top off around 5 feet 10 inches. And if he’d known what would happen-that he’d be running wind sprints for Jerry Sloan for a good portion of the prime of his life-he might have started chain-smoking in elementary school to stunt his growth.

Ostertag took more criticism from the press in his 10 years with the Jazz than all of the law-breaking polygamists that this state has put on trial combined. He was hated not for being unappreciative of his gifts, but for not giving his all to the game.

A lot of folks thought Ostertag lacked heart.

And it’s true, in a way. He lumbered up and down the court, feigning interest in the score for 10 years with the Jazz and one with the Sacramento Kings. To keep his secret, he occasionally got into tiffs with the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, but it’s my guess that ‘Tag was only doing it to keep himself entertained.

By contrast, Magic Johnson’s game was full of passion and joy. Greats like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird would do everything under the sun to pull out the win. And John Stockton and Karl Malone were workhorses who put their heads down and grinded out winning season after winning season. These were competitors who started each NBA season raring to go for all 82 games. They did the “little things”-like diving for balls and fighting through punishing screens-that make a player special. These players sincerely wanted to be the best, and in sports that’s what we call “heart.”

Ostertag was a decent player, and that’s all he ever wanted to be. He survived 11 years in the NBA, averaging 4.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. During the 1996-97 season, he elevated his game and averaged 7.3 points and 7.3 rebounds.

Still, compared to league averages, that’s not too spectacular. On any given day, the average NBA center scores 7.6 points and grabs 5.4 rebounds. So, while Ostertag was slightly above the curve in rebounding that year, he was never even an average scorer at his offensive peak.

What kind of player could he have been if he’d been able to muster half the desire Jerry Sloan wanted out of him? What if he’d spent his summers transforming his big, soft body into a finely tuned machine like his buddy Karl? For one thing, Jazz alumni might be wearing a pair of rings right now.

On some nights, it seemed like there were fans up in the nosebleeds shoving hotdogs down their throats who cared more about the outcome of the game than Ostertag did. He saw the NBA as a business-as a job.

I used to throw pillows at the TV screen during the glory days of the Jazz, screaming at Ostertag to go up strong. “What’s his problem? He’s 7 feet tall!” I’d yell when some 6-foot-7 guy would sail in and snatch the ball away from Ostertag’s slow hands.

But now I wonder: What if I were forced to play golf for a living? And I understand. Happy retirement, Ostertag. Now go spend your millions in peace.