Sports Nut

Kobe and the Beanstalk

The Lakers strain to shoot over Detroit’s lanky Tayshaun Prince.

Lean, mean shot-blocking machine

According to the Roman engineer Vitruvius, the perfect geometry of nature ensures that a person’s wingspan is equal to his height. This vision of man’s ideal form—famously illustrated in Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian man—underpinned much of the art and architecture of the Renaissance.

But all that came before Game 2 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. With less than a minute remaining, Indiana’s late-game savior Reggie Miller was cruising in for a game-tying layup with no defender in sight. Just as Miller released the shot, Detroit’s Tayshaun Prince extended his arm, Stretch Armstrong-style, seemingly from half-court. He blocked the shot, and the Pistons won the game.

Prince’s pterodactyllike reach isn’t an illusion. Though the NBA doesn’t keep official wingspan numbers, various media reports place Prince’s wingspan at 7-foot-2 or 7-foot-3—5 or 6 inches longer than he measures from head to toe. That’s nearly the same as Shaquille O’Neal, who otherwise outmeasures Prince by 4 inches and 135 pounds.

The 6-foot-9 Prince’s lanky brilliance made ardent classicists—and basketball writers—question Vitruvius’ conception of the perfect human. After witnessing the historic block, Detroit Free Press basketball writer Steve Schrader wondered if the old Roman had his numbers right. Schrader took a tape measure to his colleagues and found that, indeed, most had wingspans roughly equal to their height. While few scientists have made their careers studying wingspan length, one early 20th-century study, published in the journal Biometrika, agreed with Schrader: Only 9 percent of adult males have wingspans that exceed their heights by more than about 2 inches. Maybe Prince’s extraordinary length is a scientific abnormality or—depending on your religious beliefs—a divine intervention.

When Prince graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2002, scouts thought he was way too skinny for the pros. “It’s time Prince put on some muscle,” noted his 2002 draft bio on ESPN. “He’s still incredibly thin.” After two years of fierce NBA play, Prince’s physique has barely changed, but nobody calls him skinny any more. Now they call him long.

Everyone from opposing players, to head coaches, to ABC color commentator Doc Rivers, describes Prince’s game with variations on the same compliment: He’s long, very long, or extremely long. Recently, “long” has become the de rigueur term to describe guards and forwards who, like Prince, “play like 7-footers.” Marty Blake, the NBA’s director of scouting, traces Prince’s basketball heritage back to a long line of long-limbed players, including Kevin McHale, Bill Russell, and Scottie Pippen, who used their freakishly outsized arms to drop shots over defenders and fluster opposing shooters. The appellation also flourishes in the medium of mock drafts, in which prognosticators now praise every lanky highschooler and long-named, long-armed European for his length.

Prince isn’t much to look at—he has the legs of a newborn deer, the torso of an anorexic teenager, and the carriage of an old man—but he lives up to his long reputation. In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, he imposed his awkwardness on the smoothest player in the NBA. Kobe Bryant, who was guarded man-up by Prince for most of the game, scored 25 points but made only 10 of 27 shots and one of 6 three-pointers. More important, Prince frustrated Bryant without the help of double-teams. With his teammates free to stifle the other Lakers, the team’s supporting cast of outside shooters missed 17 out of 21 shots. “Kobe had a hard time shooting over Prince,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said afterward. “I’ve never played against somebody that long before,” Bryant said.

Call it the knobby-knee factor. After years of getting pushed around in the post, long players channel their inner spazz and project it back on the opposing team. For 48 minutes, the offensive player is subjected to a disconcerting barrage of bony knees and sharp elbows. All the extra cartilage can be distracting and painful. One moment you might get a flapping finger in the eye, and the next your wide-open layup is being batted away.

Prince’s extra length has already launched an arms race of sorts in this year’s playoffs. In the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, Prince held Pacers forward Ron Artest to 15-of-57 shooting, including one of 14 on three-pointers. In search of a solution, the Pacers organization dug deep into their technological bag of tricks to produce the one device that could replicate the long Prince of Detroit. On the eve of Game 4, Artest practiced his jump shot against an assistant coach who was holding a broom.