The Ogg Man

...Ogggg! Oggggggggggg! Oggggggggggggggggggg! Ogggg! Oggggggggggg! Oggggggggggggggggggg! Ogggg! Oggggggggggg! Oggggggggggggggggggg! Ogggg! Oggggggggggg! Oggggggggggggggggggg!...

In sports, the cliche goes, everybody loves a winner. Borderline and mediocre players don't get any respect. Don't get product endorsements, don't get championship rings, don't get the undying adulation of crowds. Well, don't believe everything you hear. Until you hear The Call.

Night after night, with a manic devotion, Miami Heat fans air out their larynxes and rattle the Miami Arena for Alan Ogg. For tall, gangly Alan Ogg. For seven-foot-two-inch reserve center Alan Ogg. For twelfth man Alan Ogg.

To the uninitiated, it sounds implausible, even comical, that sports fans might squander their decibels on a player who occupies the lowest rung on the roster ladder, to ignore ten tall men locked in mortal struggle in favor of one really tall man locked in a mortal embrace with the sidelines. "STARS PLAY ON AS CROWD SHOUTS FOR BENCH WARMER!!" is the kind of headline you expect to see alongside "SMALL-TOWN MAYOR COMES CLEAN: `I AM HITLER'" and "BABY BORN WITH JIMMY HOFFA'S DRIVER'S LICENSE IN MOUTH!" But the uninitiated need only bring their ears down to the Arena to witness a cult hero in the making.

From the distance, it sounds like any other dull roar, from a recital crowd applauding a violinist to a joint session of Congress celebrating a cease-fire. But up close, with the consonants distinctly enunciated, it can be only one thing.

...Ogggg! Oggggggggggg! Oggggggggggggggggggg!...

Die-hard skeptics are urged to consider the following:

Part 2

TEN MINUTES ARE LEFT in the February 14 tussle between the Heat and the Denver Nuggets, two of the NBA's losingest teams. The Nuggets, under the supersonic offense of former Lakers and Loyola Marymount University coach Paul Westhead, have become the Wile E. Coyotes of basketball, proving that you can go as fast as you want as far as you want for as long as you want, and smarter teams will shred you like an inconvenient memo. And after two and a half years, the expansion Heat still manage to fight off consistency: despite improvement, they rarely offer much resistance to winning teams, most of whom destroy them with the decisiveness of an anvil dropping on a house of cards. Two nights before the Valentine's Day Denver contest, Miami was thrashed to within an inch of its young life by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a brutal assault disguised as an away game. Miami, not Cleveland, was the Mistake on the Lake, offering 48 minutes of futility on its way to a 78-point total, the team's lowest scoring effort of the season.

But tonight, at home, the Heat is spectacular, and Denver is atrocious. The Miami squad is showing flashes of a promising future. They are world-beaters, sinking every shot, dominating the middle. The stars - smooth guard Sherman Douglas, jet-setting center Rony Seikaly, bonus babies Glen Rice, Willie Burton, and Alec Kessler - are superb, and the hundred-point mark fades into the rearview mirror by the third quarter. Eight players are knocking on the double-figure door, and the Arena is rocking.

With ten minutes left, 10:10 to be precise, The Call commences, coming on at first like a soft breeze, then a sirocco, then a full-force gale. Most of the crowd opts for the stripped-down version ("Ogggggggggg!"), although vigilant ears can detect slight variations ("We Want Ogg," "Ogg Now," and even one upper-deck group of children chanting "Yeah, Tall Guy!").

Alan Ogg rises from the bench, and the crowd volume swells. Then, moments later, he sits back down, and there's a sudden void, like the hollow silence that follows a punch in the stomach. The hero isn't striding into battle. The dream is over. The source of the momentary confusion is the General, gifted Heat guard and amateur prankster Sherman Douglas. Visiting the bench between stretches of stellar play, Douglas, heady with the rare thrill of an easy win, has barked "Alan!" in the sharp voice of a coach, and Ogg, as prepared as an Eagle Scout, never one to scoff at an opportunity to take the court for even a single playing minute, stood obediently and jogged toward the scorer's table to check in.

The real coach, Ron Rothstein, finally orders Ogg onto the court with 6:26 remaining and the Heat up 108-83. The Call returns in a crescendo until it's even louder than before, seismic and sustained, flowing through the Arena's giant mouth. The entire stadium opens wide and says "Ogg."

Ogg remains in the game until its conclusion, picking up four fouls, getting hit in the head twice by loose balls, managing to put the ball through the hoop once. But that basket, which comes with 1:34 remaining, is the field goal that hikes the Heat's score from 134 to 136, allowing the team to surpass its previous single-game high tally.

It's a happy coincidence that Ogg's single basket was an important one, happy for the team, happy for the fans, and happiest for Ogg. But his points - in fact, all his on-court activities - seem irrelevant to his fame, which has expanded to mythic proportions. Signed by the Heat last summer after he passed through the NBA draft unclaimed, released in December and re-signed after the January injury to starting center Rony Seikaly, the rookie center with the Gumby physique has achieved a fame that defies statistics, transcends the simple performance-for-applause exchange that motivates most players. The rapport the fans feel with Ogg is ineffable, inscrutable, almost religious.

Explanations for the wild adulation vary. Some point to the blunt appeal of the name: Shouting "Ogg," they explain, is primal, a release of endorphins, like yelling "Charge!" Others insist it's mass hallucination: The crowd, they say, must think he's Wilt Chamberlain.

The Stilt should have been so lucky.
BECAUSE CHILDREN ARE curious, and cruel, and indiscreet with language, they nickname; deviations from the norm are tagged with humiliating monikers, Fatso, Four-Eyes, Shrimp. And this boy, Alan Ogg, is an inviting target, tall and uncoordinated, as thin as a lowercase l. He's a giraffe-and-a-half, the other children whisper, a lighthouse with legs. He's Lurch, he's Plastic Man, he's Frankenstein. There is a persistent rumor about seven-foot-tall University of Florida center Dwayne Schintzus responding to jeering calls of "How's the weather up there?" with a gob of spit and a brusque, "It's raining." But this boy is shy and self-conscious, and has not yet learned the trick of thick skin. The other children gleefully continue taunting. They have found themselves a passive mantis.

Alan Ogg was born in Ohio 23 years ago, small like most babies. When he relocated to Atlanta shortly afterward, he was still small. When he was seven years old, his mother died of heart trouble, and immediately his life began to fracture. His father, Mike, worked in construction, his job kept him moving from state to state, and wherever he went he took Alan with him. For young Ogg, who was just beginning to show the first signs of extreme height, the peripatetic existence was troubling. "We moved from Atlanta to Ohio to Texas," he says, "and every place was hard. I never had time to get used to living somewhere, and to dealing with new kids and new schools." Life was beginning to shape up like a fill-in-the-blanks Charles Dickens plot - insert family tragedy, insert peer adversity, insert rootlessness, insert innocence. Then again, Oliver Twist never tomahawk-dunked.

When he was fourteen, Alan moved to Mount Olive, Alabama, to live with his maternal grandparents, Raymond and Fannie Vines. "When he was fourteen we got him," says Raymond Vines, a retired DuPont worker. "He was about 6-4, 6-5. He wore a size-fourteen shoe and was skinny as a rail."

The Vines were accustomed to having tall children around the house - Alan's mother had been 5-9, her two brothers were both over six feet tall. "We had an extra-long frame from when Mike, our younger son, was a child. He was 6-5," says Vines. "So we bought a new mattress, got some new springs, and gave the bed to Alan."

Maybe it was something about the bed. Mike Vines had played basketball at Gardendale fifteen years earlier, and Ogg, after only a year of sleeping in his uncle's bed, took his first steps toward the same destination. "He came into my class, and he was 6-8, I believe, maybe a little shorter," recalls Jimmy Armstrong, Ogg's ninth-grade history teacher, who also happened to be the varsity coach of the Gardendale Rockets. "One day I asked him, `Son, do you play basketball?' He said, `No sir. I got cut.' I said, `You got what?'" In disbelief, Armstrong approached Gardendale's ninth-grade coach, who explained that Ogg, who weighed about 170 pounds at the time, was in no condition to play competitive sports. But Armstrong couldn't stop salivating at the prospect of a 6-8 sophomore, and he slowly began to encourage Ogg to take up the game. "During study hall I had another player go with Alan to the gym and hand him the ball to shoot," he explains. "He couldn't even catch the ball then. He took 30 minutes a day every day."

In addition to his physical shortcomings, Ogg's initial courtship with basketball was hindered by his near-total lack of familiarity with the game. "He'd never seen a game on TV in his life up to that point," says Armstrong. "Didn't know a single thing about it."

"That's true," says Ogg. "I wasn't brought up around it; it wasn't in my house. And I didn't like the game at first. To begin with, I wasn't any good, and how are you going to enjoy something when you go out and every time you try it, you're bad."

For the sky-high neophyte, though, progress was rapid and rewarding. "The first time he dunked the ball was in tenth grade in a game," says Armstrong. "It just lit him up like a Christmas tree."

As Ogg's talents grew, so did he; in 1985, as he entered his senior year in high school, he was approaching the seven-foot mark. "Even though my children were tall and I have some cousins that are 6-7 and 6-8," says his grandfather, "we had no idea he would keep growing. I was hoping he would cut off around 6-6. Would have made it easier to get him clothes."

His last year in high school, Alan averaged 21 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 6.7 blocked shots per game. With an All-American honorable mention from Street & Smith's Basketball Yearbook, he caught the eye of several premier basketball programs, including Alabama and North Carolina. Dean Smith, the venerable Tarheels coach, even visited Mount Olive twice to try to coax him to Chapel Hill. But Ogg, who had been in Birmingham only four years, wasn't ready to leave yet, and he opted to attend the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

AS A FRESHMAN FOR Gene Bartow's UAB Blazers, Ogg was solid in infrequent appearances, and improved significantly toward the end of the season. But it wasn't all roses. How could it be? Because of his ungainliness, and the one-syllable thrill of his name, other teams' fans had a field day dogging Ogg. A newspaper at the University of South Florida printed an Ogg cutout mask and handed copies to patrons entering the stadium. Each time the freshman glanced toward the stands, he saw a mocking sea of distressingly familiar faces. "I can remember one game in particular, when we went to Stanford," says Jimmy Armstrong, who left Gardendale at the same time as Alan to pursue graduate work at UAB and act as a volunteer assistant for the Blazers. "He was ridiculed so bad that he came off the floor in tears. Not hurt tears, but angry tears. Five thousand fans were shouting his name in a derogatory tone."

Part 3

A second thorn came courtesy of injury. As a result of a severe toe sprain he suffered his sophomore year during the Great Alaska Shootout (the sprain came against the Syracuse Orangemen squad, which included Ogg's future teammates Rony Seikaly and Sherman Douglas), Ogg missed four games and played poorly for the remainder of the season. Armstrong says the sophomore slump was excruciatingly frustrating for Ogg, who had just begun to feel his own potential as a player: "He never really fully recuperated that year. I don't think anyone really knows how bad an injury a toe is. I think that if I hadn't been there then to encourage Alan, he might have left basketball."

Still, the season wasn't a total loss - Ogg scored a career-high eighteen points against Mississippi Valley State in January 1988, and his sophomore year also saw the debut of the infamous Rocky the Flying Squirrel Haircut. "Every year when the seasons are over, the team goes to Panama City, Florida. The Redneck Riviera, we call it," explains Rick Segers, a high-school and college classmate of Alan's who was the Blazers' student manager. "Well, we were down there after freshman year and Alan wandered off, and the next thing we know he had a spiked crew cut on top, long hair in back, and no hair at all on the sides. The next season, he had gotten a finger to the eye and he was having to wear goggles, and he went through with a dunk one time and was flying through the air and the hair was flowing behind him, and one of the local TV anouncers said that he looked like Rocky the Flying Squirrel."

Determined not to be felled by another tragic toe-stub, Ogg weight-trained through the summer, and during his junior year he became a dependable starter. The most noticeable change in Ogg's game was his improved ability to use his height to its full advantage, mostly in the form of blocked shots. Against Florida A&M in December 1988, he came within swatting distance of the single-game NCAA blocked-shot record of another impressive big man, Navy's David Robinson, now an All-Galaxy center with the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. "We were up by I don't know how much, I had twelve blocks, and coach took me out," says Ogg. "He told me to go after anything to try to block. I didn't know what he was talking about. I didn't know I was close to the record." Despite Bartow's instructions, Ogg was unable to turn away any more shots that game; his dozen, a UAB one-game record, left him two short of Robinson's NCAA mark.

While he consolidated his defensive terrorism - with 266 career blocks, he is the all-time Sun Belt Conference leader - Ogg's offense developed as well. In his senior year, he shot better than 59 percent from the field, a percentage helped substantially by a perfect twelve-for-twelve performance against Alabama State, a school record for consecutive field goals. His final senior averages: 10.6 points and 6.2 rebounds, not celestial, but perfectly respectable for a developing big man.

Having exhausted his four years of college eligibility, Ogg looked toward the pros, and though he wasn't selected in the 1990 college draft, more than fifteen NBA teams were nosing around, asking questions. By the divine hand of fate he came to Miami, the city that would lionize him, hold him aloft, crown him king.

AS THE ONLY NBA player who ever actively pursued a bachelor's degree in philosophy (league officials in New York could not confirm this, but the odds are good), Alan Ogg may become an important asset if the NBA ever replaces jump balls with tossup philosophy questions.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Knicks and Heat locked in a close one tonight. Patrick Ewing with the rebound; Heat backup Ogg ties him up. Let's go to referee Jake Berman's microphone.

BERMAN: Patrick, Alan, you know the rules. And here's the question: In Plato's Symposium, who spoke directly after Pausanias?

OGG: Uh, Aristophanes.
BERMAN: Heat ball! [Wheeeet!]
EWING: Damn! I thought it was Eryxmachos.

But Ogg's training in higher thought (and thought doesn't get much higher than 7-2) strands him when it comes to explaining the trajectory of his renown. "I don't really know why they yell the way they do," he admits. Don't worry, Alan: even other great minds have pondered the matter of sudden fame and come up empty, from Lord Byron's unhelpfully expository "I awoke one morning and found myself famous" to Juvenal's fatalistic "Some believe that all things are subject to the chances of fortune."

If Byron and Juvenal would have sat dumbfounded in the Arena (surprised by the giant pretzels as much as anything else), seventeenth-century clergyman Thomas Fuller, who opined, "Fame sometimes hath created something out of nothing," probably would have run down to the sidelines, pointing at Ogg, screaming, "I told you so! I told you so!" Because Ogg, for all his 86 inches, for all his high-school and college heroics, simply is not a force in the NBA. Though he's not a lightweight in the eyes of the crowd, opponents don't exactly shiver at the mention of his name, and stronger players can slide the skinny rookie out of the way as if he were on casters. Despite his respectable blocked-shot pace (23 for the year in very limited playing time), he has grabbed only 22 rebounds, and notched more personal fouls (38) than points (36). If they ever name a street after Alan Ogg, you can be sure it will be straight and single-lane, and that there will be plenty of accidents on it. Which is not to say he's completely talentless - he's relatively quick and agile, and he is 7-2. But by NBA standards, Ogg is a '78 Caddy, long and lumbering, among sleek, late-model sports cars.

Teammates say the crowds love Alan because he epitomizes hard work and dedication. "It's great when Alan gets into the games," says forward Grant Long. "He gets really fired up, and then he can give all of us the charge. Plus, we've all heard our share of tall jokes when we were kids, and now we have someone to use them on." Rookie forward Alec Kessler, Ogg's closest friend on the team, echoes Long's assessment. "Alan's a great guy, plays hard, and people know that." Heat coach Ron Rothstein downplays the frenzy. "It's fine for the crowd to get excited like that. It's no big deal," he says. "Like Oggy said, it's all his friends and relatives that he pays to come see the game."

Rationalizatons and dismissals notwithstanding, the fact of the matter is that the work-ethic rationalization is a heaping pile of baloney. The Call doesn't exist in the same dimension as the awestruck applause that follows a Magic Johnson no-look assist or a Michael Jordan aerobatic assault. Ogg's big-league sports life, filled with negligible minutes and flailing elbows, teeters and tumbles over the brink of carnival. The Heat, still afflicted with growing pains, are not yet contenders, but with Ogg, they are at least entertainment. When the home team falls hopelessly behind (which is still more than half the time), that's when Miami needs Alan Ogg, and that's when they summon him. And with Ogg as the center of attention, fans need not look at the score. They can redirect their energies toward other goals, take their fun where they find it. Oggmania is a Heat fan's air bag; it keeps things from turning ugly.

Some fans have even suggested that boosting Ogg serves to tweak the starters' noses, and there's some support for this theory, especially in the way that hecklers step up The Call whenever first-string center Rony Seikaly disappoints them. "The praise we give to newcomers into the world arises from the envy we bear to those who are established," said Duc Francois de La Rochefoucauld in his Maxims, and that's probably how Seikaly feels, although he'd say it slower.

During a recent Arena game, visiting Philadelphia 76ers superstar forward Charles Barkley, who knows Ogg from the Birmingham area, demonstrated why sports and cliche are Siamese twins with this Valium of a comment: "I think he's a real nice kid with some talent and I hope that people give him a chance to develop that talent." But the definitive word about the Ogg Mystique should come down from on high. Way up high, in fact, from the mouth of Sixers center Manute Bol, who, at 7-7, is the tallest man ever to play professional basketball. Bol is impossibly tall, impossibly thin, the Washington Monument in a tank top. And it seems useful to ask him about Alan Ogg, about the awkwardness of being a late-comer to the sport, about outsider dynamics, about the inherent strangeness of extreme altitude. But Bol, it seems, has nothing to say about Alan Ogg. Actually, he does have one thing to say: "I ain't never heard of him."

That night, Bol does hear of Ogg, loudly and stadiumwide. The crowd's first audible twinge of desire comes with just under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, as one man near courtside screams Ogg's name until his face turns cardinal red. But the Heat are knocking the wind out of Philadelphia, at one point accumulating an eighteen-point lead, and there will be no Ogg in the Arena tonight. It's a game right up until the final minutes, when the Sixers strap on their veteran power and subdue Miami 103-96.

ACCORDING TO THE Ogg-TimerTM (see page 25), the zero-minute Philadelphia story is by no means a rarity. Ogg got his first pro minutes in a January 12 game at Detroit, as a result of injuries to first- and second-string centers Seikaly and Terry Davis, and with both of them healthy, his on-court time has dwindled considerably. As the Heat climb out of the NBA cellar, there's a very real danger Ogg will be left behind. But he's not worried. "I'll come back to free-agent camp and work hard. I don't want to predict. I think that people around the league have seen what I can do." Especially if they were watching January 22, when the Heat visited the Atlanta Hawks. That Tuesday, Ogg put on quite a show, pouring in eleven points, more than one-third of his entire season total, in front of a capacity crowd that included his father. "I just got in and played hard," says Ogg of his Atlanta scoring torrent. "My dad came and I talked to him after that game. I hadn't seen him in a while, so that was good."

Ironically, if Ogg were to begin turning in eleven-point efforts on a regular basis, the crowd's interest in the Stick Man might wane. Fans might develop expectations and begin making demands, and his mistakes would no longer be so entertaining, his successes no longer so satisfying. For now, Miami has made him their rodeo clown, a welcome distraction from lopsided losses, and as long as he remains complicitly mediocre, the honeymoon will continue. And Ogg doesn't seem to mind. In fact he's almost philosophical about it. "They called for me at UAB, but it was nothing like this. Here you can hear it above everything, and I like it," says the Center of Attention. "It gets me fired up. I want to get into the game then and do something good."

Part 4

As mythical as Alan Ogg's rise through basketball has been, one facet of the game has resisted his legend - the three-point shot. The darling of sharpshooters, the three-pointer is a comedy prop in the hands of the game's tall men, as anyone will attest if they ever got to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shoot long-distance. In his college days, Ogg risked only a single long-range missile. "It was against UNC-Charlotte, and we were up by 30 and running out the clock," recalls Grant Shingleton, UAB's director of sports information. "Right before coach was about to take all the starters out, Alan was standing there outside the three-point line, holding the ball. And people were shouting, `Shoot it!' He bricked it terribly."

"I missed the whole goal," Ogg says sheepishly, "but you would have thought I made it they way they screamed."

If it happened in Birmingham, it can happen in the Magic City. Heat fans, repeat this to yourself every night: Alan Ogg will shoot a three, Alan Ogg will shoot a three. Say it until it's branded on the inside of your brain. And then, once you've familiarized yourself with the product, ask for it by name. Be responsible, be discreet, but one of these days, when the Heat are down by law or disemboweling the opposition, call for the triple.

Just imagine. A half-court offense, ball kicked back out to Ogg, no open man, shot clock ticking down, three, two, and the condor-arms heave the basketball skyward.... It'll require gravity, and luck, and maybe the paid assistance of Industrial Light and Magic, but imagine that it drops, not perfectly clean (that would be too much to ask, even from a fantasy), but a little wiggle 'round the rim and then the sink.

It isn't pretty, but it isn't ugly. It's positively Oggly.


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