Behind the Mic with Anthony Passarelli: Santa Clara's Rebounding Giants Dennis Awtrey and John Bryant

March 4, 2009

As the 2009 WCC Player of the Year John Bryant edges closer to Dennis Awtrey's Santa Clara University all-time rebounding record (Bryant needs 20 in this weekend's WCC tournament to tie Awtrey's 1,135) one can't help but compare the two and how they went about gathering missed shots night in and night out. Santa Clara basketball voice Anthony Passarelli checks in this week with a feature on Bronco rebounding giant Dennis Awtrey.

For three seasons (1967-70), Dennis Awtrey was the centerpiece of arguably the best Bronco teams in school history. Playing alongside Bud and Ralph Ogden, Kevin Eagleson, Bob Tobin and my high school history teacher Chris Dempsey, Santa Clara went to the NCAA Tournament all three years. Awtrey, who still holds the top two single season scoring marks (619 pts - 1968-69 and 614 pts - 1969-70), was even better on the boards. He dominated games of his era as John Bryant has done for the past two years.

Desire and Toughness

"You ask anybody who rebounds and they'll tell you it's all about effort." Bryant said. "I just want to go out and do what we need to do to win. I don't know how many rebounds I have until after the game."

Big John has had seven 20-rebound games this season and leads the country in total rebounds and with rpg. While it sure helps to be the biggest man on the floor most nights (6'11, 275lbs.) it doesn't mean you're the best when it comes to rebounding. From his home in Oregon, Awtrey, now 61, having played 12 seasons in the NBA at 6'10, 235lbs , echoed Bryant's claim that really wanting the ball is the biggest factor in being successful getting it.

"You just say `hey, the balls mine and I'm going to get it' and if you continue to do that you're going to come up with a lot of balls that guys aren't going to work quite as hard for," said Awtrey.

And there isn't much argument that Awtrey worked hard for everything, especially when he was facing some of the best big men in the country, including Kareem Abdul Jabbar in college (UCLA) and in the NBA.

The two squared off for the first time Awtrey's sophomore year in the NCAA Regionals in New Mexico, a 21-point Bruin victory, but that meeting provided him with the blueprint for playing one of the all-time greats.

"To survive with (Kareem) you had to push him around a bit," said Awtrey.

And when the two reached the NBA, Awtrey with the Bulls, Abdul-Jabbar with Milwaukee, they had their share of battles. Awtrey recalled their meeting on St. Patrick's Day 1974 in Milwaukee. "Everytime I'd block him out I had an elbow in my Adam's Apple. He did that about four times and the last time he elbowed me and slapped me in the face a little I felt. And so, as they say, I popped him one. I wasn't very popular in Milwaukee in those days," said Awtrey.

The lighter the better

No doubt, another key to Bryant's success this season is simply staying on the floor longer and losing 30 pounds in the off-season has led to a career-high 31 minutes per game this season. He has commented more than once that where last year he would watch a loose ball and know he couldn't get to it, this year he goes after more of them even if it means diving on the floor. The increased stamina has also helped him bang bodies with the likes of Gyno Pomare (USD), Josh Heytvelt (Gonzaga), Jordan Hill (Arizona) and his old high school rival Omar Samhan (SMC).

"I think he's taken one huge step in dropping the weight this year. He's in much better shape," said Awtrey of Bryant then recalling initial thoughts about former Boston Celtic All-Star big man Robert Parish, who like Bryant played with more athleticism than you might think.

"I always thought he didn't run very well until I watched him closely and though he didn't look very good running he got there really quick," said Awtrey.

Awtrey encourages Bryant to continue with his extreme body makeover as he attempts to make the leap to the pros. "You play as light as you can with strength because you're carrying your body up and down everytime"

Dennis Awtrey's Key's to Rebounding

Of course it doesn't hurt to have a strong fundamental base when playing inside and to this day Awtrey tells younger players to learn the right way to do things.

"Don't worry about being good quick. Learn how to do thing correctly because those guys who do things quick you pass them later. Fundamentals are a huge thing," said Awtrey.

On positioning: "Get between the basket and your man and block him out so you have a clear path to the ball. You can't do that offensively but defensively you should always be forcing someone else to jump over your back," said Awtrey. On being physical: "I personally thought that was the way to play basketball. You don't let people run any place they want to. I didn't mind bumping the guy and didn't mind him bumping me."

It's hard to compare players of different eras because the game changes in so many ways over the years. The difference in speed and style of play and the size of the players at the given time are just two examples. But in this case, though 40 years separate Dennis Awtrey and John Bryant and their playing days at Santa Clara there are more similarities than differences in the way they play(ed) the game and their attitudes toward winning and their teammates.

When Awtrey was asked his thoughts after seeing Bryant play in a 1-point loss at Portland earlier this season. "He's very long" remarked Awtrey. "That's one of the things that impressed me. He could go get those rebounds because he has those long arms. He'd be difficult to block off."

Now who wouldn't pay to see THAT match up?