Monday , Dec , 01 , 2003 C.Y. Ellis

The other Center

His uniform number says it all, unassuming, non-descript, flavorless.

His game, many would say is equally bland. Jump shot right wing. Rebound. Jump shot left wing. Block. Fourteen-foot pull-up jumpshot – – win 89-86. Boring and humdrum, maybe, but the letter W adds a certain style and beauty to anyone’s highlight reel.

Such is the embodiment of one Michael Doleac. For those who have not heard of him, he is that tall, muscular guy in the number fifty-one jersey, who comes off the bench to spell Dikembe Mutombo. While seldom noticed, number fifty-one has been one of the juggernauts to the Knicks surprisingly competitive start.

The other CenterAfter a disappointing debut season for the Knicks, Doleac has been the quintessential complement off the bench to Mutombo at the center position. The combination of the two has provided the Knicks with something they have not had on a nightly basis since the days of that other Georgetown center, a legitimate presence in the middle for forty-eight minutes.

Many questioned New York Knickerbocker General Manager Scott Layden when he elected to sign the seldom-heard-of Doleac before the 2003 season in an attempt to solidify the Knicks bench. While the Knicks were sorely in need of quality big players, few saw him as a viable solution to the Knicks interior epidemic.

Last season such doubts looked to have credence. Doleac injured his left hamstring in the second day of training camp, which effectively stymied his entire season as he was never able adjust to a new system, offense and teammates. After missing the entire preseason, and the first seven games of 2003, Doleac returned to the lineup, but never was able to get into the proverbial “flow,” averaging just 4.4 points per game and 2.9 rebounds while playing mostly spot minutes (14 per game), and seldom making a significant impact.

This year has been a completely different story, as Doleac’s play, best classified as cerebrally tenacious, has been integral to the Knicks respectable 7-10 start amidst a myriad of injuries. While his numbers are far from overwhelming, the intangibles he brings – – solid defense, deft passing and soft touch – – have been monumental to the Knicks surprising start.

This season, Doleac’s numbers are not much different, (4.9 points, 4.2 rebounds in 15 minutes) but his presence has been marked. Never was such more evident than against the Celtics at the Madison Square Garden on November 18, as the Knicks, 1-6 were desperate for a win. After tying the game with 3:45 remaining with a 10-footer, Doleac’s 14- foot jump shot with 1:55 left in the game to put the Knicks ahead for the first time, 86-85, capped a comeback from an 18-point halftime deficit. Doleac, who grabbed eight of his season high nine rebounds in the fourth, then sealed the game with two free throws.

An aspiring doctor, with a B.S. in biology, his fourth quarter histrionics provided the Knicks with more than a win, a much-needed cure for their late game woes. Since, the Knicks have won four of seven – – including two without both Houston and Van Horn – – and are 3-0 in games decided by single digits.

He stands 6’11” tall, but Doleac, not a conventional post player, meshes with the Knicks perimeter oriented offense, as he is most effective while facing the basket and shooting jumpers off of screens and double teams. Few centers in the NBA boast a consistent jump shot the ilk of Doleac’s. This has given the Knicks offense better spacing and fluidity in being able to run pick and rolls for both himself and Kurt Thomas which makes opposing defenses think twice before double-teaming Allan Houston and Keith Van-Horn.

While also adding much-needed help on the offensive boards, Doleac has probably made his biggest impact on the defensive end. When Don Chaney elects to use Doleac down the stretch against smaller, quicker teams, he has played exquisite post defense against opposing big-men, something that the Knicks have been lacking in recent seasons.

Doleac, just 27, taken with the twelfth selection by Orlando in the 1998 out of Utah after leading the Utes to the Final Four as a senior, has shown Layden’s critics why the Knicks used their salary cap exception to sign him from Cleveland.

While Michael Doleac will never wow the Garden crowd with a high-flying dunk or a block and obligatory finger wag, those as intelligent as himself know that it takes the little things, the subtle nuisances to win games. The men in the middle have provided just that, and even if many don’t know his name, the man wearing that nondescript number fifty-one has been right at the center of the Knicks positive start.