E. C. Coleman: An Improving Defender Rates the Offensive Stars, 1976

[While clicking away a few hours on the internet the other night, I stumbled upon a seemingly authoritative list of the top 50 NBA defenders of all time. Hakeem Olajuwon came in as the greatest of all-time, followed by Bill Russell, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, and Dikembe Mutombo. Interesting. The compiler turned out to be a college student, whose most-salient NBA memories were formed in the 2010s. So, it’s likely he likely pulled most of the names at the top of the list from basketball books and documentaries. 

That’s great, except NBA history has a way of giving short shrift—or no shrift at all—to some truly great defenders who were never big stars. That’s the story of E.C Coleman, whom I’ll bet even most older readers don’t remember. That’s because Coleman played only five full seasons in the league, mostly with the expansion New Orleans Jazz. 

When Coleman was healthy and able, nobody wanted him checking them for 48 minutes. Nobody. George McGinnis admitted that he wouldn’t drive the baseline if Coleman was on him. Bob McAdoo mentioned having trouble getting off his shot against the 6-foot-8 Coleman. And Rick Barry declared “no other player gives me as much trouble as E.C.”

In this brief article, published in the January 1976 issue of Basketball Digest, New Orleans-based journalist Ron Brocato talks with Coleman about defense and how he shuts down some of the toughest covers in the game. Be sure to click on the Youtube video embedded in the text for the Bingo song a few minutes in. It’ll make your day.]

When Bill Bertka selected the 16 NBA rejects in the New Orleans Jazz’ expansion draft, the least known was E. C. Coleman from the roster of the Houston Rockets.  All that was known was that Coleman was big and strong (6-foot-8, 220), unselfish, promising, and a good defensive player.

Today, E. C. Coleman is the Jazz’ premier defensive player and one of the last remaining players from the expansion list still in a Jazz uniform. 

The first sign of Coleman’s defensive attributes came at the Jazz training camp at Nicholls State. Former head coach Scotty Robertson quickly pointed out that Coleman was the best defensive player. When Butch van Breda Kolff replaced Robertson, he echoed his predecessor’s words.

“Defense is fun and easy for me. It’s a real trip to take on the league’s big scorers,” said E.C., who was given his father’s initials because his mother did not want to name him Efram III.

At obscure Houston Baptist, he developed a firm grasp of basketball fundamentals. “We didn’t win a whole lot of games, but everyone was fundamentally sound.”

Coleman may never get the recognition he deserves because he is not a prolific scorer, but he couldn’t care less. “I’d just like the people and the owners to recognize I made a good play.”

A devout conservative [player]—Coleman says a player sound of fundamentals will be around longer than the so-called shooters who neglect their other duties—he has six defensive functions to pass on to the youth of the community who aspire to be pros someday. 

“Most black kids are inspired by the big scorers, not the Dave DeBusscheres of the league,” he says. “They say, ‘If I’m going to do it in the pros, I have to shine with the ball.”

But these are the defensive rules he follows on the court to great success:

1—Stay between your man and the basket. (He has an advantage because he’s 6-foot-8 and the average for a forward is 6-foot-6.)

2—Keep your hands high. (If the shooter has a hand in his face, it takes a couple of percentage points off his average.)

3—Try to push the shooter out of his normal range. (It takes more percentage points off his average.)

4—Take away the shooter’s best move. 

5—Talk to the man you’re guarding. (Intimidate him. Make him so anxious to score against you, he presses. His average will drop more percentage points.)

6—Finally, study each player while you are on the bench. (Learn his every move, then use your knowledge against his ability.)

“I usually get the toughest man to guard, but, if I pace myself, it does not take away too much of my offense. I don’t take poor percentage shots, so I’ll never be a big scorer,” E. C. says. 

Coleman’s studies of the superstars give him a thick scouting report. He analyzes the NBA’s top scorers:

Rick Barry, Golden State—“Without doubt, the toughest to guard. He’s such a good shooter and has the green light. He can” miss 10 shots and still come down shooting. Rick likes to work to his left, so I try to keep the ball away from him. When a guy like this averages 30 points a game and you hold him to 20, you feel you did your job.”

Elvin Hayes, Washington—”Great shooter with the turn-around jumper. I tried to push him out of his range. It doesn’t like people to play in close. When he fades back, I fade forward and keep my hands high; and then I block him off the goal.”

John Havlicek, Boston—”To stop him, do you have to keep him from getting the ball; overplay him to the left because he’s weak on that move.”

Spencer Haywood, Seattle—”He’s a lot like Hayes. I stay close to him to frustrate him. If the officials let me get away with it, I try to push him around. You’ll turn to the right most of the time, so I forced him to the left.”

Bob McAdoo, Buffalo—“Impossible to defend. He’ll shoot the ball right in your face. There is no such thing as a great defensive job on Mac. If you make him shoot six or seven more times to get his average and takes some of the offense away from the other players, you did your job.”

Chet Walker, Chicago—”He’s the best player in the league; has the quickest first step it doesn’t need time to warm up. In one-on-one play, he’s the best. Walker is consistent with a variety of shots . . . nothing fancy, just baskets.”

Sidney Wicks, Portland—“If things are not going right for him, he’ll let up and not give it all he’s got. But Wicks is a superstar. He has a tendency to satisfied with his average.”

John Drew, Atlanta—”His biggest asset is crashing the offensive board. After he shoots, he’s headed for the basket before his feet hit the floor. Shoots 15 times and will miss seven, but he is following up the shot in putting the ball in on his second attempt, so you have to box him out.”

Coleman knows he’s part of the Jazz’ future, but he quickly points out the club’s young players will not become superstars overnight. “Winning is the only real satisfaction, but I feel good to know the whole team played well in a loss,” E. C. said. “Every time I step on the court, I had the idea we can win. 

“I want to prove when we go to a city to play, the home team won’t be thinking, ‘We play Washington tomorrow.’ I want them to say, ‘We play the Jazz tonight!”

“And 25 years from now, when they talk about the great defenders, I want them to name DeBusschere, Bill Russell, and E. C. Coleman.”

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