Sun, Nov 28, 2004 - Page 23 News List

Artest take note: basketball players find success in NFL

By Billy Witz  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

When Oakland Raiders receiver Ronald Curry hauled in a touchdown pass from Kerry Collins last Sunday, he quickly made his way from the corner to the middle of the end zone, took a few chopped steps and dunked the ball over the crossbar.

If Curry, a former point guard at North Carolina, was trying to make a point that he can score no matter what kind of ball he has in his hands, it turns out he wasn't the only one.

Also scoring touchdowns that afternoon were Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, a former swingman at Kent State, and Raiders tight end Teyo Johnson, a forward at Stanford.

As NBA physiques increasingly resemble football players' -- think Ben Wallace and Shaquille O'Neal -- and NFL pass catchers increasingly make Jordan-esque moves in the air, it shouldn't be surprising to find a number of football players with basketball skills thriving in the NFL.

Cross-over moves, indeed.

Vikings receiver Randy Moss, who excels at snatching lobs away from defensive backs, has dabbled in pro basketball summer leagues and once explored moonlighting for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Eagles' Terrell Owens, who has a NFL-best 13 touchdown catches, played basketball for three years at Tennessee-Chattanooga and like Moss dipped his toe into the USBL, a developmental league.

"What I think you're seeing is that the skill sets are getting similar," said Seahawks president Bob Whitsitt, formerly the general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Supersonics. "You watch the Vikings on TV and you hear [commentators] say, `Throw Randy Moss the jump ball.'"

This link between basketball and football moves to center court, er, stage on Sunday in Kansas City when the NFL's two best tight ends and arguably its two best basketball players -- the Chargers' Gates and the Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez -- share the field.

Gonzalez, who has been to five consecutive Pro Bowls, was a good enough at Cal to score 23 points in an NCAA Tournament game. Gates, who shares the NFL lead with 62 receptions, was Kent State's leading scorer and rebounder when it nearly reached the 2002 Final Four.

That both are tight ends is no coincidence. It is a position where many of the tools needed to play basketball -- footwork, hands, size and agility -- are a requirement.

"You're going to find a guy who's [usually] the power forward type, who is 6-4 or 6-5," Gonzalez said of the typical basketball-playing football player. "We're not tall enough for the NBA, we're kind of 'tweeners for the NBA, so the next best thing is to go out there and play football. I think you see that in Gates, you see that in myself. It's the evolution of the position."

It used to be that the tight end was viewed as a sixth lineman, the lucky one who was allowed to catch. Now he's more often a third receiver who can also block.

Whereas John Mackey, Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome used to be the exception, now they are the rule. Through last week, four tight ends -- Gates, Gonzalez, the 49ers' Eric Johnson and the Cowboys' Jason Witten -- were among the NFL's top 11 receivers.

"Until about 10 years ago, when you looked at a defense, on many occasions you'd find the tight end with a guy toe-to-toe with him," said Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, who has coached Gonzalez and now Gates. "Nobody plays it that way anymore. Everybody gets outside of him. They put a defensive lineman on him and he can release off that guy without much difficulty."

This story has been viewed 2608 times.
TOP top