David Vance and Serge Ibaka share a city.
Vance came to town in 1988 to oversee construction of Remington Park. He was the racetrack’s president and general manager for seven years.
Ibaka arrived in 2009, an athletic phenom drafted by the Thunder a year earlier, in the franchise’s final week as the Seattle SuperSonics.
Vance and Ibaka share more than an area code. Both are preeminent figures in the story of basketball shot blocking.
Ibaka, you know all about. Darts across the lane like a thief in the night to swat away an opponent’s shot. The NBA’s top shot blocker, having led the league in blocks four straight years. Compared to Bill Russell by no less than NBA guru Hubie Brown.
But Vance? He’s a horseman. Mister Remington Park. Still a consultant in the sport of kings.
But before Vance joined the racing industry, he was into basketball. Vance was Kentucky bred. Kentuckians like horse racing and they like hoops. In the 1970s, Vance worked for the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association.
And in 1971, as the Colonels’ assistant general manager, Vance told his stat crew to make a change in its official box score. His idea? List blocked shots in the totals of each player.
Yep, seems like a no-brainer, especially since Russell had patrolled NBA hardwoods throughout the 1960s, blocking shots with a frequency that historians say never had been done before or since. It’s just that no one ever bothered to count them all up.
Until David Vance watched a Colonels rookie in an exhibition game in 1971.
Artis Gilmore was quite the ballplayer. Seven-foot-2 and skilled. Left-handed, which made him a particular bane to right-handed shooters. Gilmore had taken little Jacksonville U. to the 1970 NCAA championship game, where the Dolphins lost 80-69 to UCLA.
The NBA and ABA were warring leagues in those days, constantly battling for elite players. The Colonels outbid the Chicago Bulls for Gilmore. The ABA wasn’t a league devoid of great centers. Zelmo Beatty and Mel Daniels were in the ABA at the time. But Gilmore was a rare talent.
In an exhibition game against the Virginia Squires, Gilmore blocked 10 shots. In the first half.
“I said, ‘This is special,’” Vance said.
The Colonels started counting Gilmore’s blocks. About a third of the way through the season, the Utah Stars also added blocked shots to the box score. The entire league did the same, voting during the ABA all-star break.
The NBA wised up in 1973. The NCAA did the same a few years later.
Putting blocked shots in the box score was like Columbus discovering America. Someone was going to do it. But the honor went to Vance.
“I just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” Vance said. “Sooner or later, someone was going to say, ‘This needs to be in the box score.’”
But sooner arrived when Gilmore came to Louisville, coached by Hubie Brown. Yep, that Hubie Brown, now known as the keenest basketball analyst on stage or screen.
“Artis had such an amazing instinct,” Vance said. “He would go up and catch shots. I’ve seen some do it some, but he would do it on a regular basis.”
Strangely, old Oklahoma City University great Hub Reed, who played seven years in the NBA, told me the same thing about Russell just last weekend. You don’t see that much anymore. Not even from Ibaka.
“Artis had a 32-inch waist and 27-inch thighs and never lifted a weight,” Vance said. “Pretty remarkable talent.”
The ABA was looking for any public relations advantage. The Utah Stars installed steals as a box-score stat. The ABA was the first to use a 3-point line. In many ways, the threadbare league was ahead of its time.
“We promoted the red, white and blue basketball a little bit, but not much,” Vance said. “When (Red) Auerbach said it belonged on the nose of a seal, we didn’t promote it much.
“It was a great time. We were second best and we tried harder. The old Avis rental car thing. A lot of passion. We were kind of knocking at their shins. ‘Hey, recognize us.’ We were a little more aggressive. At the time, the NBA was a little more passive.”
Vance sensed the opportunity to market Gilmore, and he became an ABA star. Then when the leagues merged — the Colonels didn’t make the cut — Gilmore became an NBA star. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.
Last week, Vance was honored at the March of Dimes Headliner of the Year banquet. Thunder television voice Brian Davis emceed the event.
“I almost told Brian, ‘tell Serge he owes me one,’” Vance said.
They’ve never met, the man who popularized the block shot stat and the current Thunder star who basks in that wake.
“He seems like a totally focused, all-business kind of guy as far as his craft,” Vance said. “And he has that same kind of skill set … Artis, I haven’t seen anybody like him until Serge came along. Somebody that could be a threat all the time.”
We certainly know how prolific of a shot blocker is Ibaka. Down to the very last block. Someone along the way would have figured out to chart them with precision. But someone did. The horseman, David Vance.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.