From the Sidelines: Ratliff one of NBA’s dying breed

Published 9:55 pm Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Theo Ratliff is 6-feet-10-inches tall and 235 pounds. There is no disputing that he is large. Aside from time missed with injuries, he has spent 14 NBA seasons making his presence felt in the low post where he made his fortune as a renowned shot-blocker.

That’s impressive. Surely, that’s something of which to be proud. Recent years have seen him relegated to a reserve role where his value as a mentor has become as important to franchises as his value as a shot-blocker.

Ratliff has embraced those expectations with the same grace he has shown throughout his career.

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The unfortunate truth is that players such as Ratliff are becoming an endangered species. That statement has virtually nothing to do with his on-court skills, but rather focuses primarily on his off-floor priorities.

Ratliff gets it. He understands the importance of giving back. He remembers grasps the crucial nature of grasping opportunities. And that is a message he preaches with regularity.

His contributions to the Theo Ratliff Activity Center in Demopolis are well documented. Still, what is often forgotten is that the TRAC has a basketball gym but is not a basketball gym. The center is — by design — a considerable stepping stone placed squarely in the path of a number of Demopolis children who lack many of the opportunities some of their peers possess.

The center has a computer lab, various programs and a focus on the general betterment of the individuals with which it comes in contact. That was Ratliff’s condition for contribution to the project. He tied his donations to the inclusion of educational initiatives.

While he has played 14 seasons in the NBA, Ratliff understands fully that vast majority of players will never be given such an opportunity. So he focuses more on teaching youths to use basketball in order to better their situations.

At last week’s camp as he sat on the back of a couch and autographed the T-shirts of a mob of young people, Ratliff took note of one young man whose game stood out enough to merit some extra attention.

“How old are you,” Ratliff asked the young man.

“14,” the boy said shyly.

“Are you staying in those books,” Ratliff followed up.

See, Ratliff understood what so many others in his position often forget. He knew that he may never come in contact with that young man again, so he seized the opportunity to convey to him the one message that he knows will serve him the best; your education is your ticket.

One generation ago, the game of basketball was filled with players who were held up as wholesome role models. But time has eroded those images — and the perception of the league itself — into something that only vaguely resembles its former glory.

The Association has in many ways become a veritable wasteland of mega-contracts, prima donna stars and off-court misbehavior. But there — in the midst of the Ron Artests, J.R. Smiths, Stephon Marburys and Stephen Jacksons — sits a man like Ratliff, nearing the end of his career but not his work.