For the last 35 years, Marty Blake has been identifying top college and international talent as the NBA’s Director of Scouting. A former general manager of the St. Louis and Atlanta Hawks in the 1950s and ’60s, Marty will be sharing thoughts and observations from the road as he crisscrosses the country identifying top collegiate talent throughout the season leading up to the 2006 NBA Draft in June.

Who is “The Next Great Who?”

This is the time of the year when the basketball pundits – resting from the rigors of March Madness and the Final Four – take a moment to ponder a question that always pops up this time of the year, especially since the NBA Draft is still months away.

Names…names…names. That’s all you hear among basketball aficionados trying to figure who will be “The Next Great Who.”

Take all the names you hear and place them in a hat, shake well and pick one name.

That player will not be the next Larry Bird or the “poor man’s” Larry Bird who is saddled with that honor each and every year since the Bird Man retired.

There is only one Larry Bird, a whirling dervish who came out of French Lick, Ind. to international acclaim for his efforts on the collegiate level at Indiana State and then, worldly, the Boston Celtics.

Bird was the ultimate master of the game, a true, though reluctant superstar, who could dominate a game and asked for – no demanded – the ball when the outcome of a game was in doubt.

Some players at the college level remind me of the Bird Man because of this trait, but that’s where the resemblance ends.

“The Next Great Who” is not the next Magic Johnson, who led Michigan State to an NCAA title in the first of his face-to-face classic meetings with Bird that would continue into the next decades.

The Magic Man was one of the greatest passers of all time who, in his rookie year with the Los Angeles Lakers, actually played all five positions and, in the NBA Finals that year, played center and led his team to the championship.

“The Next Great Who” is not the next Oscar Robertson, who came out of Big Indy to lead the Cincinnati Bearcats to NCAA glory and later the Milwaukee Bucks to an NBA title.

Oscar was the greatest shooter I have ever seen within his range. Within an area of 15-feet from one wing to the other, and at the top of the key, he could create his own shot anytime he wanted to.

He was that good a shooter. That’s why they dubbed him the Big O. “O” equaled instant offense.

“The Next Great Who” is not the next Elgin Baylor, who came off the outback courts of Washington to give Seattle University a brief taste of Division I grandeur and then led the various Lakers’ cities (Minneapolis and Los Angeles) to NBA titles.

With his repertoire of dazzling head fakes and the ability to break down defenses with his shake and bake game, there has been no one better.

“The Next Great Who” is not “Mr. Clutch,” Jerry West, who would eventually break the hearts of every NBA team with his last second heroics.

I know of his artistry personally since he would call up his magic jumper whenever my St. Louis or Atlanta Hawks teams would get close to upending the Lakers in the Western Division Finals each year.

And “The Next Great Who” is not the next Allen Iverson, the whirlybird of the Philadelphia 76ers who, pound for pound, is the most courageous small guard in the history of the game, who plays every game as though it was his last and who always enters the fray banged up with various injuries, replete with the knowledge that usually he must have an outstanding game for the 76ers to win.

He is a throwback to the early days of the NBA when guys like Bob Pettit of the Hawks would forsake resting each major injury and would play nearly a full season twice – with his shooting arm in a cast.

Iverson was both a basketball and football high school All-American out of the Norfolk, Va. area. He was a run-and-gun quarterback who, I am told by grid officials who worked some of this games, could have played at the major college level.

“He was really something on the gridiron,” I have been told many times by people who saw him play.

Nor is “The Next Great Who” the next Bobby McDermott, forgotten by only us purists like Dick McGuire, et al, who turned professional at the age of 16 and who learned the game in the dingy gyms of Pennsylvania and New England, often playing for 50 or 100 bucks a game until he learned his craft and eventually joined and led the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons to numerous NBA and NBL (National Basketball League) world crowns.

McDermott was a 5-11, 165-pound guard noted for his 30-foot two-handed set shot. He was born 50 years too soon and was the master of the dribble drive and the step back two-handed set toss whose name finally now joins the other great men of the game of that era in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

He played for me with the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Barons of the now defunct Eastern League in his late 30’s. He was also a defensive specialist who would punch out much bigger foes should they even attempt to take him one-on-one.

And “The Next Great Who” is not like Bill Russell, who led the San Francisco Dons to NCAA glory and the United States to an Olympic triumph before joining the Boston Celtics. His blue collar defensive ethic and his shot-blocking ability would change the face of basketball and set the stage upon which the NBA would captivate the cage world.

I have always felt that Russell could have easily averaged 25 points per game had he not decided to earn his bones as a defensive ace.

He once told me he only would try to block 10 percent of all field goals attempted but even he didn’t know which 10 percent. You can imagine how the opposition felt.

Do you remember Wilton Norman Chamberlain, the legendary Big Dipper whose exploits on the hardwood of high school, college and the NBA will long rest in the lore of the hoops game?

Wilt was many things to many people.

But to me, he was a person who would send his Bentley to the Paramount Hotel in New York City during the NIT to bring a young front office individual (me) to Small’s Paradise, a famous Harlem night club, because he knew that person could never afford cab fare.

The Wilt I remember would get up early on the exhibition trail – we often traveled together for a meet and greet with local media types in the back waters of this country – realizing even then how important it was to build solid relationships in cities if we hoped to return to that site.

His press conferences on that trail would captivate even the most hardened and sometimes skeptical newspaper, radio and TV types.

He was a raconteur; a hail fellow well met and maybe the greatest athlete of the past 100 years, but that is a story for another day.

Pick up a check? Never in Wilt’s company.

At an All-Star Game in Cincinnati one year, he arrived at the NBA headquarters hotel to find the lobby crowded with assorted NBA players and officials.

He as told to wait a couple of hours – the rooms were not ready. That NEVER would happen today under the David Stern regime.

“Is anyone hungry,” Wilt asked. Aware of the groans from the assembled crowd, Dip dispatched some of his cohorts to a local deli and brought back sandwiches and drinks for what seemed to be at least fifty or sixty people.

One season he averaged 50 points per game, and in another, he led the league in assists.

His only complaint to me in the many years I knew him and traveled in his company was “that nobody liked Goliath.”

And he certainly was that.

And “The Next Great Who” is now LeBron James, who was the greatest player (15 to 17 years old) I have ever seen. After seeing him one year in Akron, Ohio, I decided it was not necessary to see him again until he entered the NBA.

I saw the future of the game as we know it.

Bless you Ray Deringer for showing me the way.

The wonderment of his talent is glorious at the least.

So there really is not “The Next Great Who” out there or lurking in the shadows.

I think it is hidden just waiting to be discovered. Maybe not this year, but isn’t the search going to be exciting?