Tuesday, June 11
Updated: June 11, 2:01 PM ET
O'Neal takes his spot among game's greats
By Jerry Bembry
ESPN The Magazine
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Seeing him as I open the book saluting the NBA's 50 greatest players, I still consider it an injustice.
Most of the centers listed were truly worthy: Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone. But the massive man in the black, pinstriped suit -- with the equally gigantic hoop dangling from his left ear -- appeared to be so out of place and so out of his league.
At that time.
Today, there is no dispute about Shaq's place among the greats. Today, there is no doubt that Shaq is the most dominant player in the NBA. And this week, it will be because of the New Jersey Nets' inability to devise a plan to stop him that the Los Angeles Lakers will walk away with their third straight NBA championship.
"The most dominant center that I've ever seen," Nets coach Byron Scott said of O'Neal. "I didn't really get a chance to see Wilt when he was at his best, but Wilt gave up 70 to 80 pounds to this guy. (Shaq is) agile and athletic. He's just a freak of nature. Like I said, he's the most dominant guy in the league."
Always possessing the ability to dominate, it took O'Neal's title runs over the final three years to earn everyone's respect.
It took his total dominance during the Finals -- he's on the verge of winning his third straight NBA Finals MVP -- to show his championship heart.
It took stepping back from a potential dynasty-wrecking feud with Kobe Bryant -- Shaq's refrain over the last year is that Kobe's the best player in the NBA, although we all know the real deal -- to show that it's the ring that he desires, not the spotlight.
"There's a big difference between the guy we used to prepare for, and the guy who's out there now," said Jim Cleamons, a Lakers assistant who, while serving that same role with the Chicago Bulls, used to help devise game plans to stop Shaq and the Orlando Magic. "Now, he wants to be the best. Now you can see more of a focus in his approach to the game."
In O'Neal's early days, the way he approached games was questionable. During the 1994 All-Star weekend, Shaq spent his time shifting from a guest spot on MTV to rapping at a concert at Prince's old Minneapolis nightspot, the Glam Slam.
When it came down to the game, O'Neal missed his first 10 shots as the Western Conference All-Stars came at him with a vigor rare for such a contest.
Back then, O'Neal's range was limited outside of two feet from the basket. His offensive repertoire consisted of mainly one shot: the dunk. "This just shows," said Hall of Famer Julius Erving, who was working with NBC that day, "that he has quite a bit to learn."
It's obvious that Shaq has learned quite a bit.
He has an arsenal of weapons: the jump hook, the turnaround baseline jumper, and even an occasional reverse layup where he defies gravity by gliding his 350-pound body through the air. He has a drive in big-game situations: When the Lakers had seemingly lost to Sacramento in the West finals, it was Shaq who powered the team to the Finals. He has grown to be a great passer out of double- and triple-teams, always making the right decision during these playoffs. He has developed into a capable free-throw shooter: With the Lakers trailing the Kings 3-2 in the series, Shaq hit 75 percent from the line over the last two games. And he's developed into a solid defender, as evident by his blocked shot of Jason Kidd with 48.3 seconds left in Game 3 against New Jersey.
"With Shaq, I always thought the nemesis that kept him from winning a championship was the fact that his defense away from the basket was limited," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He didn't want to stray. He's learned to play defense and come out a little bit more."
Chamberlain, with his sheer massive frame, was considered the most powerful man in the NBA. But even he couldn't match up with O'Neal's bulk. Bill Russell was considered the best defensive center in NBA history, but while he may have been able to slow Shaq down, he wouldn't have been able to stop him. Abdul-Jabbar may have been able to score on Shaq with his skyhook but, again, he would not have been able to stop a man who has developed into such a great offensive weapon that on his off nights he might hit 55 percent of his shots.
A year ago in the NBA Finals, Shaq faced the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, Dikembe Mutombo. All O'Neal did was average 33.0 points per game as the Lakers beat the Philadelphia Sixers in five games.
When Scott was asked if he had to choose one player between Michael Jordan and O'Neal, he answered without hesitation: "Shaq."
"Guys like Shaq is, they come around once in a lifetime," Scott said. "I'm not saying that you're going to find two or three Michael Jordans, but you just don't find a Shaq. It's just hard to find somebody with that type of ability, that type of athleticism who can dominate the game like he does."
Hard to find? It's almost impossible to find, considering there isn't a player in the NBA, college, high school over overseas right now that can match his combination of size, speed, strength and agility.
Shaq says those years of criticism from the media -- and I'll admit, I was one of his biggest critics -- led him to where he is at today.
"I was created by you guys," O'Neal said. "When I was a youngster having fun, doing movies and doing albums, you guys criticized me the whole time."
"I would hear 'Shaq is a great player but he doesn't have a championship, he's not hitting free throws, he'll never do this or that,' " he added. "So coming from taking criticism all my life, I know how to suck it up, I know how to turn it into positive energy. This is what you guys created. I'm glad you created this."
Fans of the game should be happy as well. If the NBA were to name a list of its Top 50 players today, the only injustice would be if Shaq wasn't a unanimous selection.
Of the great players in NBA history, Shaq has earned his spot as one of the greatest.
Of any time.
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) at ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at Jerry.Bembry@espnpub.com.