Shaq vs. Hakeem? No Contest

Bobby Curran
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Friday - June 09, 2006
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With the most exciting NBA playoff in over a decade heading toward the finals this week, the debate about the relative merits of individual players is all the rage. Whether the Dallas Mavericks is a better club without two-time MVP Steve Nash is a popular topic, as is the corollary, whether Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made a mistake by not re-signing the veteran point guard.

In my view, the answers are no and yes.

Is Lebron James as good a player as Jordan, Magic and Kobe at the same age? These are fun to argue, and you could make an argument for either position.

One subject I heard discussed on national radio recently centered on Shaquille O’Neal. The host put forth the proposition that Shaq is not in the same league as Hakeem Olajuwon. Every caller who ventured an opinion agreed, and a huge Shaqbash ensued.

Maybe we’d better check the water supply. Are they kidding? The opinions focused on Shaq’s failure to lead the league in specific categories (although he has five times had the best field goal shooting percentage in the league).

While Olajuwon was a terrific player, to say that Shaq is not to be mentioned in the same breath as Hakeem or any other center in history is ludicrous.

First, look at the numbers. After his rookie season, O’Neal had 10 straight seasons when he averaged no less than 26.2 points and 10.7 rebounds. Even counting his rookie year and the last couple of seasons when his minutes have been reduced due to age and injury, the career numbers are 26.3 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots. And when his team needs more, as the Heat did in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit, he came up with 28 and 18.

Behind the numbers, O’Neal is even more impressive. The blocks aren’t higher because players are unwilling to challenge O’Neal. He might not be the best shot blocker, but he may be the greatest shot changer in history. His physical presence is the most intimidating in NBA history. Only the late Wilt Chamberlain could even be compared in terms of strength. There is not a single player past or present who can play behind Shaq and stop him from getting to the rim. He has excellent hands, and at 325 pounds has nimble feet as well. While not a gazelle, he gets up and down the floor better than most. He also has been able to accept being the second option on his team, and has encouraged Dwyane Wade to become the star of the Heat.

Yes, O’Neal is a horrendous free throw shooter, but early worries that his off-court activities such as acting and singing would prevent him from improving his game proved groundless. His post moves are dramatically better than they were when he entered the league.

As he prepares to enter the NBA finals, he already has three championship rings, three NBA Finals MVP awards, nine all star selections, and in 1996 he was selected as one of the greatest 50 players in history.

Off the court, O’Neal has been one of the NBA’s most active community contributors. He has his own charitable organization, the Real Model Foundation, is a national spokesman for Reading is Fundamental, his contributions to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America have resulted in the opening of a Shaq Tech center in each club around the country, and he recently organized fundraising for displaced families in Louisiana and Texas after Hurricane Katrina.

Shaquille O’Neal is a great player and a solid citizen. And with the upcoming series against Dallas, would you bet against something special from Shaq?

Me neither.

You can mention his name with the greats of the game, and feel good doing it.

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