Shaq and Real Legacies

I know there’s a ton of other news going on right now, but the retirement of one of the NBA’s best players this week is something that’s been on my mind.  In between analysis of tonight’s Game 2 Final matchup of the Heat and the Mavericks, sports talk has been limited to the legacy of Shaquille O’Neal and where he stands in terms of the best players of all-time.  Some say he’s one of the 5 best centers of all-time, others that he’s one of the 5 best PLAYERS of all-time.  I’m not a sports analyst but certainly a sports fan, so here’s my take on Shaq, his legacy, and the legacy of athletes at the top of their game. It might seem like I’m trying to besmerch the career of one of the best players in NBA history in the following comments.  That’s not the case.  Shaq is one of the best entertainers the game has experienced, both on and off the court.  He prowess was unmatched during the peak of his career and he was almost impossible to guard.  That’s a dominant player.  But I want to add to the conversation taking place now in the sports realm about what is greatness, and where the road to establishing your legacy can take you in the eyes of different people.

Shaq played with over 5 teams during his 16 year career.  Sixteen years is a long time to play professional sports, especially basketball.  It’s a long time to be one of the best in the game as well.  But we honestly can’t say that Shaq was one of the dominant centers in basketball for all 16 years can we?  Do many people even consider this past season a part of that greatness when he spent most of the season on the bench for the Celtics?  What about his brief stint before that in Cleveland?  I honestly had forgotten that he played along side Lebron James.  Most people have too, because his performance then wasn’t memorable, it wasn’t great.

But during the years of his greatness, obviously his time with the Lakers from 1996-2004, he won 4 championships and a number of MVP awards.  He also had Kobe Bryant, arguably one of the greatest players of all-time.  That’s part of the reason why some feel that he wouldn’t have been able to acquire those championship titles had the weight of winning been exclusively on his shoulders as a dominant player.  Even Jordan had Pippen, Kerr, BJ Armstrong, and others to help bring championships to Chicago.

There wasn’t a place or time in the career of O’Neal when it came down to Shaq alone for the NBA finals to be won.  Actually that’s not true, there was one point but it was early in his career, during his tenure with the Orlando Magic.  I remember this mainly because the team they faced were my beloved Houston Rockets.  Shaq was the main attraction, everyone had been talking him up on every sports outlet in the country.  The Rockets had played great ball, and their center Hakeem Olajuwon, had dominated everyone in the playoffs leading to a repeat shot in the finals.  What happened in that series?  The Rockets swept the Magic, Shaq learned quickly that power is good, but sweetness is better and there is no defense against the Dream Shake (anyone remember that other than me?).  Had O’Neal been older, had more reps and experience under his belt and been able to adjust quickly to what Houston threw at him, the outcome might have been different.  Perhaps Shaq wouldn’t have been swept in 4 games.  But I think ultimately the finals would have ended the same.  He was a dominant, powerful athlete on the court, one that was nearly impossible to guard or defend.  But look at the stats, the numbers, the team mates, and the other power players of his era and you’ll see what I see: a great player limited by his own concept of greatness.

He one of the NBA’s all-time scorers.  Leader in rebounds and blocks.  That’s great.  But as <a href=”http://espn.go.com/espnradio/show?showId=douggottlieb”>Doug Gottlieb</a> has said these past few days, he’s not a good as he could have been, and that’s tarnishes his legacy, at least in the eyes of some people.  Because he didn’t keep himself in shape, he rode the bench during most of the last years of his career due to injuries.  He was a nonfactor this year and last year.  Some sports fans thought he retired years ago.  That says something.

In my book, the all-time greatest centers are Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille O’Neal (top 5 if you will).  David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, George Mikan, Bill Walton and Robert Parish round out the top 10, but these guys had everything, especially when you break down the numbers.  Chamberlain, Russell, and Abdul-Jabbar need no explanation.  Olajuwon though is a player that doesn’t get the respect I feel he deserves in the memory of all-time greats.  Here’s why, he only had 2 championships.  Shaq had 5, one of them with the Heat.  Ultimately, it’s the number of rings you have that determines for most people what your legacy is as an athlete, and then that’s the measuring stick for where you stand on the all-time greatest list.  The Dream (Olajuwon’s nickname for those who didn’t know) played his entire career in Houston, where he won his championships and frustrated players and coaches with his smooth and graceful playing style and shooting ability, as well as his keen defensive instincts.  He was an amazing rebounder and shot blocker.  He’s on the all-time list in those two categories.  For those following stats, you would know his name, but those who only follow championship rings might not recognize him.  He also didn’t have an all-star cast around him during the championship years, not to say that Kenny Smith and Robert Horry were not integral parts of the team in ’94 for the championship.  But they hadn’t peaked in their careers yet.  Smith was certainly not Kobe Bryant in his prime, nor Dwayne Wade. Clyde Drexler was a big part of the following season’s championship, not to take anything away from him or Sam Cassel.  But much of the load for the title was on the Dream.

So had Olajuwon chased after championship rings to further establish his legacy as one of the greatest players, he probably would have signed in free agency with the Spurs and set up a center/power-forward tandem with Robinson similar to what the Pistons did years back with Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace.  But he wasn’t chasing championships, he wasn’t trying to prove to be one of the greatest players.  He was more interested in playing with his team, more interested in continuing to invest in the players and coaches he’d been with (though he did finish the last year of his career in Toronto which was more of the franchise screwing him than him wanting to leave), and the city that he called home (where he still lives I think).  For people who consider a great legacy to be something that deals more with your character than the number of championship rings you have, you won’t find as much stock in Shaq or Kobe as you might with Olajuwon.

Or maybe that’s just me. But probably not, since the greatest player of all-time Michael Jordan said in his mind, Olajuwon was the best center of all-time.

If you want to see for yourself, check this out

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