Putting Shaq in His Place

Where Does a 340-Pound Center Sit? Not Necessarily Where He Wants To.

But what do the numbers of teams and inches have to do with anything? More to the point, in Russell's day, he had to contend with two future Hall of Famers listed at 6-11: Walt Bellamy and Nate Thurmond. Russell was 6-10, and St. Louis's Zelmo Beaty—who played tough enough defense to be accused of beating on Chamberlain—was 6-9. Is Shaq making the point that because these players were between one and three inches under seven feet they would be easier pickings than the meager pivot talent in 2002? Absurd. Chamberlain faced a nine-team league with four great centers. Add Beaty, beginning in 1962. So in an 80-game schedule in 1965-66, Chamberlain would have to battle a good or great center on 40 nights, or 50 percent of his games. By way of whopping contrast, O'Neal battles the fading David Robinson four nights a year. Throw in Dikembe Mutombo for two games, and that's six nights out of 82—a mere 7 percent of the games against good defensive centers.

Size or no size, center play isn't what it was 40 years ago, nor 30 years ago, when Wilt, Kareem, Thurmond, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld, Bob Lanier, and Dave Cowens roamed free. You need to travel back 50 years, to George Mikan's period of dominance, to find a dearth of pivot talent comparable to the NBA of 2002.

Ex-center Herb Williams contends that inside play was more physical in the '70s, thanks to big bodies belonging to the likes of Lonnie Shelton, Bob Lanier, and Darryl Dawkins. Even earlier, Chamberlain was mauled so much in his rookie season that he announced he was retiring. Considering that rough treatment is nothing new, Bill Walton's comment—"Shaq should leave the calls to the three refs"—makes sense.

Satch Sanders, the former NYU star who played with Russell from 1961 to 1969, says, "If you take your top five or six centers, O'Neal is definitely in the crew. It's tough to compare active players with those already finished. But this young man, on some nights, is up with the top three."

The larger issue than height for Shaq's contemporaries is his sheer bulk. How well he continues to throw his weight around—and for how many more years he will do it—may determine whether O'Neal will ever crack the top three.

"He is a combination of a lot of centers—finesse and power," says Sanders, "and 340 pounds is very difficult to deal with."

Career Stats League-Leading Numbers
Russell (13) 44 56 15.1 22.5 4.3 0 0 5 5
Chamberlain (14) 54 51 30.1 22.9 4.4 7 9 11 4
Abdul-Jabbar (20) 56 72 24.6 11.2 3.6 2 1 1 6
*Malone (19) 50 76 20.3 12.3 1.3 0 0 6 3
Olajuwon (17) 51 71 22.1 11.2 2.5 0 0 2 1
O’Neal (10) 58 53 27.6 12.3 2.8 2 5 2 1

*Combined ABA and NBA numbers; stats through March 11, 2002

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