Former WWE star Mick Foley, known worldwide in his wrestling days as the masochistic "Cactus Jack" or the psychotic "Mankind," once described his in-ring character this way: "He was friendly, he was funny ... he was downright huggable."
Shaquille O’Neal would have made Foley proud had he borrowed those lines and used them Friday, as he brought down the curtain on one of the most entertaining careers in NBA history.
He was certainly friendly and funny, and as countless NBA centers proved over his 19 years of camping out on hardwood paint for as many seconds as he darn well pleased, he was most certainly huggable too. Opponents hugged the gargantuan center to the tune of 11,252 career free-throw attempts — the third-highest total in league history.
Retiring with an incredible résumé of statistics, and more importantly an impressive collection of four championship rings, the Big AARP now has basketball junkies debating his place among great centers in NBA history.
Most analysts have penciled his name into the top four or five on their lists, floating in the rare air of the great Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Not this analyst.
As much as I love Shaq for being a great ambassador to the game, I will remember him more for what he didn’t do on the court than for what he actually did.
As dominant a player as O’Neal was, he never developed the basketball skills that so many of the other all-time greats did, including several of his contemporaries. For example, there was no signature, go-to shot, such as Jabbar’s sky hook, Patrick Ewing’s turnaround jumper, Hakeem Olajuwon’s "Dream Shake" or Chamberlain’s finger-roll.
It was Shaq’s sheer size and bulk that allowed him to dominate inside during his illustrious career, using his signature move: An offensive foul and dunk. At 7-foot-1 and 340 pounds, depending on dinner, O’Neal made a career out of backing guys down, knocking them three rows deep under the basket with a shoulder block that Art Shell would love and dunking.
Truth is, if NBA officials had ever been instructed to call offensive fouls as they’re written in the rulebook, Shaq may have averaged 13 points and six fouls per game for his career.
Never once did the NBA’s biggest body lead the league in rebounding. Or in blocked shots. Compare those categories to some of the all-time big men already mentioned, and too many others as well.
As for championships, there’s no debating O’Neal’s status as an all-time winner, but sometimes rings require a little context. For example, Ewing is forever derided for never winning a championship, while Shaq is celebrated for his four. Shouldn’t it matter that Shaq lined up next to one of the greatest players ever in Kobe Bryant, while Ewing had ... John Starks?
Go ahead and imagine Ewing in the Lakers’ purple and gold alongside Bryant, and Shaq next to Starks in Madison Square Garden, then tell me: Are Ewing’s fingers still bare? Are Shaq’s full?
Here is one man’s view of the greatest centers in NBA history:
Chamberlain: Most dominant force in the history of the game.
Russell: Best defensive player ever; 11 championships.
Abdul-Jabbar: All-time scoring leader.
Moses Malone: Three-time NBA MVP; relentless rebounder.
Olajuwon: Two-time champion; force at both ends.
Ewing: Dominant player; victim of his surroundings.
David Robinson: An elite scorer and shot-blocker.
George Mikan: They changed the rules to stop him.
O’Neal: Fifth all-time leading scorer; four rings.
Bill Walton: Would have been higher if not for injuries.
Let the debating continue.
Bob Frantz is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. Email him at email@example.com.