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Saturday, June 4, 2011
Why isn't Shaquille O'Neal the G.O.A.T.?

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- I don't want to disrespect Shaquille O'Neal's legacy, which is as gigantic as the man itself.

But as I listened to Shaq on Friday at his heartfelt farewell media conference -- as always, he exceptionally blended candor and humor -- a nagging question kept rising in my mind.

Shaquille O'Neal
Nineteen years in the league, and Shaquille O'Neal never quite got the hang of free throws.

Why isn't Shaq the greatest player ever?

His 19-year NBA career isn't on par with Michael Jordan's, who is universally regarded as the NBA's greatest player of all time.

But it could have been. Correction: It should have been. Shaq spent roughly a decade as the most physically imposing force in professional basketball. He won four championships and an MVP award, appeared in six NBA Finals, and arguably was the most likable person in all of sports. Over his first 14 seasons, he averaged more than 20 points per game and unofficially led the league in humiliating defenders in the paint.

But as phenomenal as he was, as exciting as it was to witness his breathtaking combination of power and athleticism, he could have been better.

And Shaq doesn't disagree.

"I missed over 5,000 free throws," he said. "I missed about 300 games, so that's five-to-six thousand points right there. I'd probably be No. 2 right now in scoring. That's the only thing I'm upset with myself about. But I've heard my name mentioned next to those names -- Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain -- and even if I didn't reach my full potential, I can say I made it."

Only, this is about more than just Shaq's place on the all-time scoring list, where he is fifth.

His career is littered with memorable moments and funny lines, but one thing I'll never forget is how Shaq sabotaged the Lakers' opportunity at an unprecedented fourth straight championship in the 2002-03 season.

Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain, who also had issues with free throws, finished some 3,000 points ahead of Shaq on the all-time scoring list.

The Lakers had never won four in a row; and although it's doubtful any team could challenge the eight straight championships won by Russell's Celtics, the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers were putting themselves in the conversation as one of the best teams of all time.

But that year, Shaq elected to have toe surgery during training camp instead of in the offseason. As he put it, "Since I suffered the injury on company time, why shouldn't I be able to get surgery and do recovery on company time?"

So he missed the first 12 games of the season, which played a role in the San Antonio Spurs emerging as the Lakers true rival in the Western Conference. It was one of the incidents that likely made it easier for owner Jerry Buss to trade Shaq to Miami in the summer of 2004.

It wasn't a secret that Shaq sometimes treated his body with disregard. There were times he was overweight and didn't take his conditioning seriously.

So just imagine if he had taken better care of his body. How many rings could he have won? Imagine if, instead of filming "Kazaam" -- one of the worst movies ever made -- he would have worked on his free throws. Imagine if he had made one less rap album and instead concentrated on expanding his game. Most knowledgeable basketball people consider him one of the five best centers of all time already. With a little more diligence, Shaq could have easily been in the conversation about the greatest player ever.

Shaq Sign
The sign has it right. It was a "great" career. Not the "greatest" career.

Because when he was at his best, no one in the league could stop him. When he was motivated, as he was when he helped lead Miami to its first (and, at least for the time being, only) championship in 2005-06, Shaq, like Jordan, just couldn't be denied. Shaq attacked the rim so violently that you felt sympathy for whoever had the unfortunate task of guarding him.

But he should have been at his best longer than he was. After he won the title with the Heat five years ago, the rest of his time in Miami was plagued by injuries. And though he experienced a brief resurgence in Phoenix in 2008-09, Shaq spent his last few seasons as a shell of the player he once was.

With a better mindset in the prime of his career, it might have been different. Sure, time and age eventually catch up with every athlete. But in Shaq's case, the chase seemed easier than it should have been.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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