The Los Angeles Lakers gave retired center Shaquille O’Neal a nod of respect April 2 as they retired his No. 34 jersey ahead of a 101-81 win over the Dallas Mavericks.

O’Neal, the catalyst for three consecutive Los Angeles titles from 2000 to 2003, took a place among other elite Lakers when his jersey was hung from the rafters, positioned beside the threads of Jerry West, Magic Johnson and others. While O’Neal was a prolific star for Los Angeles, where does he rank among the all-time great centers? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate the question. 

Green: I have Shaq ranked third all time, tied with Wilt Chamberlain and behind Kareem Abdul Jabbar at two and Hakeem Olajuwon at No 1. Olajuwon is the most skilled center to ever play the game and nobody was better offensively or defensively as Olajuwon was in his prime. He was the Michael Jordan of bigs and possessed a game that we may never see again from another man of his stature.

Riley: I’m a little bit more biased to O’Neal because I was able to see his career from start to finish. O’Neal didn’t have the finesse or the skill of some of his predecessors but his brute strength and fierce aggression made him a mad bull on the hardwood. I would take O’Neal No. 1 as my all-time center and wouldn’t flinch at the thought. He was dominant, unafraid and a pure mismatch for any opponent checking him, all the ingredients I need from my all-time best center.

Green: To this day, Olajuwon is the only player in NBA history to win regular season MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year all in the same season. He was an unstoppable scorer, unstoppable rebounder and an unstoppable pest on defense. He was the only player in history to end his career in the top 10 in all four statistical categories of points, blocks, rebounds and steals. How many big men could rank in the top 10 for steals?

Riley: Not many, but that’s what guards are for. I appreciate an all-around game more than the next man, but the nastiness of O’Neal was simply unmatched. He was the team leader and biggest bully on the court. The name Shaquille O’Neal still puts a chill down the spines of the centers who ran the hardwood against him, and even the “hack-a-Shaq” methods had to disappear after O’Neal started nailing clutch free throws in the prime of his postseason success. To me, there’s a big difference between being prolific and being dominant. Olajuwon was a prolific scorer and rebounder, but O’Neal was just a flat-out dominant player. He couldn’t score or rebound as nicely as Olajuwon, but he amassed the same totals and inflicted countless bruising and battering to opponents along the way.

Green: You talk about Olajuwon as if he didn’t dominate, too. He dominated every star center he faced. He dominated Shaq in the Finals, he dominated Ewing in the Finals and he dominated Abdul Jabbar and David Robinson in the playoffs. Between the agility and the grace, it was just an electrifying combo to watch—pure poetry in motion. Imagine how much more effective O’Neal could’ve been with Olajuwon’s skillset or picture how much more dangerous Olajuwon would’ve been with Shaq’s size? I think if you swap bodies on both specimens you would’ve had the best big man ever in Olajuwon but a less effective O’Neal if he wasn’t the 7-foot, 300-pound ultra-athlete that we grew to know.

Riley: I can admit that O’Neal got by mostly on pure size and skill, but he did it masterfully. We criticize bigs all the time for not playing to their commanding size, but O’Neal actually did it better than any player has done before him. When you have great size you need to play up to it, and O’Neal did that, in the most menacing way possible.


Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley

AFRO Sports Desk