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Shaq and A.I.: Where They Stack Up in the Basketball Pantheon

Ahead of their Hall of Fame inductions on Friday, we revisit the careers of the Lakers big man and the Sixers dynamo from Bill Simmons’ ‘Book of Basketball’

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With Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson entering the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, we thought we’d run my essays about them from The Book of Basketball … a book that unabashedly blew up that Basketball Hall of Fame and recreated it as an Egyptian Pyramid, but still. The updated paperback was released six years ago, well before LeBron ascended into the Pantheon, Kerr’s Warriors embraced “The Secret,” and Kevin Durant unfriended Russell Westbrook. Maybe the advanced metrics revolution hasn’t been kind to Iverson’s legacy, and maybe there’s an entire generation of basketball fans who don’t remember what it was like to watch Young Shaq running amok. But the general gist of these two takes holds up pretty well. In sports collecting, they use the phrase “one of one” to describe cards or pieces that exist on their own and cannot be replicated. Shaq and Iverson were definitely “one of one” guys, two flawed but lovable superstars who just ain’t coming around again. In 2010, I ranked Shaq 12th and Iverson 37th. Here’s what I wrote about them:

Resume: 17 years, 13 quality, 16 All-Stars … Finals MVP: ’00, ’01, ’02 … ’00 MVP … Runner-up: ’95, ’05 … Simmons MVP: ’05 … six top-5 MVP finishes … ’93 Rookie of the Year … Top 5 (’98, ’00, ’01, ’02, ’03, ’04, ’05, ’06), Top 10 (’95, ’99), Top 15 (’94, ’96, ’97, ’09) … best or 2nd-best player on 4 champs (’00, ’01, ’02 Lakers, ’06 Heat) and 2 runner-ups (’95 Magic, ’04 Lakers) … league leader: scoring (2x), FG% (9x) … career: FG % (2nd), 24.7 PPG (13th), 11.3 RPG (25th) … 2-year peak: 29–14–4 … 3-year Playoffs peak: 30–14–3, 55% FG (58 G) … swept in Playoffs 6 different times … 25K-10K Club

After I wrote a column about Shaq’s initial quest to enter the Pantheon (May 2000), a reader identified only as Plixx2 emailed to say, “I enjoyed the Pantheon and agree that Shaq is close, but not close enough. I think in 10–15 years people will look at Shaq’s career like they look back at Peter North’s career … dominant, but not the best.” Solid analogy at the time, even better now. Dominant, but not the best. Memorable, but not the best. Unstoppable, but not the best. Shaq won three Finals MVP’s in overpowering fashion, but he only took home one regular season MVP. He won four rings and could have won a fifth if Dwyane Wade hadn’t gotten hurt in 2005 … but he somehow got swept out of the playoffs six other times. He became such a singular fantasy advantage that my league forced teams to pay a Shaq Tax for two straight years (pick him and lose a sixth-round pick)… but his free throw struggles made him such a liability that he was pulled late from a few close playoff battles.

(The crazy thing about Shaq’s FT shooting: he shoots them like line drives. Imagine you’re trying to throw a rolled-up piece of paper into a garbage can — instinctively, would you throw it with a Nowitzki-like arc, or would you whip it in a straight line at the can? You’d throw it with the arc. So why would Shaq whip straight line drives at the rim for fourteen consecutive years? Have we ever definitively answered this question? And while we’re here, was it my imagination or did Shaq become cross-eyed in close games?)

He only took basketball seriously for one entire season (1999–2000) and intermittently for the other sixteen … and yet, his playoff performances from 2000 to 2002 rank among the all-time greatest. He played for four teams in all (nobody else in the top fifteen played for more than two except Moses) … but made the first three better when he arrived and significantly worse when he left. We have written him off multiple times during his career (either as a potential superstar, a superstar, a super-duper star, a fading superstar or a viable starting center) … but each time, he made everyone eat their words.

On the other hand, Shaq left everyone with superstar blue balls. He became rich and famous before accomplishing anything worthy of those words; midway through his rookie year in Orlando, he’d already signed a seven-year, $40 million contract, starred in Blue Chips, recorded a rap album and become a household name. There were “the next Wilt” flashes for the next three years but never anything too lasting, with resentment building that Shaq personified the dangerous Too Much Too Fast Too Soon era. Orlando shocked Jordan’s Bulls and made the Finals. (Here comes Shaq!) Then Houston swept them as Hakeem administered young Shaq a first-class spanking. (There goes Shaq!) He ditched Orlando for the Lakers and gave them post-Magic relevancy again. (Here comes Shaq!) They did nothing for three years other than get juicy title odds in Vegas and choke every spring. (There goes Shaq!) He matured into a dominant force, won an MVP and rolled to his first title. (Here comes Shaq!) He suffered through four alternately satisfying and frustrating Laker years, feuding with Kobe, battling weight issues, mailing in regular seasons and ultimately kicking ass in the Playoffs for two more rings. (Here/there comes/goes Shaq!) Once he moved to Miami and transformed the Heat, we appreciated him a little more fully — his locker room presence, his passing ability, how teammates had a knack for peaking when they played with him, how he quietly had the most engaging personality of anyone — and I wrote during that season, “Shaq is like DeNiro in the seventies and eighties — everyone in the cast looks a little better when he’s involved.” His fourth title in Miami gave his career some extra weight; his recent resurgence in Phoenix opened the door that he might break some records or come close. Who can predict anything with Shaquille O’Neal? I will never count him out, and I will never count him in. Four things epitomize the Shaq era over everything else:

  1. His per-game averages for the 2000 Finals: 45 minutes, 38 points, 17 rebounds … 38 percent from the line. That’s Apex Shaq in a nutshell.
  2. Bill Russell’s teams finished 716–299 in the regular season for an absurd .705 winning percentage. That’s the standard. From 1994 (his second season) to 2006 (his fourteenth), Shaq’s teams finished 654–298 (.687) and never won fewer than 50. But because of his dreadful free throw shooting, Shaq was yanked in and out of the lineup in close playoff games more than any other Pantheon guy. This can’t be forgotten — it was the turd in the punch bowl of Shaq’s career. Kinda like how Pacino was secretly five foot six and they could only cast shorter costars for him. No, really.
  3. In my annual “Who has the highest trade value?” column for 2002, I picked Shaq first with the following explanation: “Seems a little dubious that he’s ranked this high, right? After all, he turned thirty years old this season, he’s always threatening to retire and he was responsible for Kazaam. But here’s the thing … If the Lakers ever traded him, Shaq is competitive enough and vindictive enough that he would postpone his eventual retirement plans, then devote the next decade of his life to winning championships, haunting the Lakers and making them rue the day. And the Lakers know this. When motivated and hungry, he’s the most dominant player in the league. Nobody can stop him. Nobody. Not even Duncan. And that’s why the Lakers would never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever trade Shaq, not under any circumstances … which makes him the undisputed number one player on this list.” Of course, they traded him two years later. And he did come back to haunt them. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
  4. All three times upon leaving a team (1996, 2004, 2008), Shaq shrewdly created a controversy to deflect that he was leaving because it was time to go. He blamed Penny Hardaway’s budding hubris for splitting Orlando; really, Shaq just wanted to live in California and play for the Lakers. When they dumped him because of his poor conditioning and because he made it clear that he’d go on cruise control without a mammoth extension, he deflected local blame by declaring war on Kobe (one of his smartest political moves and another reason why Shaq should run for office someday). When Miami dumped him because he looked washed-up and out of shape, he went right after Pat Riley and played the “I’m totally betrayed” card. Much like preelection Obama was a savvier politician than people realized, Shaq was a savvier athlete than people realized. Nobody made more money playing basketball. Ever. And no NBA player resonated on so many levels: with teammates, opponents, fans, media members, critics, little kids, you name it. I talk to NBA people all the time; rarely have I ever heard even a seminegative story about Shaq. If anything, you tend to hear more stories that make you say, “Really? That’s awesome!” Like the time Steve Kerr told me that Shaq headed to Wal-Mart after Phoenix home games, spent a ton of money, then hung out by the cash register to pay for other customers. Shaq made me laugh more than any player except McHale or Barkley, coming up with clever nicknames like “Shaqapulco” (his Miami estate) and analogies (like when he compared his three most famous teammates to Corleones, with Wade being Michael, Kobe being Sonny, and Penny being Fredo). The league was just more entertaining with him in it.

One last thought: of any two old-school/new-school players, Shaq and Wilt resemble each other the most. Switch situations for ’59 Wilt and ’92 Shaq and Shaq matches Wilt’s numbers (and possibly exceeds them), while Wilt wouldn’t have topped Shaq’s best work. So why rank Wilt higher? Because Shaq left something on the table. He was given too much too soon: wealth, attention, accolades, everything. He never had a rival center like Russell to push him in his prime. He never had to worry about his next paycheck. He could coast on physical skills and that’s mostly what he did. Shaq turned out to be the least competitive superstar of his era, someone who enjoyed winning but wasn’t destroyed by losing, someone who kept everything in its proper perspective. Chuck Klosterman pointed this out on my podcast once: for whatever reason, we react to every after-the-fact story about Michael Jordan’s “legendary” competitiveness like it’s the coolest thing ever. He pistol-whipped Brad Sellers in the shower once? Awesome! He slipped a roofie into Barkley’s martini before Game 5 of the ’93 Finals? Cunning! But really, Jordan’s competitiveness was pathological. He obsessed over winning to the point that it was creepy. He challenged teammates and antagonized them to the point that it became detrimental. Only during his last three Chicago years did he find an acceptable, Russell-like balance as a competitor, teammate and person. But Shaq had that balance all along. He always knew what he was.

My theory: basketball was never as much fun for Shaq as everything else happening in his life. Officials allowed opponents to defend him differently, shove him out of position and pull his shoulders on dunks. Teams fouled him in key moments and flashed a giant spotlight on his one weakness. The loathsome Hack-a-Shaq tactics were insulting and maybe even a little humiliating. Even when he kicked everyone’s asses (like from 2000 to 2002), he received a decent amount of credit … but not really.

(One series never earned him enough credit: his demolition of Philly’s Dikembe Mutombo in the ’01 Finals. Dikembe was considered the best defensive center of his generation and Shaq rolled through him for 44–20, 28–20, 30–12, 34–14 and 29–13.)

The guy couldn’t win. And so Shaq could have earned a top-five Pyramid spot and multiple MVPs, but he happily settled for no. 11, some top-five records, three Finals MVPs and a fantastically fun ride. It reminds me of a life decision I made in college: instead of killing myself gunning for a 3.5 or higher, I worked for our newspaper and radio station, wrote a weekly sports column, then spent an inordinate amount of time hanging with my friends, partying, procrastinating and creating memories. I graduated with a 3.04 and wouldn’t change a thing. Neither would Shaq, who probably finished with a 3.68 in this analogy. If there’s a difference, it’s that Shaq convinced himself that his 3.68 was really a 4.0. And it wasn’t.

(Important note: Okay, I lied a little. It wasn’t a life decision. I just spent a lot of time procrastinating, hated studying and could always be talked into things like “Want to go outside and play stickball for twelve hours?” or “What if we drunkenly whip a golf ball against the metal door in our hall, then jump out of the way as it comes flying back at us, and the only way you can win is by not getting hit?” It’s actually a miracle that I lived through college, much less graduated with a 3.04. I’m done comparing myself to Pyramid guys.)

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Allen Iverson

Resume: 13 years, 12 quality, 9 All-Stars … ’01 MVP … ’97 Rookie of the Year … Top 5 (’99, ’01, ’05), Top 10 (’00, ’02, ’03), Top-15 (’06) … 3-year peak: 31–4–7 … best player on runner-up (’01 Sixers), 33–5–6 (22 G) … leader: scoring (4x), steals (3x), TO’s (2x), minutes (1x) … 30-plus PPG (5x) … Playoffs: 30–6–4, 40% FG (67 g’s) … 20K Point Club

As the years and decades pass, both Iverson and no. 21 on the Pyramid [Bob Cousy] will be picked apart by an army of statisticians looking for various ways to undermine their careers. And that’s fine. Just know that Iverson passed the Season Ticket Test every year this decade (starting with his ’01 MVP season): when season tickets arrive in the mail, the recipient invariably checks the schedule, marks certain can’t-miss games and writes those dates down on a calendar. The importance of those games is measured by rivalries, superstars, incoming rookies and the “I need to see that guy” factor. That’s it. From 1997 to 2007, Iverson always made my list. Always. So I don’t give a crap about Iverson’s win shares, his ranking among top-fifty scorers with the lowest shooting percentage or whatever.

(The case against Iverson: he’s a ball hog (averaged 23-plus shots in 7 straight seasons); he’s a horrible three-point shooter (31% career, three straight sub-30% years from ’02 to ’04); he turned the ball over too much (3.8 career per game, four seasons of 4.4 or higher); and he was a 2-guard in a point guard’s body (so you had to match him with a tall point guard to keep Iverson from defending bigger 2-guards). The only defensible gripe was his three-point shooting — nobody who sucks that much from deep should attempt nearly 3,300 threes in 12 seasons.)

Every post-Y2K ticket to an Iverson game guaranteed a professional, first-class performance (no different from reservations at a particularly good restaurant or hotel), and for whatever reason, he was always more breathtaking in person. He’s listed at six feet but couldn’t be taller than five-foot-ten, so every time he attacked the basket, it was like watching an undersized running back ram into the line of scrimmage for five yards a pop (think Emmitt Smith). He took implausible angles on his drives (angles that couldn’t be seen as they unfolded, even if you’d been watching him for ten years) and drained an obscene number of layups and floaters in traffic. He had a knack for going 9-for-24 but somehow making the two biggest shots of the game. And he played with an eff-you intensity that only KG and Kobe matched (although MJ remains the king of this category). For years and years, the most intimidating player in the league wasn’t taller than Rebecca Romijn. I always thought it was interesting that Iverson averaged 28 minutes of playing time in his eight All-Star Games and played crunch time in every close one; even his temporary coaches didn’t want to risk pissing him off.

Iverson’s career personifies how the media can negatively sway everyone’s perception of a particular athlete. There was a generational twinge to the anti-Iverson sentiment, fueled by media folks in their forties, fifties and sixties who couldn’t understand him and didn’t seem interested in trying. Nearly all of them played up his infamous aversion to practice (overrated over the years) and atypical appearance (the cornrows/tattoos combination) over describing the incredible thrill of watching him play in person. They weren’t interested in figuring out how an alleged coach-killer who allegedly monopolized the ball, allegedly hated to practice and allegedly couldn’t sublimate his game to make his teammates better doubled as one of the most revered players by his peers.

They glossed over the fact that he was saddled with an incompetent front office, a subpar supporting cast and a revolving door of coaches in Philly. They didn’t care that he was one of the most influential African American athletes ever, a trendsetter who shoved the NBA into the hip-hop era (whether the league was ready or not) and resonated with blacks in a way that even Jordan couldn’t duplicate. They weren’t so interested in one of the most fascinating, complex athletes of my lifetime: a legendary partier and devoted family man; a loyal teammate who shot too much; a featherweight who carried himself like a heavyweight; an intimidating competitor who was always the smallest guy on the court; an ex-con with a shady entourage who also ranked among the most intuitive, self-aware, articulate superstars in any sport. If I could pick any modern athlete to spend a week with in his prime for a magazine feature, I would pick Allen Iverson. In a heartbeat.

And yeah, his field goal percentage wasn’t that good and he took too many shots. Whatever. Fifty years from now, I hope people realize that Iverson had better balance than everyone else, that he was faster and more coordinated than everyone else, that he took a superhuman pounding and kept getting up, that he was one of the all-time athletic superfreaks. We already know that he was the best high school football player in Virginia history, but he also would have been a world-class soccer player, boxer or center fielder, someone who could have picked his sport in track and competed for an Olympic spot, and while we’re here, I can’t fathom how much ground he could have covered on a tennis court. (Tangent that’s too important for a footnote: Every time the World Cup rolls around, I always find myself thinking about which NBA players could have excelled at soccer. Iverson would have been the best soccer player ever. I think this is indisputable, actually. Deron Williams would have been a great stopper. Josh Smith could have been unstoppable soaring above the pack to head corner kicks. And can you imagine a better goalie than LeBron? It would be like having a six-foot-nine human octopus in the net. How could anyone score on him? Couldn’t we teach Bron the rudimentary aspects of playing goal, then throw him in a couple of Cleveland’s MLS games? Like you would turn the channel if this happened?) Iverson wrecked his body on and off the court and somehow kept his fastball, which shouldn’t be counted as an achievement but remains amazing nonetheless.

(You could fill an entire chapter with secondhand Iverson stories of the “I heard he slept with ten women in one night” and “I heard he was out drinking all night, then played a day game in Boston and scored 49” variety. By all accounts, the guy doesn’t sleep. He’s a vampire. Might explain why his career came to a screeching halt in 2009.)

And he deserves loads of credit for dragging a mediocre Sixers team to the ’01 Finals when so many other scoring machines had failed before him. Unlike Gervin, McAdoo and Dominique, Iverson played with a swagger that pushed a decent team to a whole other level. He believed they could win, he killed himself to that end, and everyone else eventually followed. Watching Game 7 of the Bullets-Spurs series from ’79 and Game 7 of the Bucks-Sixers from ’01, the biggest difference between Gervin and Iverson — two spectacular offensive players — was the way they carried themselves. Gervin never gave the sense that the game was life or death to him, whereas Iverson went into foxhole mode, with his ferocity lifting his teammates and energizing the crowd. That ferocity separated Iverson from everyone else after Jordan retired; for most of his twenties, he was the Association’s single most menacing player. He had a darker edge that belonged to nobody else, a switch that instantly transformed him into a character from The Wire. I remember attending a Boston-Philly game when Iverson was whistled for a technical, yelped in disbelief, then followed the referee toward the scorer’s table before finally screaming “Fuck you!” at the top of his lungs. The official whirled around and pulled his whistle toward his mouth for a second technical. They were maybe 25 feet away from me, so I could see everything up close. And I swear on my daughter’s life, the following moment happened: As the ref started to blow the whistle, Iverson’s eyes widened and he moved angrily toward him, almost like someone getting written up for a parking ticket who decides it would be easier just to punch out the meter maid. For a split second, there was real violence in the air. The rattled official lowered his whistle and never called the second technical. By sheer force of personality, Iverson kept himself in the game.

Look, I’m not condoning what happened. It was a frightening moment. I specifically remember thinking, “I am frightened.” But I haven’t seen a basketball player bully a referee like that before or since; it was like playing an intramural hoops game against the football team and watching the biggest offensive lineman intimidate a 130-pound freshman ref. And that goes back to the seeing-him-in-person thing. At his peak, Iverson played with a compelling, hostile, bloodthirsty energy that nobody else had. He was relentless in every sense of the word, a warrior, an alpha dog, a tornado. He was so quick and coordinated that it genuinely defies description. He was enough of a lunatic that officials occasionally cowered in his presence. And none of this makes total sense unless you watched him live. Could you win a title if Iverson was your best player and you didn’t have a franchise big man? Of course not. Could you win a title with Iverson as the second-best player and crunch-time scorer? Yeah, possibly. Would you pay to see him in his prime? In the words of Mr. Big, absah-fuckin’-lutely. I will remember him.