- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Shaquille O'Neal is the best there ever has been at the center position, the total freak who has skills, athleticism and an absurd amount of size and strength.
There is nothing to debate, and nothing against Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It is considered bad form to compare basketball players from different eras, mostly because the athletes today are larger, faster and quicker than their predecessors.
Confirmation is routinely provided by the ESPN Classic channel, often on black and white film or tape. Chamberlain was the Goliath of his day, though hardly an impressive physical specimen in the context of O'Neal.
O'Neal is a whole lot closer to 400 pounds than 300, despite his listed weight of 315. Perhaps the latter is the NBA Register's stab at humor.
The game, as it was, is sometimes funny in 2002 eyes, and not just the short shorts of the players.
The game, as you might suspect, has evolved considerably in the last 40 years. It really was a non-contact sport in the '60s, when the slightest bump elicited a whistle and most of the big men were not so big or skilled.
This is no knock on Chamberlain, although his finger-roll shot from 10-12 feet would be questionable by the standards of today.
No doubt, in the generations ahead, O'Neal will be eclipsed by another giant, perhaps one who is a couple of inches taller and just as strong and nimble and whose skills are even more refined.
O'Neal, because he is so dominant, has taken the fun out of the NBA Finals the last three years. His third NBA Finals MVP award is being readied. The Lakers, one victory shy of a third consecutive championship, have an 11-3 record in the last three NBA Finals, and barely a good sweat.
The Pacers, 76ers and now the Nets have all found that there is nothing you can do against O'Neal, except put five defenders on him and accept the long-range target practice of Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Kobe Bryant.
O'Neal did not ascend to this place easily. He came into the NBA as a one-note brute who lacked the requisite skills away from the basket and vision to lead a team to an NBA championship. He almost punched through the championship door anyway, leading the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995 before being turned away by the low-post polish of Hakeem Olajuwon.
It was a chastened O'Neal who added subtlety to his power and increased his efficiency. He learned that if the opposition had to react to his jumpers around the three-second lane, his spin moves to the basket would be that much easier to complete.
A more complete O'Neal has been on display the last few seasons, and now teams are even less certain around him than they were five or six seasons ago.
If a team pushes him into the middle of the three-second lane, where there is defensive help, he shoots the baby jump hook, a high-percentage shot. If a team turns him to the baseline, he uses the glass, another high-percentage shot. You want more? He converted a big fadeaway baseline jumper in Game 7 of the Lakers-Kings series.
Make him give up the ball? O'Neal finds a teammate cutting to the basket or one stationed behind the 3-point line.
Even the old hack-a-Shaq strategy has lost much of its appeal. O'Neal actually has games now in which he is a reliable free-throw shooter.
O'Neal's career could have gone a lot of unfulfilled ways after he landed in Los Angeles. He could have found satisfaction in what he was, and the Basketball Hall of Fame would have opened its doors to him just the same.
Instead, O'Neal labored to remove his flaws. He added shot-making maneuvers to go with his dunks. He improved his footwork and passing. He imposed himself on defense. He also added more muscle and bulk to his 7-foot-1 frame.
The old Shaq probably would be as befuddled as the opposition against the fully evolved Shaq.
The NBA has become Shaq's world, and those assigned to spend time there wind up looking helpless. You feel sympathetic to their plight. O'Neal has become that commanding.

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