Shaq: The best NBA center in the era of cable television? Don’t forget about Hakeem

Before I was a runner, I was first a sports fan, and later, a sports reporter, so I’ve gotta throw down my take on the retirement of Shaquille O’Neal Wednesday.

I’ve written in this space often that I was once a sports writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Most of my time in sports was spent covering the Dallas Cowboys. But in 2001 and 2002, I was the paper’s NBA writer and interviewed The Big Aristotle several times when the Lakers came to Dallas, and at the All-Star game in Philadelpia that year.

I don’t have a great story to tell you about Shaq (for some really great ones, read Michael Wilbon’s take on ESPN.COM), but what I can remember is that the dude was big. You knew when he walked in the room. His presence just soaked up the entire place.

Anyway, I’ve been watching the NBA since Magic and Bird entered the league in 1979, which coincided with the berth of ESPN. And since then, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more dominant center in the league than O’Neal (who, by the way, went to tiny Cole High School in San Antonio.) You don’t find many 7-foot, 300-pound men with that kind of athletic ability. All-time, I think Shaq is one of the Top 5 centers of all-time, behind Wilt, Kareem, and Bill Russell.

I never saw Russell or Wilt play and when I first became interested in the NBA, Kareem was just past his prime. But at the very least, Shaq was the best center the Cable TV era has seen.

So, here is a position by position look a the best NBA players I’ve seen (on TV or in person) since 1979-80.

Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley: The best I've ever seen

Point guards – Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Steve Nash. (You might know about Magic and Nash, but let me tell you something: Isiah was one of the rare players who led his team in points and assists while leading his team to an NBA championship. Ask the Lakers about Isiah, how he put up 40 points on one leg in the 1988 NBA Finals.)

Shooting guards – Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant. (Does this need an explanation. Good. I didn’t think so.)

Small forwards – Larry Bird, LeBron James (I saw Larry Bird play. I’ve seen Dirk Nowitzki play. And let me tell you – Dirk is no Bird. And you tell me a better small forward than LeBron in the last 30  years. I didn’t think you could.)

Power forwards – Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Charles Barkley (Maybe Dirk should be on this list. But I’m leaving him off because while he can score, he couldn’t rebound as well as the Malone-Duncan-Barkley duo.)

Center – Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing. (The question here is who was best, Shaq or Hakeem. I’m going to go with Hakeem, just by an eyelash. As big as Shaq was, he never led the league in rebounding and there were times in games where his defense was invisible, especially against pick-and-roll teams. Hakeem, on the other hand, was probably the best defensive center in his era, leading the league in blocked shots three times and rebounds twice. And he was plenty good on offense, averaging 20 or more points a game for each of his first 13 seasons.)