Luke Graham

Luke Graham

Luke Graham: Where Shaq places

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Luke Graham

Luke Graham's column appears periodically in the Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4229 or lgraham@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Luke here.

— Moments in sports make people feel old.

That happened last week when Shaquille O’Neal retired. I can remember O’Neal playing at Louisiana State University.

I can remember buying his album — he was, in fact, nominated for a Grammy. I stood in line to watch “Kazaam.” I still own “Blue Chips” on VHS.

I can also say with conviction that O’Neal was the most dominant player I’ve ever seen. The best and the most dominant are two different things.

There has been a lot of talk as to where O’Neal stands in the pantheon of all-time greats.

Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Lew Alcindor and Hakeem Olajuwon are all in the conversation at the center position.

But for anyone who is still in their 20s or early 30s, there wasn’t a more dominant player.

People who never saw Chamberlain or Russell play somehow say they were better or more dominant than O’Neal. I feel like you have to have seen a player play to speak to his greatness or dominance.

I never saw Chamberlain or Russell, so I can’t say they were better. I caught the tail end of Abdul-Jabbar’s career, and at that point he wasn’t dominant. Olajuwon was smooth, but he didn’t dominate in the sense that O’Neal did.

Michael Jordan was the best of my generation, and O’Neal was the last great center.

The minute he hit the floor in Orlando, I was in second grade and worked tirelessly on my back to the basket moves.

I wanted to be Shaq. No leaping ability and a 5-foot-9 frame derailed that, but it didn’t stop a near 20-year love affair.

There was always something about O’Neal. It wasn’t just that he was good for 25 points and 10 rebounds a night. Nor was it that he became the biggest character in the game.

It was the way he did it. Throw it in to him, two dribbles and a monstrous dunk. That was about it. Of course, he developed a little jump hook, but the sheer ferocity that he played with was what set him apart.

People would always argue that all he could do was dunk. What else did he need to do? He was that dominant.

Olajuwon made him look silly in the 1995 finals, but from 1996 to about 2004, there wasn’t a better player in the league.

In the 2000 and 2001 finals, there wasn’t a better or more dominant athlete on the planet.

I didn’t want the Los Angeles Lakers to win, because I hated them. But it was inevitable with O’Neal on the court.

In those two finals, O’Neal averaged 35.7 points a game and grabbed 16 rebounds a game.

So as he retires and makes me realize that I once was in second grade trying to emulate him, his place for me has been settled. I can’t speak for players I never saw.

O’Neal’s place was just one behind Jordan.

That’s my pantheon. Michael Jordan, No. 1 and Shaq, No. 2.

To reach Luke Graham, call 970-871-4229 or email lgraham@SteamboatToday.com

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