Sunday, June 12, 2011

12 Infamous Player-on-Player Crimes: The Director's Cut

This is the true, unedited version of the slideshow posted on Athlon Sports last week.

Vancouver Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows escaped a suspension for allegedly chomping on the fingers of Bruins center Patrice Bergeron in last Wednesday’s Stanley Cup Finals opener. The league decided that insufficient proof existed to show Burrows taking a bite.

The 12 incidents shown here, unlike the Burrows bite, have plenty of evidence that they happened. Some have pictures, some have videos, and all have legendary reputations.

12. Vinnie Jones “Snatches” Paul Gascoigne
Vinnie Jones may be familiar to action movie fans for his portrayals of Bullet-Tooth Tony in Snatch, Sphinx in the 2000 remake of Gone in 60 Seconds, or Juggernaut in X-Men: The Last Stand. Surprisingly, he has yet to receive an Oscar nomination.

Before all that, though, he was a legendary “hard man,” or enforcer, for several high-level English soccer clubs, including Wimbledon and Chelsea. In a 1988 match between Wimbledon and Newcastle, he showed his crabby (or is that grabby?) side by, shall we say, yanking the knob on Newcastle midfielder Paul Gascoigne’s front door.

The picture has become iconic in England, and has certainly helped Jones get work as a movie madman. Of course, saying things to opponents along the lines of “I’m gonna rip your leg off then hit you over the head with the soggy end” hasn’t hurt either.

Say what you want about Vinnie’s disposition or his acting chops, but as “Gazza” would likely testify, Jones the player had some very underrated ballhandling skills.

11. University of New Mexico’s One-Woman Crime Spree
Junior defender Elizabeth Lambert got some attention that the New Mexico women’s soccer team might not have wanted when she took physical defense to a new level in 2009.

Playing BYU in a Mountain West Conference tournament semifinal match, Lambert played defense less out of EA Sports FIFA 11 and more out of WWE Smackdown vs. Raw. Lunging tackles that sought to take out ankles, slaps to opponents’ faces on the way down from headers, you name it. There’s no truth to the rumor that she tried to leave the field to look for a steel chair.

There’s lots of truth, though, to the legend of Lambert trying to rip Kassidy Shumway’s ponytail right out of her head. See the video if you are a fan of physical soccer, women behaving badly, and/or Drowning Pool.

10. Chan Ho Park Channels Bruce Lee, Gets Housed
June 5, 1999 started out as a pretty good day for Chan Ho Park. The Dodgers’ righthander had only allowed one hit to the Anaheim Angels and had struck out four through 3 1/3 innings. Then, he let up a bit, allowing Mo Vaughn, Garret Anderson, and Troy Glaus to load the bases and falling behind 2-0 to light-hitting catcher Matt Walbeck. The next pitch ended up in the right-centerfield seats, and the Dodgers were trailing 4-0.

Grand slams were a bit of a sore subject for Park that year. Back in April, he had given up two grannies to the Cardinals’ Fernando Tatis IN THE SAME INNING. That’s still the only time one pitcher has ever been tagged for eight runs on two swings by the same guy in the same inning. Ever.

Still, Park seemed to recover well after Walbeck’s shot, getting the next four batters out, and all seemed well when he came to bat in the bottom of the fifth. With a runner on first, Park laid down a sacrifice bunt and was tagged out by Angel starter Tim Belcher. Whether the tag was too hard, or being tagged out by the opposing pitcher was enough to bring dishonor to Park’s family, Chan Ho went off.

The game became less Field of Dreams and more Game of Death, as Park stuck a forearm shiver into Belcher’s face, then followed up with what was likely not his best tae kwon do kick, landing it somewhere in Belcher’s hip region. Most video footage cuts off there, but with Park on the ground after his flying kick and Belcher charging with nostrils flared, it doesn’t look good for Chan Ho Phooey.

By most accounts, Park got the worst of the fight, and Belcher remained perplexed two years later. In the August 2001 issue of Maxim, Belcher was quoted thusly: “The guy tried to kick my head off. So what if he likes tae kwon do? I like to hunt, but I didn't take a shotgun out there.” No truth to the rumor that that comment gave Bud Selig an idea for the next time attendance starts to fall off.

9. Minor League Game, Major League Fight
Israel “Izzy” Alcantara was a classic “Four-A” player. From 1997 through 2000, he clubbed 113 minor-league home runs as a farmhand for four different teams, adding four bombs at the major-league level for the Boston Red Sox. In 2001, he still dominated the minors, batting .297 with 36 home runs at Triple-A Pawtucket, but it was a never-finished at-bat that became his immortal legacy.

On July 3, 2001, Scranton-Wilkes Barre pitcher Blas Cedeno brushed Izzy back twice, and twice was all Izzy could stand. Alcantara threw a thrust kick that would make “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels proud, sending catcher Jeremy Salazar sprawling, then it was off to the mound. Cedeno stepped expertly away from Izzy’s wild roundhouse right and, by that time, the rest of the infield convened at the mound.

Izzy looked about and seemingly had just enough time to think, “Well, crap, now I’m surrounded.” He was then smothered by the flood of people charging out of both dugouts, and the situation defused itself from there.

The Providence Journal conjectured that the Scranton team may have been plotting against Izzy for his alarming tendency to hit home runs off of them. The Red Barons were also said to be a little sore from Izzy’s perceived hot-dogging on his most recent long ball the night before.

By the end of this brawl, however, it’s likely no one was sorer than Izzy himself…with the possible exception of the superkicked catcher. Chest protector or not, that looked like it hurt.

8. Zinedine Zidane’s Thin Skin and “Sister” Screw Entire Nation
Players in all sports talk trash during games, and it occasionally gets a little racy. Once you bring an opponent’s mother, wife, girlfriend, or sister into the discussion, it’s the express lane to an explosion.

French midfielder Zinedine Zidane saw red, both literally and figuratively, when Italy’s Marco Materazzi called Zidane’s sister a whore during a 2006 international match. He headbutted Materazzi in the chest, sending the Italian sprawling like he’d been shot with a deer rifle. Appropriately enough, Zidane was ejected for the overt act of aggression.

The problem was that this wasn’t just any old international friendly, it was the World Cup Final. Picture James Harrison swinging his helmet into Aaron Rodgers’ crotch in the middle of the Super Bowl, and you have an idea of how big a moment this was. And honestly, isn’t it quite easy to picture James Harrison swinging a helmet at someone?

Now down a man, France went on to lose the Final in a shootout, and Zidane retired from international duty after the match. Materazzi later published a humorous book entitled “What I Really Said to Zidane,” containing about 250 jokey phrases that may have provoked the headbutt. Personal favorite: “Where exactly IS the sternum?”

7. McHale Clotheslines Rambis, Mustache Unharmed
The 1984 NBA Finals marked the first time that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had met for a professional championship after their scintillating duel for the NCAA title five years prior. Three games into the series, the Lakers were running at will, scoring an impressive 137 points in regulation during Game 3.

In Game 4, coach K.C. Jones wanted the Celtics to be more physical. Kevin McHale thought that was a fine idea, and with less than seven minutes to go in the third quarter, he got an opportunity to prove it.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pulled down a rebound and tossed a long baseball pass to James Worthy. Worthy found a streaking Rambis, who had a wide-open layup in his sights until McHale caught him in the air and brought him down hard with a textbook clothesline. We’re still unsure what kind of school uses textbooks that teach such things.

Larry Bird helped Rambis back to his feet and tried to talk him down as the crowd at the Forum serenaded the players with that immortal chant, “Boston Sucks!”

After the game, Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell was excited, noting that the Lakers went from “running across the street whenever they wanted” to more of a “stop at the corner, push the button, wait for the light, and look both ways” approach.

Kurt Rambis’s Mustache, aka “The Secret of Kurt’s Success,” had no comment, but suited up again in the next three games. Unfortunately, there were no more streaking layups to be had, and the Celtics took the series in seven games.

6. Miami + Weapons = A Typical Saturday Night
The result of the October 14, 2006 football game between the Miami Hurricanes and the Florida International Golden Panthers was expected to be ugly. That’s what typically happens when a Sun Belt team meets… well, any non-Sun Belt team. What wasn’t anticipated was how ugly the game would get before it was even finished.

Miami was only leading 13-0 in the third quarter after James Bryant caught a five-yard touchdown pass. Despite the fact that the would-be blowout was still somewhat of a game, Bryant decided his gorgeous reception warranted taking a bow to the fans. The Panthers were not amused.

On the ensuing extra point, rushers and blockers began shoving, the holder got thrown to the ground and punched in the jaw, and all hell generally broke loose. Players were kicked and stomped and punched in the back of the head, whether they were helmeted or not.

‘Canes safety Anthony Reddick heroically charged in swinging his helmet, looking a lot like a little old lady hitting a robber with her purse. One player got in touch with his inner Junkyard Dog and powerslammed an opponent to the turf in the middle of the fracas. Not seen in the video, but no less noteworthy, was injured FIU running back A’Mod Ned, who went wading into the mess swinging his crutches at anything moving.

Finally, the classiest performance of the entire night. Former Hurricane wide receiver Lamar Thomas, who was doing color commentary for CSS on the broadcast, made the following comments on air:

“Now, that’s what I’m talking about. You come into our house, you should get your behind kicked. You don’t come into the OB [Orange Bowl] playing that stuff. You’re across the ocean over there. You’re across the city. You can’t come over to our place talking noise like that. You’ll get your butt beat. I was about to go down the elevator to get in that thing...I say, why don't we meet outside in the tunnel after the ball game and get it on some more? You don't come into the OB, baby. We've had a down couple of years but you don't come in here talking smack. Not in our house."

31 players were suspended, Lamar Thomas was fired, and FIU went right on struggling mightily against BCS opponents. Since that fight, the Panthers are 0-16 against teams from BCS conferences, being outscored 615-165 in those games.

5. Brawl in a Dark Alley? Nope, Try a Dark Rink
The 1987 World Junior Hockey Championships, held in Piestany, Czechoslovakia, boasted a host of future NHL stars in its final game. The rosters of Canada and the Soviet Union featured players like Brendan Shanahan, Theoren Fleury, Sergei Fedorov, and Alexander Mogilny. By game’s end, though, the names on the jerseys were irrelevant, since no one could see them with the lights turned off.

But, let’s back up a moment. Referee Hans Ronning was a controversial selection to officiate this match, especially after his performance in the Canada-United States match three days earlier. In that one, a wild brawl broke out in warm-ups, even before the officials hit the ice. Ronning’s highly scientific solution was to eject one player at random from each team. Makes sense, eh?

Canada’s representative at the championship wanted no part of Ronning refereeing the final, and tried to get the appointment overturned. That also made sense, as Ronning was an inexperienced international ref, chosen for his neutrality more than any other trait. The inexperience showed throughout the final match, as both sides were allowed to freely swing sticks without penalties being called.

Canada’s Fleury did the cause of peace no favors after scoring the game’s first goal when he brandished his stick as if it were a machine gun and proceeded to “open fire” on the Soviet bench. Early in the second period, small scuffles broke out that sent two players from each team to the penalty box, and with 6:07 left in that period, it was on.

Pavel Kostichkin swung a two-handed slash at Fleury, everyone paired up with a dance partner, and the USSR’s Evgeny Davydov became the first guy to leave his team’s bench. That started a flood of bodies onto the ice, leading to at least a dozen separate fights all over the surface.

Fleury described a battle between Mike Keane and Valeri Zelepukin as “fighting like it was for the world title.” Vladimir Konstantinov threw a headbutt that broke Greg Hawgood’s nose, and Hawgood’s teammate Brendan Shanahan was forced to give props, calling it “the greatest headbutt I’ve ever seen.” Hawgood’s nose surely begged to differ.

The officials were booted off the ice by Czech officials for their total failure to control the situation, and tournament officials resorted to turning off the arena lights. The players cared little, brawling on for another several minutes. The game was ultimately vacated, both teams were ejected from the tournament, and Finland ended up having their bronze upgraded to a gold.

Conspiracy theorists claimed that the USSR, already out of medal contention, started the fight deliberately, seeking to sabotage Canada’s chances of winning their own medal. This seems about as likely as a theory we’re throwing around the office that the Soviet team were shown Red Dawn during intermission.

4. Ohio State’s Luke Witte Catches One Right in the Ol’ Buckeyes
Former Minnesota basketball coach Bill Musselman was one of the first advocates of playing rock music during his team’s warmup. He saw the thumping music as motivational, while others thought the practice “animalized” his team.

That was the exact word used by Dr. Wayne Witte, father of Ohio State center Luke Witte, after the January 25, 1972 game between the Buckeyes and Gophers. In the final minute, Luke was fouled hard while driving for a layup. Minnesota center Corky Taylor extended a hand to help Witte to his feet, then dropped him right back down to the floor with a knee to the man-regions. 

Taylor quickly backed away as angry Buckeyes charged at him, but Corky’s Minnesota teammates intercepted his would-be attackers and chased them down the court. Gopher forward Ron Behagen charged off the bench and stomped on the still-prone Witte’s head. That attack surely struck fear into welcome mats everywhere, but it made Behagen look like a punk in the eyes of his fellow humans.

Gopher reserve, and future Baseball Hall of Famer, Dave Winfield was just as heroic as Behagen. Please note the sarcasm. Winfield joined several fans in gang-tackling an Ohio State bench-warmer from behind and punching the player five times in the head. The brawl may have served as a warm-up for Winfield’s future hostilities with another Ohio State alumnus, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

Witte suffered a concussion, needed 29 stitches to close the wounds on his face, and suffered a scarred cornea that interfered with his vision for years to come. There was probably an icepack down his shorts at some point in the evening, too, but that remains unconfirmed.

3. Rocket Richard Tomahawks Opponent, NHL President Gets Egg on Face
Maurice “Rocket” Richard, if he played today, would be said to have a slight attitude problem. He could be easily goaded into retaliation for rough play, he was fined multiple times for assaulting officials, and he wrote a newspaper column in which he called NHL President Clarence Campbell a “dictator.” But, as a French-Canadian star at a time when French descendants were oppressed in Canada, Richard was a hero to his people.

March 13, 1955 seemed like just another brutal hockey game between Richard’s Montreal Canadiens and the arch-rival Boston Bruins. With Montreal on the power play, Bruin defenseman Hal Laycoe caught Richard across the face with a high stick. The resulting cut would take five stitches to close. When play paused, Richard skated up to Laycoe, who dropped his gloves in the universal hockey signal for “bring it on.” Rather than throw fists, the Rocket decided to smash Laycoe over the head with his stick.

Richard was dragged away multiple times, but kept on charging at Laycoe, bludgeoning him to the point that he snapped his stick over Laycoe’s prone body. One of the linesmen trying to break up the incident got knocked out with two stiff rights for his trouble. The Boston police wanted to arrest Richard, but his teammates barred the locker room door.

Three days later, Campbell held a hearing to listen to both sides of the story. After deliberations that may have taken all of 12 seconds, Richard got a stiff penalty for the “dictator” comment and the fight. The Rocket, the league’s leading scorer at the time, was suspended for the rest of the season, including the playoffs. Richard’s French-Canadian fans saw it as another case of the Man keeping them down, and sent death threats to Clarence Campbell.

Campbell showed impressive nerve in announcing that he would attend the next Montreal home game, on St. Patrick’s Day against Detroit. The players were nervous as they took the ice that night, as demonstrators protested outside and fans in the Forum expressed their displeasure, especially when Campbell walked in and took his seat. Eggs, vegetables, and other debris were hurled at Campbell, a tear gas bomb was set off not far from where the president had been sitting, and the Forum was evacuated. Needless to say, the Red Wings got a free win out of the deal.

2. “Rudy T. Attacked Me” Pleads Kermit Washington’s Fist
At 6’8” and 230 pounds, Kermit Washington does not look like a man you’d want to run into in a dark alley. Or a lit one, for that matter. In the dark, though, he might be a little jumpy, as his actions on December 9, 1977 would suggest.

In that night’s game between the Houston Rockets and Washington’s Los Angeles Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Rockets’ Kevin Kunnert were scuffling at midcourt. Kareem had Kunnert’s arms pinned to his sides, leaving him defenseless for a glancing punch from Washington. Kermit turned away from the battle, satisfied that Kareem had things well in hand, and then spotted Rocket forward Rudy Tomjanovich running toward the brawl.

A second later, Rudy T was on the floor in the middle of a rapidly forming pool of blood. Washington has steadily claimed that the devastating right cross was instinctive, a response to a potential threat. After “The Punch,” the only thing being threatened was Tomjanovich’s life.

Most of the bones in Rudy’s face were smashed. The fractures allowed blood and, of all things, spinal fluid to leak into his skull, including his mouth. In case you’re wondering, spinal fluid apparently has a “very bitter” taste, according to a Tomjanovich quote from John Feinstein’s book The Punch.

Rudy’s doctor compared the repair process to Scotch taping a broken egg back together. Kareem said the sound of Rudy hitting the floor was similar to that of a watermelon being dropped on concrete. Tomjanovich himself said that he thought the scoreboard had fallen on his head, a statement which sounds like a bad spoof of a B.J. Thomas song.

Even after all that, and even with injuries that were legitimately life-threatening, Rudy spotted Washington on the way back to the locker room and was ready to throw down in his own defense. Tomjanovich missed the rest of that season, while Washington was suspended for two months.

Since then, Rudy’s won two NBA championships as a head coach, while Washington has continually blamed The Punch for misfortunes both personal (media coverage causing the collapse of his marriage) and professional (being turned down for coaching and administrative jobs in and out of basketball). Fair trade? That depends on who you ask.

1. Juan Marichal Misunderstands the Term “Batter Up”
Juan Marichal was well-known as an intimidating pitcher, not above firing fastballs toward a batter’s melon. On August 22, 1965, his San Francisco Giants were facing their arch-rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Marichal was announcing his presence with authority. He’d sent Dodgers Maury Wills and Ron Fairly sprawling with brushback pitches, and the Dodgers had seen enough.

When Marichal came to bat in the bottom of the third, catcher John Roseboro started putting a little extra zip on his throws back to pitcher Sandy Koufax. He also threw them a little closer to Marichal’s head than most batters have to look out for. One throw was said to graze Marichal’s ear, and he turned around to ask Roseboro something along the lines of “WTF?”

Roseboro came up out of his crouch, pulled off his mask and helmet, and Marichal felt threatened. His response? He cracked the catcher over the head three times with his bat.

The benches immediately cleared as the bleeding Roseboro kept trying to get a piece of Marichal. The resulting melee lasted 14 minutes, and the cut on Roseboro’s head would require 14 stitches. Roseboro would later sue for $110,000 in damages.

Dodger fans have a long memory, and they were still cranky at Marichal when he signed with LA 10 years later. Roseboro asked the fans to forgive and move on, as he claimed to have done. He later appealed directly to the Baseball Writers Association of America to not hold the fight against Marichal, who was going into his fifth year of Hall of Fame eligibility.

Marichal was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983, and he and Roseboro became friends in Roseboro’s later years. No word, however, on whether they ever attended cockfights together, as Marichal was seen doing with Pedro Martinez in 2006. After all, nothing says friendship like clubbing someone with a bat or watching chickens maim each other.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Should "The King" Become "The Wizard?" (Or, Why Gregg Doyel Can Suck It)

The headline does not suggest that LeBron James should be traded to Washington. Far from it. He’s fit in nicely in his current role with the Miami Heat. Rather, the question is an onomastic one, the study of names themselves.

“The King” connotes something majestic, something regal, kind of like…I dunno… “His Airness.” “The Wizard” suggests a person who can make something out of nothing, turn chaos into beauty, a name that conjures thoughts of… “Magic.” I’ll explain later, but first to the moronic drivel that inspires me today.

CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel (I’m not linking here because you’ve probably already seen it, plus Doyel’s a goof and doesn’t deserve the hits) decided to drop the hammer on LeBron for “shrinking” in these NBA Finals, particularly in Game 3. LeBron’s offending stat line? 17 points, nine assists.

Doyel made fun of LeBron’s admirably direct answer to his (I’ll admit) admirably direct question, the one where LeBron (correctly, it would seem) called out Doyel for ignoring the game and simply staring at stats.  LeBron’s defense on Jason Terry has reduced the Dallas Mavericks to a one-man team, albeit a team with one man who can nearly win games himself. That apparently means nothing to Doyel.

(Does anyone else remember when “Doyyyyyyy” was interchangeable with “Duhhhhhh”? In this case, it still should be.)

That defense apparently means something to Dirk Nowitzki (the aforementioned one man), who’s begging his coach and teammates to get Terry open so he can get some help. But, Doyyyyyy-el obviously knows what’s happening here better than the guy that’s on the court.

LeBron’s ninth assist was a bullet to a wide-open Chris Bosh, who stuck what turned out to be the winning basket. It’s the kind of play that’s made by a man who’s looking to make good players (Bosh) great and great players (Finals MVP-in-waiting Dwyane Wade) legends. Players like… Magic Johnson.

Doyyyyyy-el, like most other fans who only casually observe the game, wanted LeBron to be the new Jordan. Stay his whole career (at least until he was too old to dominate) with one team and win titles that way. Oh, and score 30 points per game to the exclusion of all else every night. He’s left the team that drafted him while still in his prime, and now he dares to focus on setting up others and shutting down opponents’ gunners in the NBA Finals. The nerve of some people, eh?

The way he’s conducted his career doesn’t resemble the way Magic Johnson conducted his, either, but his game, build, and skills have resembled Magic since day one. That’s the Hall of Famer I’ve wanted LeBron to model himself after since the beginning. His size, speed, and ballhandling abilities make him an absolutely unstoppable playmaker and facilitator when he’s got someone to set up.

The worst games the Miami Heat have had this season have been when Wade and James play tug-of-war with control of the ship. Game 2 of these Finals was a night where Dwyane Wade couldn’t miss, but who started heaving up ill-advised shots late in the game? Yes, LeBron. He tried to be Jordan and didn’t quite measure up.

If Erik Spoelstra broke him of that and let him know that his passing and defense would be more helpful than trying to score 30, Spo may deserve more credit than I, or anyone else, has been willing to give him since nWo South Beach tried to burn the arena down with July’s glorified pep rally.

Doyyyyyy-el denigrates the importance of people who can play defense, saying, “James played the defensive-stopper card. That's why he's out there, you know. For his defense. He's not a latter-day Michael Jordan. He's a latter-day Dudley Bradley.” Uh, yeah, because Dudley Bradley went for 17 and nine in the Finals exactly… oh, wait, he never played in the Finals. Barely played in the regular season, for that matter.

If 17 points and nine assists in the Finals are the numbers of a “shrinking” superstar, then what to make of Magic? He went for 17 or fewer points with nine or more assists 18 times in his Finals career.

Mr. Doyyyyyy-el, care to try and make a case that Magic Johnson and his five rings wilted in the Finals? Shrank from the spotlight? Disappeared in the clutch? Go ahead and try it. Let’s see what happens then.

Last May, I wrote that if LeBron wanted to win a championship, he HAD to go to South Beach and play in Dwyane Wade’s house. He did, and now look where he finds himself: two wins from that elusive championship.

I’m far from a LeBron apologist, in case you’re wondering. The Decision frosted my cookies just as much as anyone else’s, because it was a complete puss-out on LeBron’s part not to shoot straight with the Cavs. Still, this turn of events isn’t the end of civilization as we know it, and those who think it is kind of need to get over themselves.

The Heat’s early-season struggles and their few stumbles in the playoffs have been when these two alpha dogs both wanted to pull the sled themselves. When LeBron remembers that he has an uncanny ability to elevate others, the sledding seems to be so much smoother. If the Mo-Heat-os keep playing the way they are right now, LeBron could, and should, have himself a “magical” moment on which a legacy can be built.

Call him "Merlin" James.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Rank-a-Shaq: Where O'Neal Stands Among the All-Time Giants

If I went nuts and started piling up a Bill Simmons-esque “Pyramid” of my favorite NBA players ever, I’d probably catch grief because the big guys would catch hell. Maybe somebody else loves the big guys who can plant themselves on the block and dare the opposing stiff to stop him, and fair play to them. Personal preference and all that.

My kind of player veers more toward the skill-finesse type of game, the moves or shots that just make you either practice harder or throw up your hands and say “screw it, I quit.” Touting a player as one of the best of all-time simply because he hit the genetic lottery and ended up seven feet tall is kind of knee-jerk. Sure, Wilt Chamberlain could rack the kinds of stats that would make NBA Jam players climb to the next difficulty level, but how many really skilled bigs did he face night in and night out?

So, now that we’ve established that I’m more of a Jerry West/John Havlicek kind of guy than a Chamberlain/Russell sort, does it disqualify me from discussing the best centers of all time? Hope not, because that’s exactly what’s coming.

With Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement, there’s sure to be a rush of historical assessments coming, and some are sure to name Shaq as the best big man ever. I would ask those people to please put down the Kool-Aid. Again, personal preference.

Let’s get into which big men I do rate highly, and why. My Top 5 centers read thusly:

5. Wilt Chamberlain
Career Averages: 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds, .540 FG%, .511 FT%, 2 NBA titles
Wilt’s numbers were always outrageous, but let’s not front: they should have been. The game had never seen a guy of Wilt’s size, stature, and skill level. There were other tall fellas, guys like the 6’11” Walt Bellamy or the 6’11” Nate Thurmond, but Wilt outweighed both of those guys by 50 pounds.

Watching Wilt play had to be like seeing a high school senior schooling a bunch of freshmen. Still, it wasn’t until he got guys like Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and Billy Cunningham around him, AND let them take some shots once in a while, that he was finally able to win a championship.

1965-66: Wilt 25.2 FGA/game, team goes 55-25, loses to Celtics in East Finals
1966-67: Wilt 14.2 FGA/game (4th on team), team goes 68-13 and wins title

Those who want to eviscerate LeBron because he couldn’t carry Cleveland to a title need to remember Wilt. It took him a few years to prove that the game had passed one-man teams by.

4. Shaquille O’Neal
Career Averages: 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, .582 FG%, .527 FT%, 4 NBA titles
Shaq gets up on Wilt because by the 1990’s, the NBA did have a few skilled big men for him to compete against. Shaq took on the likes of Ewing, Olajuwon, Mutombo, Mourning, Robinson, Duncan, and Howard, and though he still had a physical advantage on them, it wasn’t the straight mismatch that Wilt’s games seemed to be.

The sad part about both guys is simply imagining how many points they could have scored and how many more games they could have won if either man could have shot his free throws worth a damn. Wilt would have had another 2,246 points, about 2.1 per game, if he’d been a 70% free throw shooter. Shaq left 1,941 points on the table, or about 1.6 per game. Both men played a lot of games in their careers that could have swung on another two points.

I subscribe to this philosophy: when it got down to the end of a close game, Shaq and Wilt were liabilities. Until later in their careers, their teams couldn’t ignore them on offense, so opportunities to foul them were endless. When it’s a two-point game and you know it’s not likely a shooter’s making both free throws, why let them do anything with the ball?

It put a ton of pressure on their teammates to go get the offensive rebounds after the inevitable bricks. When over the period of your career, your limitations contributed to a great many losses and never got remedied, you have little claim to being the best anything of all time.

3. Bill Russell
Career Averages: 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, .440 FG%, .561 FT%, 11 NBA titles
Let’s get this out of the way now: if Shaq or Wilt could have shot freebies with any competence, they would leave Russell in the dust. The fact that a 215-pound man could be one of the game’s legendary centers underscores how thin the crop was in the ‘60s.

Russell could charitably be called mediocre offensively, and he was never the prime option for Boston. Of course, he never had to be. I think we could possibly fill an entire 12-man roster with Hall of Famers from those Celtics teams that won 11 championships in 13 years. Let’s try it:

Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders, Clyde Lovellette, John Havlicek, Bailey Howell…okay, that’s 10. But if we add in the Hall of Fame coaches John Thompson and Don Nelson, there’s our 12. When you’re surrounded by an entire wing of the Hall of Fame, it’s hard to give you much credit for winning 11 championships.

What Russell did do was dominate defensively, revolutionizing the art of shot-blocking. He got credit for using blocks as outlet passes, starting thousands of Celtics fast breaks. Contrast that with guys like Wilt and just about every center in the SportsCenter era (I’m looking at you, Dwight Howard), who would rather smack the ball into row five and glare at the opponent. “Never mind that you’ll get to score again, I just owned your ass and will enjoy it for these eight seconds. This proves that my testicles are of superior size to yours. And no one will remember if the game’s a one-point loss for us.”

Still, if we wanted to pick a modern-day player to compare to Russell, our closest bet might be Dennis Rodman. Great rebounder, great defensive player, won a lot of titles playing with better, more skilled players. I dare you to find someone better.

2. Hakeem Olajuwon
Career Averages: 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 3.1 blocks, .512 FG%, .712 FT%, 2 NBA titles
This is the one that I expect to catch grief for. “Hakeem over Wilt and Russell, ARE YOU INSANE?” If that’s the definition, then yes, I guess I am. A few points in my favor:

Hakeem played against the same crop of big men that Shaq did, except replace guys like Howard with guys like Kareem. Trade up. Oh, and Hakeem outplayed Shaq in the 1995 Finals, despite being 10 years older, so there’s that, too.

Hakeem did everything well (block shots, rebound, pass, score) that Wilt did, but he had a bit more depth to his jump shot, and he could actually shoot free throws. He was winning rebound titles by a full two rebounds per game, in an era where shooting was better and no one man could possibly dominate the boards the way Chamberlain did.

Where Russell had a bunch of legends helping him win championships, Hakeem’s first championship was aided by the likes of Otis Thorpe, Vernon Maxwell, and Kenny Smith. That 1994 Rockets team was the closest thing we’ve had to a one-man championship since…hell, possibly since George Mikan.

If that’s not enough, why not let Michael Jordan tell you a little something about Hakeem?

“If I had to pick a center [for an all-time best team], I would take Olajuwon. That leaves out Shaq, Patrick Ewing. It leaves out Wilt Chamberlain. It leaves out a lot of people. And the reason I would take Olajuwon is very simple: he is so versatile because of what he can give you from that position. It's not just his scoring, not just his rebounding or not just his blocked shots. People don't realize he was in the top seven in steals. He always made great decisions on the court. For all facets of the game, I have to give it to him.”

Tell it, Mike.

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Career Averages: 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, .559 FG%, .721 FT%, 6 NBA titles
Yes, Kareem had a lot of help winning his titles. Guys like Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy, Mychal Thompson, and Byron Scott were big factors in five of his titles. Until the last two, though, Kareem was the biggest dog in the yard, a claim that couldn’t always be made about Russell.

Even on that first title, though, the one with the Milwaukee Bucks, the 24-year-old Lew Alcindor had the legendary Oscar Robertson and career 18-ppg man Bobby Dandridge deferring to him. It could never truly be said that Kareem “carried” his teams to a title, at least not the way Hakeem did, but he was the focus of his teams in a way Russell never was.

The statistical averages favor Wilt and Russell, but that disregards the fact that shooting percentages were hideous when they played. In fact, Wilt was the first player to finish a season over .500 from the floor. Russell’s best was .467. In an era where scoring was up because shooting was decent, Kareem didn’t have the chance to crunch 20-rebound games all the time, but he did rip almost 17 per game in his first year with the Lakers.

In the season where he turned 39, Kareem was still averaging 23.4 points per game. Wilt essentially stopped shooting at 34, and Russell retired at 35. No other player has been as dominant a force in the NBA for as many years.

Again, it goes back to what kind of game you prefer. I’d rather watch a skill and finesse game than see a pass into the low post and the center bulldozing his man with little more than a large ass. Hakeem and Kareem played a much more skillful game than guys like Wilt and Shaq, who could simply overwhelm everyone physically.

Shaq was essentially everything I don’t like in a player. Reliant on his size and strength more than any particular skill set. An unrepentant attention whore. A terrible rapper. But still, he made the court his domain for a lot of years, and deserves great respect for the way he performed.

Best of all time, though? Not hardly.