When it comes to a debate of who is the greatest center of all time, you hear a lot of names thrown around, but no matter who the list includes, there are two that always seem to separate themselves from the pack.
To compare the players, it must go beyond stats. Stats do tell a lot of the story, but they never tell it all. And why is this important? Because Wilt's stats were absurd.
But what could Wilt really do that Shaq was incapable of? He only did one thing Shaq never could have: coach.
When Shaq came into the league back in 1992, I was 12 years old, and he was on our hometown Orlando Magic, the first premier player to ever play for the franchise. Being the prudent financial investors we were, many of us bought the Sports Illustrated Shaquille O’Neal posters at the school book fest, and we never took the plastic off. "Collector's items," we reasoned.
What’s even more hilarious is that I still have mine, with the plastic cellophane firmly intact, now 19 years since those days.
It became obvious to me, even as a 12-year-old, that Shaq was going to be something special, something we hadn’t seen in a long time, or at all for that matter. He was charismatic, funny and witty and completely dominant on the court. There really wasn’t any way for the centers to stay between Shaq and the basket, and if they did, it was at their own peril.
Even for defenders who had previously stopped every player they faced, Shaq was unstoppable. He was simply too big, too strong and too fierce for any mortal man.
However, from what I have seen and been told, Wilt was much the same way.
A lot of people criticize Chamberlain’s competition, but the NBA was not radically different then. And, he did face Bill Russell. More than anything, his absurd numbers still were absurd against Russell, though not quite nearly as so. Many wonder if Russell could have scored just as much, had he wanted to, but this is about Shaq.
Could Wilt slow Shaq down?
Wilt was often referred to as “Wilt the Stilt,” and with reason. Besides the obvious fact that Chamberlain was over seven feet tall, he was thin and long. Would his muscle have been enough to body up against Shaq?
I’m not so certain it would have been. Shaq was like a bull in a china shop when he caught the ball on the block, and I just don’t see any player or to some degree any combination of players capable of keeping Shaq away from the rim. I do realize Wilt was an incredibly strong person, that he could bench a lot and the whole nine yards...but Shaq weighed well over 300 pounds for most of his career.
So maybe Chamberlain couldn’t stop Shaq; could the same be said in return?
Wilt was quick and had a way of finding his way around Russell, who was 6’9″ and much quicker than Shaq. Wilt also had quick hands and deft coordination, something Shaq doesn’t have, though he is far from cumbersome or goofy.
Wilt would have given Shaq a lot of troubles defensively because he was just so skilled around the goal. He also could leap out of the building, and while “young Shaq” might be able to cope with those hops, old Shaq never could.
Shaq played long past his effective years and our memories are tainted because of that, but in his early days with Orlando when he “only” weighed 290 pounds, he got up quite well.
So I guess I have come to this conclusion: Neither Shaq nor Chamberlain could have stopped one another. That makes the question of who would win a one-on-one battle a moot point. If it were "make it, take it," whoever got the ball first would win. If it were alternating possessions, the same would hold true, so I guess it would come down to an unlikely factor as to who would win:
When I played one-on-one growing up, we always shot free throws for first possession, and because we played "make it, take it," having the ball first was a huge advantage. If that rule were imposed upon Shaq and Wilt, they would cringe, as they know it exposes their mortal weakness.
So who wins the majority of the games? It’s quite nearly negligible, and Shaq wins by a hair, 52.7 percent vs. 51.1 percent. Mysteriously, both players did have one season each over 60 percent. It doesn’t make sense, really, because 10 percent is quite a big difference, but they at least found their groove for one season anyway.
Note: Shaq never tried it underhand like Wilt did!
I guess when you consider both players were unstoppable and had only one chink in their armor, it’s fitting to conclude that they would dominate one another with equal force. Shaq would bully Wilt; Wilt would out-finesse Shaq, but the result would be the same. They would battle to a stalemate over the long run.
Either that, or I am just poor at drawing out-of-era conjectures...