On Shaq and other old bigs

Tuesday August 17, 2010

Shaquille O'Neal, with his recent signing by the Celtics, now becomes the captain of Boston's All-How-Did-We-Get-This-Guy? Team.

For the record, the other four members of this squad are Dominique Wilkins, Bob McAdoo, Dennis Awtry and Marvin Barnes, with honorable mention going to Artis Gilmore and Frank Brickowski. And find room for Dwayne Schintzius!

The thread running though all these names is that they are, with the exception of the high-scoring Wilkins, large frontcourt players.

While a team can certainly never have enough big men, it can almost certainly have too many old big men.

That is at least part of the circumstance by which the 7-1, 300plus pound "Shaqzilla" has now become a Celtic. He's big. He's physical. He'll bang the opposing center around. He's also been in the league for almost 20 years.

There is no major downside to the signing. The Celtics got him for the veteran's minimum, and if he doesn't pan out, little is lost.

I have heard two scenarios for the 2010-11 season: The first is that Shaq accepts a limited role, comes off the bench to augment the starters and the Celtics go deep into the playoffs. For the first part of the season, he may well be starting, as Boston's regular center, Kendrick Perkins, remains sidelined with a knee injury.

The second scenario is that Shaq is too slow and too old to contribute successfully, becomes a major distraction when he is benched, and Boston is eliminated quickly.

Without actually seeing the "Big Aristotle" in action, it's difficult to gauge the possibilities yet. We will know soon enough.

But this is by no means a slam dunk, if you'll pardon the expression. For every Wayne Embry, Bill Walton and Arnie Risen, all of whom were key components of at least one Celtics title team, there are at least as many big men in Boston's history who didn't pan out. There are probably not a lot of people out there who recall the Bob McAdoo half-season. Mac was a terrific scorer, but so bad defensively that player-coach Dave Cowens could only play him about half the game.

Gilmore, a major force in earlier seasons, sometimes seemed half asleep on the parquet floor. Once in a while he'd wake up and slam home a few dunks, but we were always wondering which game it would be.

It was usually against the Clippers, and never against the Lakers.

They all had one inarguable trait: They were big. As former Supersonic Leonard Gray once noted of 7-4 teammate Tom Burleson, "After everybody's tired, he's still tall."

The opposite is often true with many late-career guards the Celtics picked up over the years. Andy Phillip was a key contributor to the 1957 champs, while Carl Braun played well for the 1962 winners.

Dave Bing was, at times, the team's best player in 1977-78, while Pete Maravich had some glittering games in 1979-80. And Emmette Bryant was the starting point guard on the 1968 and 1969 champs.

I'm hoping for the best, but Shaq's best may not be good enough.

My final comments are reserved for one of the inductees to the Hall of Fame. I have insisted, repeatedly, that the inclusion of Dennis Johnson is long overdue. So, too, was the elevation of Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson, so nicknamed because his moves were so sweet.

Johnson was an NBA All-Star in the 1960s and 70s, but died in 1987 at age 48 of a brain tumor. In high school, on a team that also included future Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond, the 6-6 Johnson jumped center. One of his many moves in that era was ripping down rebounds with one hand, a move I used to practice in my living room with a Nerf ball.

Former Knick great Dave DeBusschere, another Hall of Famer, confessed in his diary of the 1970 New York championship season that Johnson's combination of speed, strength and jumping ability made him the most difficult player to guard in the NBA. So, Hail to the Honeycomb!

To reach Derek Gentile: dgentile@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 528-3660.


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