Willie Anderson, The Pocket Shaq, had some interesting thoughts in wake of Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement after 19 seasons in the NBA.
As usual, because Big Willie Aristotle always has something interesting to say, the trait that made him a media darling during his 12 seasons in Cincinnati. How could he not be with quotes like “The blessing and the curse,” his benediction of Corey Dillon’s record 278 yards (“It’s a day of immortality”) and his response at seeing Carson Palmer on the training table in the ’06 playoffs (“Everybody has to get on the prayer trail”)?
In part, it turns out, because of O’Neal.
“Think of it,” Anderson says. “You’re 19, 20 years old and you see this 7-foot, 300-pound guy with this great personality always getting interviewed. For me, yeah, he was an influence. He made big guys relevant. He made being a big man cool. It was never like that in the ’80s. You had to be Michael Jordan. You had to be a guard, or in football a running back or quarterback. But after Shaq came into the NBA, it was like it was OK to interview linemen.”
He also counts the rapper Notorious B.I.G. as another guy that “made being big relevant,” but for the 6-5, 340-pound Anderson and his 19 Triple E shoes that dominated the right tackle spot, O’Neal was the pro athlete measuring stick.
He remembers his first road trip with the Bengals in his rookie season of 1996, four years after O’Neal was the top pick in the NBA Draft. One of the many things Anderson noticed about him was his sharply tailored suits and for the impressionable youngster from Mobile, Ala., O’Neal was the first big man he saw dress so carefully and well. When the 21-year-old Anderson showed up for the bus in a suit, the veteran offensive line draped in the boots, jeans and open-neck shirts of Joe Walter, Rich Braham and Darrick Brilz gave it to Anderson pretty good.
“He ushered in a new era, but it hadn’t happened yet,” Anderson says with a laugh. “But now you always see linemen dress well on the road. They’ve got a lot of material to use and now we can look just as good as the skilled guys.”
Anderson met O’Neal a couple of times and once was on another Bengals road trip, this one in 2003 when the Lakers were staying in the same Arizona hotel.
“When we shook hands, his hand reached up past my wrist,” Anderson says. “That’s when I figured out why he couldn’t shoot.”
Anderson, an all-state high school basketball player, laughs when told he’s the Shaq of the Bengals.
“But I can make a free throw in crunch time,” he says.
Anderson can talk NBA with anyone, including a non-cool-lifelong Celtics fans that firmly believes William Felton Russell is not only the greatest center of all time, but the greatest player of all time. (No one else has 11 rings and no one else got the last two as a player-coach.)
We’ve been having this discussion for 15 years, longer than Bill Russell’s career, and on Thursday, Anderson rated his top centers of all time in order: Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Russell and Shaq.
“Wilt put up numbers the kids today just don’t understand. Kareem is the all-time leading scorer while winning titles. Russell was the dominant player on a dominant team. The NBA did two things to stop Shaq: They made the goals stronger and they put in the zone defense. They instituted the zone purely to stop Shaq. That meant two guys could cover him. He was killing people before that. And he was an underrated passer.”
I hear you, Willie.
But Russell stared down Chamberlain in seven of their eight postseason series, proving yet again great defense usually beats great offense. Russell won more than Jabbar and was a better all-around player. And they changed the rules for Russell, too. After Russell led San Francisco to the 1955 NCAA title, they widened the free throw lane from 10 to 12 feet and goaltending was outlawed.
Yet, you sold me on Shaq and ever since then I enjoyed watching him. Great passer, great awareness, great offensive force. And, I agree with you. If Shaq didn’t break down late in the season and the Celtics didn’t trade Kendrick Perkins, the Heat is the greatest disappointment in the history of pop culture.
OK, just sports pop culture but that’s what hype does to you.
Thus, we salute Shaq and Pocket Shaq, two guys always better than the hype.
Tags: willie anderson, Willie Anderson on Shaquille O'Neal
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