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Dan Shaughnessy

Everything’s great about this move

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / August 11, 2010

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WALTHAM — It’s always about history when we talk about the Celtics and today we’re talking about one of the greatest basketball players of all time joining the most storied franchise in the history of the sport.

Shaquille O’Neal is a Boston Celtic. No. 36 in your program.

He’s hardly the first NBA great to punch in at Causeway Street near the end of his career. Pete Maravich, Artis Gilmore, Dominique Wilkins, and Bill Walton come to mind.

“If you look at the history of the Celtics, they have a history of bringing in legends where at the end of their careers they still have enough to give to help you win,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “Bill Walton is a person you think about. It’s a formula that has worked very well in Boston and it’s a formula that we hope continues to work.’’

Shaq is all things to all people. He’s a television star, movie actor (loved him with the Cooz in “Blue Chips’’), recording artist, tweeter, joker, free throw clanger, father, son, champion, and cartoon character. He’s the man who named Paul Pierce “The Truth,’’ and it’s often forgotten that Shaq was a candidate for the 1992 Olympic Dream Team but was aced out by Christian Laettner. Shaquille O’Neal is also one of those rare great athletes with a sense of history.

By any yardstick, the three greatest centers of the 20th century were Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Now there is Shaq. At the age of 38, an NBA veteran since 1992, O’Neal is right there with the Big Three of the Key. He is the fourth head on basketball’s Mt. Rushmore of pivotmen.

At his introductory news conference at the Celtics’ practice facility in Waltham yesterday, O’Neal said, “Growing up in Newark, my father took me to the park and said, ‘You’ve got to be a shot-blocker like Bill Russell. You’ve got to be dominant like Wilt Chamberlain. You’ve got to be a scorer like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.’ This was when I was like 5 or 6 years old and my father would say those names and I was like, ‘Who the hell are those guys?’ But as I got older and understood the game, I appreciated the position.’’

Shaq has met all three.

“I met Wilt [who died in 1999], but we never had a conversation,’’ Shaq said. “I never had a conversation with Kareem. The only one I had a conversation with is the great Bill Russell. And I mean like a real conversation — sit down in a room, lunch, dinner. He told me some stories. It was great.

“Mr. Russell was one of the first legends who had a conversation with me about what I needed to do to get to that next level. And I always want to thank the great Mr. Russell, the greatest big man ever.’’

Mr. Russell. Got that? Nice reverence there. It’s good to see a current player with some respect for those who came before him.

So where does O’Neal belong in the pantheon of centers? I checked with our in-house hoop guru, Bob Ryan, a/k/a “The Commissioner.’’ Ryan puts O’Neal a notch below the holy trio, but at the top of a second tier that includes Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Elliott Kalb begs to differ. Kalb is the Bobby Orr of statisticians. He is pure substance. Nothing frivolous. He did stats for NBC Sports for 20 years and now serves as editorial director of the MLB Network. In 2004 he wrote a basketball book entitled “Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Basketball?’’ and arrived at the extraordinary conclusion that Shaq is the best player ever. In Kalb’s ranking, Wilt was second, Michael Jordan third, Russell fourth, and Kareem fifth.

I contacted Kalb yesterday and asked him to make his case for Shaq as the greatest ever.

“If Shaq isn’t the best, he’s damn close and I’m proud of O’Neal and my selection,’’ Kalb wrote in an e-mail. “Shaquille is going to look better and better in the coming decades. It will only be through the perspective of time that we will be truly able to appreciate O’Neal’s greatness. He didn’t impose his will on a game, or a series, or a season, or even 10 seasons. He imposed his will on a league for more than 18 years, since he was drafted by the Orlando Magic.

“There are only four players that have scored more points than Shaq in NBA history, and only two that have scored more in the postseason. Combining the regular season with playoff action, O’Neal has played in 1,384 games and won 919 of them. His record in the regular season (791-379, .676) equates to a 55-win season. Every season. But I understand that he’s not the greatest scorer (though he’s close) and not the single biggest winner (though he’s close). If one accounts for the changes in the game — teams rarely spent time double-teaming, for instance, for much of the league’s early history — then O’Neal has to be in the discussion of greatest ever. I’ll take Shaq versus anyone.’’

Does Shaq put himself in the same category as Russell, Wilt, and Kareem?

“I hope I am, but I don’t like to sit down and categorize myself,’’ he said softly (Shaq is a low-talker on a par with Red Sox owner John Henry). “But hopefully when it’s all said and done and you look at my book and look at their book you’ll find some comparison. But I don’t really like to say I’m the best. If I am, I am, if I’m not, I’m not.

“In this era, everybody has an opinion. Everybody has a blog. Everybody has a show. Everybody’s not going to have the same opinion. You have to take everything that comes and not complain about it.’’

I love this move. It’s no-risk. The Green didn’t give up any players, didn’t invest serious money, and got a player who still can score, rebound, and fill the lane. Shaq can draw fouls. And he’s going to be a presence in Boston. Kevin Garnett has been here for three seasons and has barely been sighted outside the Garden (I think he commutes via underground tunnel). Shaq is going to be out there. Taking it to the streets.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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