Lakers, Shaq rank among the best

Sunday, June 16, 2002

If you're a basketball junkie like me, it's tough now that the NBA playoffs have ended, meaning withdrawal time since there won't be any real hoops for the next few months (no offense to women's basketball, which I enjoy on the college level, but I just haven't been able to get into the WNBA yet).

But before we put away the roundball for the summer, let's take one last look at the NBA playoffs in general and the Los Angeles Lakers in particular.

First of all, the NBA Finals went pretty much according to form. All season long the popular theory was that whichever team came out of the Western Conference would have an easy time with the Eastern champion.

That's exactly what happened as the Lakers pretty much toyed with New Jersey in sweeping to their third straight championship.

Now, for the inevitable question -- where do the Lakers rank among the greatest teams of all time? And where does Shaquille O'Neal rank among the all-time best centers?

Comparing teams from different eras is always tough -- pretty much impossible, really -- but all you can go by is how dominant a team was during its era. And the Lakers are definitely dominant, led by two magnificent players in O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and several complimentary players who all seem to know their roles and be content with them, which was also the makeup of coach Phil Jackson's other dynasty, the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

While I don't think the Lakers should be regarded as among the top two or three all-time best teams, they definitely deserve to be mentioned in the conversation. And if they should happen to win a few more championships -- which is not out of the question -- then their status will only be elevated.

As for O'Neal, who averaged a mind-boggling 36.3 points in the Finals, I've got to believe that he's at least the equal of any of the other all-time great centers. Several more dominating seasons will probably elevate him to the top of the list as well as give him support for being the greatest all-time player period, although it's always going to be hard to top Jordan in that race.

One thing's for sure. Never in the history of the NBA has there been a player so big, so powerful and so agile as Shaq, who even began hitting his free throws in the playoffs. If he keeps doing that, he'll definitely be off the charts.

And speaking of all-time greats, Jackson doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves when people talk about the best-ever coaches. His critics say that he's won all those championships because of the tremendous talent he's had.

But remember that the Lakers, despite having O'Neal and Bryant, didn't begin winning titles until Jackson showed up. And the Bulls, despite having Jordan and Pippen, didn't begin winning titles until Jackson showed up.

Coincidence? I don't think so.

Southeast Missouri State University product Jason Witczak will get the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl of NFL Europe.

Witczak is a place-kicker for the Rhein Fire, who will take on Berlin Saturday in World Bowl X in Dusseldorf. He has served strictly as the Fire's long-range field-goal kicker, making two of seven attempts, all from 40 yards and beyond.

Witczak completed his Southeast career in 2000, earning Division I-AA All-American honors as a punter while also serving as the Indians' place-kicker.

Originally signed as a free agent by the Tennessee Titans in 2001, he was released during training camp. But the Titans showed enough interest in Witczak that they allocated him to NFL Europe, which is primarily made up of players who are trying to break into the NFL.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian

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