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Only a rules change can stop Shaq
Dr. James Naismith drew up 13 rules when he created basketball in 1891. Not only have they grown into a vast constitution, but they have been rewritten, revised, restored, revamped and rejected so often critics have abandoned hope they'll ever get it right.
It hasn't been suggested yet, but if no NBA team can figure out what to do about Shaquille O'Neal, somebody's going to try for a familiar solution: Change the rule again. I feel it in my bones.
No other sport has been so influenced by size, or tried so often to do something about it.
When linemen soared past 300 pounds in football, in some sort of evolutionary growth spree, there were enough to go around for the whole NFL. Weight training, and probably steroids, neutralizes baseball. But in the NBA, good big centers are one or two to a generation, and in the current market, where do you find another like Shaquille O'Neal?
Big was a problem as far back as 1935, when a three-second limit was imposed for loitering inside the foul lanes. In 1957, goaltending was forbidden. So was the slam dunk, in 1967.
But the slam dunk was restored in 1976, and off-the-chart rarities like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bob Lanier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and a few others came into full custody of the basket, dunking or brushing aside shots, and laughing at little people.
At 7-1 and 360 pounds, Shaquille O'Neal covers the basket area like a nuclear winter. His slam dunk is often a slam into a defender. Some critics call that a foul. So do the refs, but more often against the defender, which feeds a common suspicion that NBA refs wouldn't want to anger management by knocking O'Neal out of the game on fouls. They will object to that insinuation, but their argument is with the public perception, not me.
To non-Laker fans, he could look like a bully, pushing little guys around. It's not his fault he's so big, but you could almost resent him for it. But you can't dislike him. In a social sense, he's fine. He likes toys, money and a free-wheeling lifestyle, but he has kept it clean on and off the court.
It is one thing to be great, another to be dominant. Michael Jordan was great. O'Neal is dominant. One had a skill for the ages, the other brute force.
Would O'Neal have brushed aside Chamberlain? Or Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook?
My own feeling is that only Chamberlain, because of his strength, could have neutralized Shaq.
But there is no Chamberlain -- or anyone remotely close -- in the NBA today.
Sid Dorfman is a sports columnist for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger.