Shaq: More Like Namath or More Like Wilt?

Now that the Phoenix Suns are on the verge of finalizing a deal for Shaquille O’Neal, the question remains what will they get out of him? The Suns hope that their acquisition offsets the Lakers’ acquisition of Pao Gasol. Unlike the Lakers, however, the Suns had to give up something of value—Shawn Marion.

Pro sports is replete with examples of professional teams trying to revitalize superstars whose best days are behind them. Shak’s best days appear to be ancient history. But I will be curious to see if the end of his career more closely resembles that of Joe Namath or that of Wilt Chamberlain.

Joe Willie Namath did not miss a single game because of injury in his first five years in the NFL, making a reputation for himself as a brash, but extremely talented quarterback. After Broadway Joe led the Green to their only Super Bowl victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, Namath’s knees and rough-and-tumble life style caught up with him.

Joe Willie played in just 28 of 58 possible games between 1970 and 1973 due to a variety of injuries. But when circumstances allowed, Namath rose to the occasion. His most memorable moment in those four seasons came on September 24, 1972, in Baltimore, when he and boyhood idol Johnny Unitas combined for 872 passing yards. Namath bombed the Colts for 496 yards and six touchdowns in a 44-34 victory, New York's first victory over Baltimore since Super Bowl III. In that same game, Unitas threw for 376 yards and three touchdowns.

In the twilight of his career, Namath was waived by the Jets to facilitate a move to the Los Angeles Rams after a trade couldn't be worked out. He was signed by the Rams on May 12, 1977. Namath hoped to revitalize his flagging career, but by this point his effectiveness as a quarterback was nearly kaput . After a 2-1 start, Namath took a beating in a cold, windy, and rainy Monday night game at Chicago. Namath was benched the next game in favor of Pat Haden, and Broadway Joe never played another down in the NFL.

Contrast the dismal end to Namath’s career with the final years of Wilt Chamberlain’s career.

On July 9, 1968, Chamberlain was the centerpiece of a major trade between the 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers, who sent center Darrall Imhoff (the unfortunate ex-Knicks center who started against Chamberlain when latter scored 100 points), forward Jerry Chambers and guard Archie Clark to Philadelphia, making it the first and only time a reigning NBA Most Valuable Player was traded the next season. This trade was only slightly more lop-sided than the Gasol trade last week.

In Chamberlain’s first year, he averaged 20.5 points and 21.1 rebounds. After missing most of his second year with a knee injury, Chamberlain averaged 20.7 points, 18.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the 1970-71 season. In the 1971-72 season, the Los Angeles Lakers won an epic 33 straight games on their way to a 69-13 record and their first world championship since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. Chamberlain averaged 14.8 points, 19.2 rpg, and led the league with a .649 field goal percentage. Even Chamberlain’s last year was nothing to sneeze at. The Stilt averaged 13.2 points and 18.6 rebounds, and set an all-time NBA record .727 accuracy from the field.

I’d like to think that Shak has a little more gas left in the tank, if only to frustrate Mitch Kupcek and company. Truth be told, however, the last year and a half of Shak’s career tilt toward a Namathesque kind of ending--moments of brilliance, but overall, unable to make a significant impact on the team’s success.

But who knows, maybe the Suns will get Shak healthy and focus his attention and energy on the playoffs. If they do that and he stays healthy, I like the Suns chances against the Ls with a motivated Shak in the lineup.

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