Upon signing with the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 1996, Shaquille O’Neal had unprecedented access to two of its greatest players: Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The two icons spent a couple of training sessions with O’Neal. Unfortunately, they weren’t impressed with the Big Diesel.
Johnson, who was just a year removed from professional ball then, quickly pointed out Shaq’s glaring weakness: free throws. He compared O’Neal to former teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who he claimed was a solid free-throw shooter even in the clutch.
“Everybody in the league knows to foul Shaq. Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was a clutch free throw shooter. He wanted it at the end,” Magic said, per Sports Illustrated.
Facts support Magic’s claims, of course. Abdul-Jabbar was a career 72.1% shooter from the charity stripe. In Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals, Abdul-Jabar hit clutch free throws to tie the series at three games apiece.
Speaking of Kareem, he also had some spicy words for Shaq’s game. From his observation, Shaq didn’t have the finesse that Kareem possessed. The other aspects of his game were good. But Kareem couldn’t help but get finicky with big men who lacked a soft touch.
“He doesn’t have a good touch with the ball. Any shot that he takes from more than two feet that he can’t jam seems to lack touch. He’s not selfish, he plays hard, he plays for the team, but there’s just not much progress with the soft touch,” Kareem said.
Turned out pretty well
Safe to say that Magic and Kareem’s comments didn’t age well. While Shaq still struggled from the free throw line, he still took home four titles which included a three-peat. En route to his titles, Shaq missed many free throws but also made some crucial ones. As always, there’s a tinge of regret surrounding O’Neal, free throws, and titles. If he would’ve been at least a 60% or 70%t free-throw shooter, many believe he would’ve averaged 40 or 50 points per game and taken home more championships.
With regard to Kareem’s reading of Shaq’s game, the Big Diesel also didn’t become a center that relied on finesse. From the looks of it, Kareem wanted Shaq to become his spitting image. As great as Kareem was, he lacked the foresight that a center that relied solely on power could dominate the game. Perhaps the great lesson here is coaches should develop a player’s inherent skill and not try to turn him into what he’s not.