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For better or worse, debates are an inescapable part of sports fandom. Whether you’re sitting in a bar or scrolling through social media, there are always certain topics that you know will start an argument. One of those, especially in NBA circles, is trying to determine the Association’s all-time GOAT. Even former players, like the legendary Shaquille O’Neal, can’t resist sharing his side of the argument.

From afar, you might think that Shaq would throw his support behind Michael Jordan; His Airness, after all, is one of the default GOAT candidates. Perhaps the big man would pick Kobe Bryant, his iconic running mate, or LeBron James, the Lakers’ current leader. O’Neal didn’t choose any of those men. Instead, he crowned Julius Erving as “the best ever.”

At the risk of assuming, you’re probably pretty surprised and wondering how the Diesel could justify choosing Dr. J ahead of Jordan, James, and Bryant. Allow the big man to explain.

Shaquille O’Neal called both Dr. J and Michael Jordan ‘the best ever’

Thanks to his media work and various commercial endeavors, Shaquille O’Neal is pretty comfortable in the spotlight. That reality means he isn’t afraid to share some of his more controversial opinions. One of those came up on an episode of Revolt’s Drink Champs.

During the conversation, Shaq was asked to compare Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan’s competitive attitudes. That topic led to a discussion of LeBron James and his place in the all-time NBA pantheon, which got the big man thinking about all-time NBA greatness.

“Jordan is the best ever,” O’Neal explained. “To me, Dr. J is the best ever. Cause he started it, and then, you know, came Magic and then Mike. So, I think when we have these conversations, we need to go by eras.”

While that immediate contradiction is a bit confusing, this isn’t the first time Shaq has praised Erving. As documented in a 2015 Sporting News post, the center insisted that Dr. J was the best player he ever saw in addition to his favorite. O’Neal has never been shy about acknowledging to good doctor’s role in his life, recalling how seeing a Knicks- 76ers game set him on the course to success.

With all of that being said, though, the former Laker did pay LeBron James some serious praise, suggesting that he’ll be in the “greatest” conversation after passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time scoring list.

“If somebody is better than me and I passed them up, are they really better than me?” the legendary center wondered aloud. “How can you say you got the dopest yacht when he pull up in a yacht 200 more feet than you? Is your yacht really the top? You got a helicopter pad and all that, but his s*** four floors.”

Shaq does make a good point, even if it gets a bit lost in the larger conversation

NBA legends Dr. J (L), Shaquille O'Neal (C), and Michael Jordan (R)
NBA legends Dr. J, Shaquille O’Neal, and Michael Jordan | Focus on Sport/Getty Images, Brett Hemmings/Getty Images for TLA, Vincent Laforet/AFP via Getty Images

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At times, listening to Shaquille O’Neal can be a bit like riding a roller coaster. There are twists, unexpected asides, and enough insight to keep you coming back for more despite your hesitations. This conversation about NBA greatness was no exception. If you can parse through the twists and turns, the center makes a good point.

In sports, it’s easy to be binary. That’s how the games are largely designed to work, after all. Someone will win, someone will lose, and there’s no debating that result. When it comes to something like the GOAT debate, though, that’s simply impossible. Something that’s subjective can’t be unilaterally decided. There are simply too many factors at play.

Even if we stay within the example of NBA greatness, there are so many facets to consider. You could pick Michael Jordan for his overall dominance and on-court success. Perhaps you want to argue that Kobe Bryant took everything MJ did and built upon it. Maybe you believe that LeBron James was the better overall player, even with his comparative lack of championship rings. Or, like Shaq, you can take a historical perspective and highlight someone like Dr. J, who helped build the NBA we know and love in addition to being a talented player in his own right.

None of those answers are unilaterally wrong. While I’m not trying to say that anyone can be the GOAT if you just believe — picking the eighth man off the bench for the 1983 Cleveland Cavaliers, for example, is a non-starter — there is more for a bit of nuance in these debates. Stats are the easiest and most logical place to start, but you can bring in a historical perspective and other “softer” metrics.

To bring it back to Shaq, there was one point in the discussion where he said, “Just asking. And I love these conversations, all right?” I’d argue that is another sentiment to hone in on.

Again, it’s easy to be binary and think that debates have to be won and lost. As Shaq said, though, discussions about all-time greatness, favorite players, and anything else can be just that: a discussion. Perspectives, ideas, and playful jabs can be exchanged without anyone changing their opinions. And that’s OK, too.

One of the joys of sport is that there are so many different ways to achieve a goal. You can shoot from the outside, bang bodies in the paint, focus on defense and rebounding, and all those players would be useful members of a team. The same can be said about perspectives; one fan’s hero is often another fan’s villain.

Or, to put it another way, if Shaquille O’Neal, someone who we’ve all seen take things personally on TNT, can enjoy the debate and accept that different people will pick different GOATs, we all can afford to chill out a little bit.

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