The 1993-1994 NBA season witnessed one of the greatest individual statistical battles in recent memory – waged between one of the league’s all-time extroverts and one of its least assuming superstars.
Shaquille O’Neal’s second NBA season was in many respects everything that the league was looking for – obscene highlights, rim shattering dunks and a scoring average which had him leading the league for the majority of the season. He was the “Air Apparent” – the post-Jordan, ready-for-prime-time, commercial superstar who would take the mantle as the face of the league and carry on Jordan’s legacy. Having just won the Rookie of the Year, it was now seemingly time for Shaq to take on individual and team based success – and start to amass some of the hardware and statistical proof points which would ultimately be needed to ascend beyond the level of “very good” player into global icon.
Unfortunately for seemingly everyone, David Robinson, the ultimate team player and a man seemingly immune to individual statistical ambition, would not yield to the quickly amassing momentum on Shaq Diesel – making the race for the 1993-94 scoring title one of the most dramatic individual competitions in the league’s last 20 years.
If you’ll allow me to digress momentarily: as a child, The Admiral was my guy. For whatever reason as an 11 year old, I latched on to him. Maybe it was because I opened his basketball card in a pack of NBA Hoops and was impressed with it. Maybe it was his incredible physique or wild highlights we saw on NBA action each Sunday morning. Or maybe it was the fact that he (like me) was a tall guy who played centre. While my friends were all busy collecting Jordan, Shaq, Kemp and Barkley cards, I had a folder full of Robinson – the unfashionable choice at an age when the burgeoning trend of NBA fandom was coinciding with a literal coming of age for my peergroup and I.
As such, I was frequently the Admiral defender in the school yard. A big Larry Johnson dunk or gaudy stats on the back of an Olajuwon basketball card would bring out the naysayers, but I wouldn’t budge. Did you know he achieved a 1500 on his SAT? Did you know he deferred his NBA career to serve out his mandatory Naval service? This guy is amazing… didn’t matter. The fickle, flash driven whims of prepubescent boys had no time for such solid and unspectacular curios – I was alone on Admiral Island.
As such, the 1993-94 scoring race had a particularly personal relevance for me. Scoring, as we all know, is the most important thing to 90% of fans, much less pre-teens whose access to the NBA was little more than highlights, the occasional article and box scores in Australian newspapers. With my Admiral going up against everyone’s Shaq, I felt like it was my personal pride on the line – if the Admiral could win this, the most selfish and Un-David Robinson statistical race conceivable, this would finally prove that he was the superior NBA player I always championed him to be.
From the first tip it was on. Robinson bettered 30 points in four of his first five outings, while Shaq flew out: scoring 42 in the season opener against the Heat, 36 the following night against Philadelphia and 37 against Indiana a few days later. And so set the tone for the season as the two centres traded disgusting stat lines which by today’s standards are virtually unconscionable.
As the season progressed, the two went point for point with neither willing nor able to put the other away. Shaq was emerging into the iconic player we all knew he would become, while the Admiral was amassing the greatest statistical season of his hall of fame career.
David hangs 43 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists on the T’Wolves in November. Shaq joins the 5×5 club in December with 30 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 8 steals and 6 blocks against Boston.
Shaq goes for 40/19/4 against the Clippers in January? David makes history with a 34/10/10/10 against Detroit – becoming one of only four players ever to notch the elusive quadruple double.
David goes 48/16/6/4 in March? Shaq puts up 34/21/5 against Dallas, 30/16/4 against the Knicks in March.
As the final game of the season approached, the two first overall draft and future MVPs ramped up the scoring race even further. Shaq’s final month was extremely strong – etching more than 30 in the scorer’s books six times in ten games. This included two 40+ point games against Detroit and Boston. However what many perceived to be the coup de grace came against Minnesota on the second to last game of the season. Shaq torched the Wolves for 53 (and 18 rebounds for fun), a season scoring high and psychological blow against the Admiral.
Robinson now faced a singular challenge – score 33 points in the final game of the season to claim the scoring title from the sophomore superstar. An uncomfortably high total, even for someone capable of putting up so many throughout the season. So as the game rolled around, general expecations, even from me, the ever optimistic 11 year old, were relatively low.
Even now the figure strikes you when you look at the box score. 71. Surely that’s games played or some advanced statistic encroaching on the points column? But, no. Look again and there it is. Seventy one – write it out to appreciate its significance.
Jordan never exceeded 69. Bird, Magic, Malone, Ewing? Not even close. Not until Kobe’s free-throw-laden effort against the hapless Raptors would another NBA player exceed this figure. For a player who prided himself on team oriented ball and selfless dedication to defense and all around play, this was David Robinson’s fuck you moment. With each hoop, he declared his physical and mental gifts, smiting those who would claim he was too nice (even if he was) and needed to take over games more (even if he often did).
Now as then, I look back on the last day of the 1994 NBA season with irrational joy and pleasure. In the NBA magazines through the following months I could point to the big seven-one sitting on the page and bask in validation. For once, the unassuming superstar I had adopted with such vigour, was atop the individual basketball world – and on some level, I stood next to him.
James Wright is an editor at New Albion.