Today I’m breaking from my typical D-League focus to reflect on the retirement of one of my favorite players growing up, Shaquille O’Neal. Often I try to separate my fandom from my writing. This is not one of those times.
Do you want me to shoot it? (No!)
Do you want me to pass it? (No!)
Do you want me to retire? (Yes and no.)
Lyric scholars will note that the third line is not taken verbatim from Shaquille O’Neal’s “Shoot Pass Slam,” but I wanted to dedicate a post to bid adieu to Shaq after he announced his retirement yesterday via Tout. It was time for Shaq to retire. You could argue that he should have retired after his time in Phoenix or Cleveland. But I will remember Shaq as a Celtic even less than I will remember Michael Jordan as a Wizard.
O’Neal entered the NBA in 1992. I was 8 years old. Unlike Magic and Bird, who debuted the same year my parents got married or Jordan, who entered the league the year I was born, Shaq was a superstar growing up in the NBA as I was growing up in the real world. I’ve always been a Lakers fan, but when Shaq was drafted by Orlando, the Magic immediately became my number two team. A #32 poster hung on my bedroom wall with O’Neal dunking ferociously—no one attacked the rim like young Shaq. I bought his rap debut Shaq Diesel on cassette tape. I loved him Blue Chips, and I even kind of liked Kazaam.
When he signed with the Lakers in 1996, I was ecstatic. My team hadn’t been title contenders since Magic Johnson retired, but the acquisition of the most dominant force in the NBA (since Wilt Chamberlain?) put L.A. right in the thick of things. It wasn’t until Phil Jackson came along and a kid named Kobe came into his own that the Lakers finally broke through in 2000, but it was O’Neal’s presence in the middle that led that Lakers team. In a highlight-filled career, this play, which put the exclamation point on a Game 7 comeback against Portland in the Western Conference Finals, may be my personal favorite Shaq moment—leaping for the alley-oop pass, throwing it down with authority, and then celebrating on the way back down the court like only he can.
That was Shaq in a nutshell: part NBA superstar, part Hollywood entertainer. He wasn’t a great actor or rapper, but he was a great entertainer as much as he was a great athlete, and he always embraced both, sometimes to a fault. Athletically, we’ve never seen anything like him before or since. No one that big and that strong should be able to move that fast or be that agile. Seriously, watch young Shaq and refresh your memory. Before boredom/laziness/old age kicked in, there was simply no answer for Shaq (other than to foul him of course). And foul him, they did. No one took more punishment on a game-to-game basis than O’Neal. He dished out his share of contact as well, but the Hack-a-Shaq strategy was invented long before the goal was to intentionally send him to the line.
When Shaq and Kobe’s feud escalated to the point where O’Neal was traded to Miami, I took Shaq’s side. I remained a Lakers fan, but vowed that it was a mistake to trade O’Neal and felt both vindication and resentment when he won his fourth title in colors other than purple and gold. As Shaq’s basketball ability began to diminish, he became a nomad, spending brief stints in Phoenix, Cleveland, and finally Boston. Each stop was accompanied by a hope that there was still some Magic Shaq left in that old silk hat they’d signed, but the Diesel was running on empty. Even teamed with Steve Nash, LeBron James, and Boston’s Big 3, O’Neal just wasn’t the same player that had dominated the league back in the early 2000s. He was, however, the same entertainer. From his reality TV show Shaq Vs. to his nearly 4 million followers on Twitter, Shaq is—if not larger than life—certainly bigger than basketball.
He won’t go down in history as the greatest player in NBA history. People will always say he should have won more rings (and he probably should have). Though the answer varies as to who is the number one center of all time, most people probably won’t put O’Neal’s name atop that list either. Still, at his peak, Shaq was as dominant as anyone and so much fun to watch, listen to and—I can only imagine—to be around.
I don’t know what Shaq’s plans are now. I could see him going the Charles Barkley route and becoming a mainstay analyst on one of the networks covering the NBA. Or I could see him hosting his own show, which might not even be about basketball or the NBA. Whatever he does, I expect it to be public and entertaining. I don’t think Shaq would want it any other way.