Article by Ryan Cook
The retiring Shaquille O’Neal hasn’t done the NBA any favors. In fact, he’s only further dug David Stern a hole the size of a wishing well, and wrenched the pale of good fortune right from his gritty hands.
Yeah, they don’t call him The Big Leprechaun for nothing.
On Friday, I sat and watched the 39 year old version of Shaq encapsulate the media. He was funny, and he was sad, both at the same time. It’s as if somehow Shaq has found a way to multitask his emotions. Not at all uncharacteristic of a man who so feverishly shattered so many backboards, while also granting Stan Van Gundy a social tongue whipping.
Of course, this was after he gave a heartwarming farewell from his own home via Twitter. Most of us knew this was going to be Shaq’s last hurrah in the NBA, but I refused to believe it – almost as if Brett Favre’s last ditch attempt at fame gave any aging superstar hope for at least one more fighting season.
But I can – and hopefully always will – remember the first time I watched Shaq play, though. It wasn’t all that long ago, actually. In reality, I was a Shaq virgin up until 2004 – the year he signed with the Miami Heat. There was always something exciting about a big man and a little man (in this case Dwyane Wade), that almost reminded me of some kind of absurd children’s movie. I think most people got that impression too when ‘Big Baby’ Glen Davis and Nate Robinson were so flamboyant in the 2010 Finals.
After the spark was initially lit, however, Shaq then went on to win his fourth championship in South Beach, the last time I’d ever see the big man truly weep with joy. In later years it was all about the San Antonio Spurs. Kobe Bryant’s glory days with Phil Jax. Or, the ever so riveting “choke” hysteria surrounding Queen James.
There are many more great moments I can remember when I think of Shaq, though. Like when he originally signed with Boston at the beginning of last season, I remember thinking “Hey, this could actually work”. You know, when I actually considered Danny Ainge to be a free agent wizard (how foolish of me).Still, you can’t blame me, especially after the way the Celtics opened up the 2011 season. But then things went bad. Shaq started to look messy. He ran out of canter. And it almost resembled the final days of Michael Jordan before it all came to a close.
Speaking of Jordan, it’s a shame Shaq will never be mentioned in the same sentence – let alone the same dictionary definition of the word “great”. If the NBA has one sole enemy, its player comparisons – a lame horse that needs to be put to sleep. But if there is a comparison worth making, it’s between Shaq and M.J.
After the Bulls were so dominant in the 90s, Shaq and Kobe were the M.J and Pippen of the 2000s. Bill Russell still sits idly by with the same smug smile on his face as his championship eight-peat remains untouched, but if anyone came close to slaying the beast, it was Shaq and Kobe.
There are other important milestones to take notes on here, too. Shaq ranks fifth in the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He’s quite possibly the greatest defensive player over 325 pounds to ever lace up. He’s also a three time NBA scoring champion. And… he’s interested in law enforcement.
Grade A citizen and more some.
But for all of Shaq’s accomplishments, there’s a lot he missed out on as well. His free throw percentage cost him more than just a couple of points towards his overall scoring tally. For the minutes he played, at least in the later stages of his career, it’s fair to say that Shaq could’ve played for another two years at the very minimum. And perhaps after enduring so many minor nicks and bruises, Shaq probably cost all six of his teams a game or two either way. (Laker fans are still debating that one).
Yet if there is a memory that I can always carry with me, it’s Shaq’s final “pop” play in Boston during this year’s playoffs. No, it’s not that I can’t remember any other Shaquille O’Neal highlights off the top of my head. Heck, there’s plenty to choose from. It’s the fact that for a veteran player, seeing his final layup light up the TD Garden – an arena that is so energetic during playoff time – was truly a sight for any young NBA fan no matter how routine it was.
But to me, the very end of that play made it great. Shaq’s very last gallop down the hard wood almost followed in the footsteps of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and was it sure to be, Paul Pierce one day. And even though his time in Boston featured only so much as a few lazy layups, a human statue and his usual video camera antics, it was the right way for Shaq to ride into the sunset.
So when your kids ask what’s wrong with today’s NBA, make sure you reference Shaq. Make sure you reference Ray Allen. Make sure you reference Kevin Garnett. Make sure you reference Paul Pierce. Make sure you reference Vince Carter. And make sure you reference Steve Nash.
Because when they’re all gone, what’s left?
A whole lot of fouls and a whole lot of silver-spoon fed superstars.
Shaq-Zilla will be missed. So will Superman, Big Diesel and the rest of his nickname entourage, or whatever you want to call it.
Ironically, he will be missed just like his free throws.