By Jason Keidel
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Often an athlete makes a bold statement during his sport’s yearly apex out of narcissistic reflex, a way of wrenching the spotlight from where it belongs and shining it on himself.
But in this case, Shaquille O’Neal did the right thing: announcing his retirement during the NBA Finals, while basketball is hot, while the lens is large enough to fit the titanic contours of The Big Aristotle, Cactus, Shamrock…
What didn’t O’Neal do? He took his heft and myriad monikers from Florida to California, and back to Florida, with pit stops in Phoenix, Cleveland, and finally Boston, racking up titles, dollars and followers, sans the nauseating penchant for retrospection. Pro basketball is, after all, entertainment. And Shaq understood that, never mushrooming into one of those highbrow dilettantes who thinks we want to hear their fears over war and peace, or any other me-first mantras that seem to infect the anointed.
His retirement is indeed a formality, as O’Neal hasn’t been Shaq in years. A confluence of physical facts ended his dominance by the time he left Miami. Being 7-foot-1 and 350 lbs. will do that, and O’Neal shared the retired athletes enmity for fitness long before he himself retired yesterday. As we see with steroid users and men too big to need them, the crunch from mountains of meat make on the joints will eventually crush them.
O’Neal retires with all the statistical bona fides for the Hall of Fame – a 15-time All-Star with 28,000 points, 13,000 rebounds, and six appearances in the NBA Finals, winning four, and the MVP of three. Shaquille O’Neal is not just leaving the game; he’s taking a true character with character and perhaps ending the epoch of the volcanic, dynamic, and dominant center.
Women I’ve dated always lament a man’s need for lists. Guilty. I can’t visit the latrine without wondering where it stands with my all-time bathroom breaks.
So…Shaq is third all-time, as I defer to the iconic big men who predate yours truly: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
Of the centers I saw none were better than Shaq. Yes, including Kareem. His Milwaukee title aside, I saw every one of Abdul-Jabbar’s championships and I never sensed Shaq’s hybrid dominance of size, skill, will, and intimidation. Kareem had the best shot ever shot, his sky hook, and the serendipity of getting the ball from the Magician, Earvin Johnson, while James Worthy was always roamed his flank. Frankly, a few centers could have won with them (and Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes, Bob McAdoo, etc.).
Hakeem Olajuwon spanked a young O’Neal in 1995 –and O’Neal was the first to say so – but by the time Shaq took his game to the Lakers he morphed into the irresistible force and the immovable object, literally larger than life, a frame befitting the fictional heroes jumping off a Hollywood screenplay, but without much of the off-court menace that seems to follow stars of his size.
O’Neal learned to bask in the media’s glow without burning in its glare. It is a talent as special as any of his hardwood or Hollywood exploits. Among his peers, only Michael Jordan made a louder and more lucrative splash in the world of pop culture.
Shaq’s music and movies were mediocre, but that wasn’t the point to them, or him. It was the notion that the jocular jock could fit any screen, that, like Jordan, Shaq was family entertainment, one-stop shopping where the behemoth is a brand.
For over a decade, a picture hung from my living room wall, in the apartment where I was raised on 97th Street and Columbus Avenue, before my father moved to Florida. It’s a snapshot of Shaq dunking in an LSU uniform, the rim bending and the backboard begging for mercy. Shaq signed the photo to my dad. Pops said Shaq is about the nicest star he’d ever met, and he met many.
My father is a very close friend of Shaq’s old coach at LSU, Dale Brown. Coach Brown was touring Europe, teaching basketball, circa 1986. On this day Dale Brown was in Germany, on a U.S Army base. Coach tossed the ball to a tall young man, who dunked. Brown asked the young man which branch of the military he was serving. The young man, nearly 7-feet tall, looked down on Dale Brown and said, “Coach, I’m 13.”
Coach Brown, trying to stay calm, his heart pounding his ribs, looked up at the young man and said, “Son, I need to speak with your father.”
That’s how Dale Brown got Shaq to LSU. Shaquille O’Neal did the rest, leaving a legion of fans – of basketball, of sports, of men – grateful he did.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com