You’ll have to forgive me, but when Shaquille O'Neal retires, my most prominent memory of him probably won't be the image of him in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, proudly clutching his third-consecutive Finals MVP award.
It's not that I’ve forgotten the admiration I once felt toward him.
During the time O'Neal and Kobe Bryant were tearing through the NBA, and forging a new dynastic chapter in Lakers history, I was a 12-year-old kid who had finally just hit his growth spurt. I towered over most of the other kids in my grade, and during recess, I’d block shots and forcibly take my points in the paint.
They dubbed me, “Baby Shaq.”
I remember all those memories fondly, some as vividly as though they had occurred yesterday, but time moves on. Unfortunately, the passing of time includes several negatives, none worse than aging.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes aging can be almost beautiful. Both inside the sports world and out of it, those who accept the inevitable often become admirable, beloved figures.
Think of the way David Robinson quickly adjusted to Tim Duncan’s emergence, eventually even accepting role-player status before winning his second NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003, and walking off into the sunset.
O'Neal, on the other hand, has become increasingly embittered over the years. He has taken the same goofy, comedic antics that endeared him to so many fans earlier in his career, and has made those traits sour and aggressive. In doing so, he’s taken aim at old teammates and coaches alike, making new enemies wherever possible along the way.
I just hope you haven’t blinked during the course of O'Neal's career.
In what seemed like a flash, he went from being one of the most dominant and successful players in the history of the game, to being one of the most bitter, limelight-lusting athletes of all time.
By now, if you’re reading this and haven’t heard of O'Neal's numerous digs at Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy, his Twitter posts insulting everyone from Dwight Howard to Jalen Rose, the alleged stealing of Steve Nash’s TV show idea which led to Shaq’s reality show “Shaq vs.,” or, perhaps most famously, the anally-based rap song in which O'Neal taunted Bryant directly after the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 Finals, then you’ve probably just thawed from being buried under 15 feet of ice in the middle of the Arctic.
Only after O'Neal realized how many people were tiring of his rapper-like-beef instigating antics, did he try to reinvent himself. However, he relegated most of that effort into pretending as though his actions were all marketing ploys.
Even worse, when O'Neal isn’t downplaying every argument or confrontation he’s ever provoked, he’s borderline prostituting himself from team to team, looking for a ride to the NBA Finals.
O'Neal— now a free agent following the Cleveland Cavaliers' unceremonious exit from the playoffs a few weeks ago at the hands of Celtics— is unlikely to be to satisfied with ending his career with the Cavaliers.
But if he did, you’d be able to see karma’s handprints all over the situation. After all, O'Neal's final loss would be at the hands of the same team he had so ruthlessly mocked Bryant for losing to only two years ago.
In a way, the damage O'Neal has done to his own legacy is irreparable.
No matter what he does from this point on, he will never be remembered as fondly or admirably as he would have, had he retired earlier in his career.
If O'Neal is seriously considering holding off retirement for another season, the only way for him to upgrade his status from side-show gimmick to veteran role-player would be to rejoin one of his former teams.
Think about it: how difficult would it be to take O'Neal seriously if he wound up in yet another uniform?
Of the former teams O'Neal does have to pick from, well, I hope you weren’t planning on taking a trip to Disney World anytime soon, because the big guy has burned just about every bridge there is in Orlando.
And I doubt that Miami’s fans, Dwayne Wade, or Pat Riley have forgotten how O'Neal quit on them in 2008. Meanwhile, as far as the Cavaliers are concerned, depending on what LeBron James decides this offseason in his free agency quest, they may become more irrelevant to the NBA than the Seattle SuperSonics.
The process of elimination is a funny thing, isn’t it?
If O'Neal chose not to retire, his only viable remaining option would be to rejoin the Los Angeles Lakers.
Don’t get it twisted, it's not that the Lakers need him.
After all, tonight will officially begin the third consecutive time O'Neal will be watching the Lakers in the Finals from his living room. When you consider that the first of those three years saw a first round elimination, the second didn’t see a single playoff game, and the third may very well be his last season in the NBA, you realize how badly O'Neal needs the Lakers.
Currently, all of O'Neal's ties to the Lakers' franchise and fan base have been severed since the instant he took the stage to throw salt on Bryant’s wounds in 2008. No true Laker, past or present, would dare mock the team or their current leader, particularly not after a loss to those damned Celtics.
If the Lakers win the NBA championship again this year, and O'Neal joined them in the offseason, he would not only have the opportunity to play a role in bringing another three-peat title to the Lakers, he’d at least be building some semblance of a legacy to leave behind.
He’d be a Laker.
It's not that it would be easy for him, even after he arrived in L.A. The Lakers are Bryant’s team now, and the first time that O'Neal would show up to a Lakers practice, or training camp out of shape would be his last.
Even if O'Neal did everything right, on and off the court, kept his mouth shut and contributed solid minutes, it would amount to little if the Lakers fail to win the title.
Still he’d have the chance to reestablish himself and resume adding seasons to his career of which he could actually be proud. On an encouraging note, geography is on O'Neal's side, because the only direction he could possibly go from here is up.
It's not like he can get any worse.