Shaquille O’Neal burst onto the NBA stage in the 1992-93 season with the Orlando Magic, many dubbed him the next great big man - rightfully so. Over his career he has put up mammoth numbers with over 28,000 points; 2,600 blocks; and 12,500 rebounds, but it’s what he does when he leaves a team that leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth. We know basketball players have over-inflated egos but Shaq takes it to another level.
In come the summer of 1996 and the Magic an up and coming franchise is putting forth all the effort available to sign their young big man Shaquille O’Neal. The Magic just a year before had lost in the 1995 NBA finals and with a young Penny Hardaway coupled with a 23 year old franchise center in Shaq, were poised to build a dynasty. The Magic, however, would have company in vying for Shaq’s services – the LA Lakers.
Orlando owner Rich DeVos was not interested in a bidding war and made a final offer of 7 years for $115 million. It’s worth mentioning that the summer before Shaq’s rookie year he received tutelage from Lakers great Magic Johnson possibly foreshadowing his eventual move to LA. O’Neal would go on to accept a 7 year $121 million contract with the Lakers leaving Orlando behind.
Although he claimed it wasn’t about the money in the end he took the bigger deal and left the Magic in a rebuilding mode. Shaq after accepting the deal would go on to say “The Los Angeles Lakers gave me a good, fair deal, but money was not the main factor. I just want to go have fun, be young, drink Pepsi, and wear Reebok." This quote pretty much defines Shaq’s career in a nutshell and where his priorities stood and continue to stand.
Shaq would spend the next eight years of his career with the Lakers compiling three NBA championship rings, three NBA Final MVP trophies, and the 2000 league MVP trophy. Even this great marriage would end in a bitter divorce. Shaq’s ego was too much for Kobe, his teammate, and would lead to the Lakers putting him on the trading block. In 2004 Shaq and Kobe both got their wish, with O’Neal wearing out his welcome, he gets traded to Miami for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Brian Grant.
Shaq would not leave quietly though. He would have plenty to say about Kobe and the Lakers: “I don’t know their names. Their names have been erased from my memory banks. If I tried to bring ‘em back, I’d get shocked” (Referring to the two or three people in L.A. who he didn’t miss), and my personal favorite “If you’ve got a Corvette that runs into a brick wall, you know what’s going to happen. He’s a Corvette. I’m a brick wall” (referring to playing against Kobe). Despite all the bad Miami welcomed him because of all the good he could bring to the team and organization.
Instantly O’Neal injected life into a great franchise hungry for their first championship. He would go as far as to guarantee a championship; a promise he fulfilled in 2006, thanks in part to a superstar in the making- Dwyane Wade. The year after Shaq suffered through injuries which would lead to the Heat struggling to make the playoffs. To make matters worse Wade their newly budding superstar suffered a terrible injury; dislocating his shoulder. This left Shaq to carry the team on his back late in the season and although Wade returned in time for the playoffs he was just not himself and the Heat were eliminated by Chicago in the first round. This marked the first time Shaq did not advance past the first round of the playoffs.
Shaq’s ego took a big hit and would worsen the following year when the Heat began the year below five hundred prompting O’Neal to ask for yet another trade. Not only did the franchise comply with his requests but they traded him to a contender- Phoenix. Still Shaq upon leaving would take a shot at Ricky Davis, Pat Riley and the Heat organization.
In Phoenix, Shaq could not help but flaunt his over sized ego. Shaq was asked about Phoenix and what made them different from Miami, he replied “We (Phoenix) have professionals who know what to do,” “No one is asking me to play with Chris Quinn or Ricky Davis. I’m actually on a team again.” He would also play to the group of reporters there and dub himself the “Big Cactus.” Shaq predictably would overstay his welcome criticizing ownership and their “inability” to spend money to win after failed attempts at a championship. Funny considering upon arrival he mentioned that the Suns had professionals that knew what they were doing.
Eventually he would get traded to the Cavaliers where again another franchise fell for his act, and who could blame them he talks the talk, the trick is getting him to shut up. By this time most of the league and media find it hard to believe what he says but Cleveland desperate to win a title in order to entice their superstar LeBron James from leaving were willing to try anything. Shaq even said “My motto is very simple: Win a Ring for the King," a feat he would not be able to deliver. With LeBron leaving Cleveland there was no reason for Shaq to stay since his motto was to “win a ring for the king.” This left him testing the free agent market and eventually landing with the Celtics for the veteran’s minimum.
O’Neal was always more concerned about his celebrity status more so then the game of basketball. It’s a bold statement to make, especially when you look at the numbers, but one could argue that he never reached his full potential. O’Neal in his 18 year career has missed a total of 306 games; an average of 17 games a year. Most of those missed games came after his third year in the NBA. His first three years he never played less then 79 games. His fourth year he played a total of 54 games and from then on would have a career plagued with injury.
When you talk about Shaq and whether he fulfilled his potential you have to go back to his conditioning. Shaq should have concerned himself with staying in shape rather then worry about his life off the court which included everything from rapping to acting. Take Dwight Howard for example, yes he is a highly marketable player but he continues to work every off-season on his game and conditioning. If Shaq would have demonstrated the same work ethic that Howard exemplifies we could very well be talking about Shaq as the best big man to ever play the game. Instead he is considered one of the best, but not the best.
The conscientious opinion today is that Shaq doesn’t know when to shut the hell up. He has burned every bridge he has ever crossed. So, you have to ask, what is Boston thinking? The Celtics have to hope that in the twilight of his career “Kazaam” has one more wish he could grant an aging yet talented team. Unfortunately similar to every other professional relationship, expect a bitter ending.