Shaquille O'Neal: In Like a Lion, out Like a Lamb: The Thrill That Was Shaq
“The Big Aristotle,” “Diesel,” “Big Daddy,” “Superman,” “The Big Shaqtus,” “The Big Shamrock”…
By any name, there will never be another NBA player quite like Shaquille O’Neal. 7’1’’, 325-plus pounds, O’Neal was a one man wrecking crew for the vast part of a 19-year career that garnered four NBA titles, three consecutive Finals MVP’s (2000-2002), a league MVP (2000) and 15 NBA All-Star appearances.
The Orlando Magic chose O’Neal No. 1 overall in 1992 from Louisiana State University, where he would quickly go on to change the fortunes of franchise struggling for respectability, let alone a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Diesel would win Rookie of the Year honors in his first season averaging nearly 24 points, 14 rebounds and a shade under four blocks per game.
After making the playoffs for the first time in 1993, the team led by Shaq would find its way to the NBA Finals the following year. Despite being bounced by the Houston Rockets in four straight games, O’Neal averaged nearly 30 points a game and shot a sizzling 60 percent from the field.
While recent memory has us analyzing the hoopla over LeBron’s “Decision,” Shaq took his talents to Tinseltown, signing a seven-year, $121 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. The choice of signing with the Lake Show, according to O’Neal, was in large part fueled because of a growing rift between Orlando’s management and in retrospect, short-sidedness in underestimating his impact on the team.
It would be in Los Angeles where Shaq became a force of nature, particularly after the addition of Phil Jackson and drafting of Kobe Bryant. O’Neal would become a complete player in Jackson’s triangle, winning three straight titles and cementing his place in NBA history.
Injuries, a once impressive physique that was getting softer by the day and rifts between, Jerry Buss, Mitch Kupchak and Kobe Bryant would eventually force a trade to Miami. Early retirement. We gave up on him, shocked when he took the podium grabbed the mike and declared he would bring a championship to South Beach.
Right when we thought he was through, O’Neal delivered in 2006, with a cast of characters that included Dwyane Wade, Jason Williams, Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning and Pat Riley. It was if O’Neal, like Samson of biblical lore, asked for one more act of strength in helping to will that team when he could.
The proof was positive. The Heat were barely over .500 in games he didn’t play in 2006. Even the incomparable Michael Jordan didn’t have a second act worthy of delivering a title so unexpected.
O’Neal would spent the next three years being shipped to Phoenix and Cleveland before signing with Boston in 2010. A few moments showed the brilliance of the player he was, but too often, he was known more for what he said off the court that what he did on it.
After this season, where he was a mere footnote for the Celtics, O’Neal knew it was time to move on. Now you wonder which former Lakers center will get a statue outside of Staples Center. Perhaps if they put one outside American Airlines Arena, the sheer size of them both on each coast will help balance out a nation that continues to find itself often polarized. One can only dream.
Shaq wasn’t a perfect guy, but he was always good for a quote. Some of his stuff was downright funny, such as comparing to the triangle offense to the Pythagorean Theorem. Other comments were borderline profane like the time he gave a backhanded compliment to Yao Ming while doing kung fu moves.
Like him or hate him, whether he was training for an MMA fight, starring in Blue Chips and Kazaam, rapping as Shaq Diesel or telling Kobe to taste his backside, O’Neal has etched his image permanently in the American sports landscape and brought back the big guy who isn’t afraid to have fun and laugh at himself.
I have a lot of favorite Shaq moments. If I had to pick one, it would be from Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals against the Portland Trailblazers. Less than a minute left, Kobe passing, Shaq catching and alley-ooping, beginning the Lakers drive to three straight titles. Shaq, arms outstretched pointing to the crowd in absolute, definitive unbridled joy.
In some ways, as I’m sitting here smiling, I find it kind of ironic that a guy who reminds us so much of a lion, leaves out today much like a lamb.
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