After 19 seasons, Shaquille O’Neal, aka Shaq, left the game of basketball doing it his way. He announced his retirement with a 15-second clip on the Internet. The “Big Aristotle,” as he often called himself, was always slightly ahead of his time, which ironically is why it’s sad to see him end his career looking every bit of his 39 years of age.
Shaquille O’Neal will go down as one of the great immovable forces to ever play in the NBA. Obviously it starts with his sheer size. He was 7’ 1“ and weighed somewhere over 325 pounds. He was a self-made cultural phenomenon: an athlete, entertainer and businessman. He learned early on how to market and present himself.
Shaq was a rapper who once earned a platinum record, an actor in several mediocre but money making movies and a wanna be law enforcement officer who moonlighted with police departments. His persona, like his physique, was always larger than life. He was also a great quote for reporters, usually saying something interesting or provocative.
The sad part about Shaq’s retirement announcement is that he should have called it quits several years ago while he still bore some resemblance to the player he used to be. We did not need to see him struggle on the basketball court with the Celtics this season, often in great pain, or fail to fit in with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Phoenix Suns. But the fact is that all great athletes are betrayed by their bodies if they play too long.
As much as I praise him, I didn’t always like watching Shaq play because he often seemed to have too much of a physical advantage over everyone else and it seemed he was allowed to literally knock down and run over defenders without being called for a foul. The fouls were usually called on the guys guarding him. It was almost comical. But in fairness it was mostly because Shaq was really good and really huge. Yet what sort of evened the score for those other guys was the fact that Shaq missed lots of those foul shots.
On the other hand, I really liked Shaq the person. How could you not? He could make you laugh and then laugh at himself. At times he was like a big kid. I suppose it was his way of making you overlook his gargantuan size. Further, despite his fame and notoriety, he never did anything to embarrass himself or the game on or off the court.
My first memory of Shaq was seeing him play in the McDonald’s high school all-star game. And I remember analyst Dick Vitale going crazy when this huge unknown kid dribbled the length of the court to throw down a monstrous dunk. I knew, as did Vitale, that this big kid was going to be a special player.
He went on to play at LSU where he was a two-time All-American and college player of the year. After leaving school he was drafted by the Orlando Magic and took them to the NBA Finals against the eventual champions, the Houston Rockets, in 1995. A year later, Shaq moved on to the Los Angeles Lakers where he won three NBA championships in his nine seasons there. Shaq won another championship as a supporting player with the Miami Heat as his career started to decline.
The obvious question at a time like this is where does Shaq rank all time among the great centers? I’ll just say he was one of the best ever – Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Olajuwan and then Shaq. He wasn’t the very best, but he was certainly in the conversation with the great centers I just listed. Shaq won four championships, played in 15 all-star games and leaves the NBA as the fourth leading scorer all-time. But there was one opponent Shaq couldn’t beat – Father Time, which is why he finally said goodbye.