There is no doubt that Shaquille O’Neal’s place in hoops history was cemented long ago. His four rings, three Finals MVP trophies and #5 spot on the all-time scoring list all but guarantee a Hall call in the near future. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment of all was his ability to transcend Wilt Chamberlain’s infamous belief that “nobody roots for Goliath”.
Say what you will of Shaq. Over the years he’s done as much entertaining as he has enraging. His playful antics have long toed the line between good humor and immature behavior. A favorite of the press O’Neal spit out more memorable quotes than Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson combined. It was this very love affair with the press that also helped endear Shaq to the public.
Whereas most athletes are either too proud to be honest or just too cool to speak freely, O’Neal was a breath of fresh air even if sometimes that air was more polluted than an MTA bus yard.
Sure, Shaq has his moments of madness where his nature got the better of him.
During the infamous beef with Kobe, Shaq showed his immature side more often than not. Instead of taking the high road like the self-proclaimed leader of the Lakers he was, O’Neal stooped down to the level of an immature budding superstar.
Off court problems aside, when it came down to taking care of business no twosome was as dominant as Kobe and Shaq. Therein lies the beauty of Shaq’s basketball genius.
He never had Bryant’s work ethic. This drove Lakers faithful mad. Just thinking of what could have been had Shaq honored his annual proclamation of coming back in shape only to spend his summers gaining weight forever haunts this Laker fan.
Funny thing is what actually was become known as modern hoops dynasty unlike any other. During the three-peat that ushered in the new millennium the Lakers took on Shaq’s approach to the game. The first title featured a team that romped through the regular season before facing almost certain defeat at the hands of the Portland Trailblazers. We all know about the fourth quarter comeback that sparked a dynasty. We all remember Kobe’s lob to Shaq that ultimately symbolized the new era Lakers.
What we tend to forget is that every year after that first title the Lakers slacked more and more during the regular season.
The second title seemed unlikely as the Kobe and Shaq feud reached a boiling point that threatened to ruin the budding dynasty before it even got legs. Then a funny thing happened once the playoffs began as the Lakers morphed into one of the most dominant teams in the history of postseason hoops. Were it not for Allen Iverson’s heroics in Game 1 one of the Finals, the Lakers would have made a perfect trip through the playoffs.
Much like the previous year the Lakers again began their quest to three-peat with another uninspired season seeing homecourt fall by the wayside. Yet low and behold there were Kobe and Shaq again raising the Larry O’Brien for a third straight year.
Those teams embodied Shaq’s focus which shifted from disinterested to dominant seemingly at the flip of a switch.
In his prime there was no athlete like Shaquille O’Neal. His stat lines were eye popping. His game was unstoppable. His greatness places him above by any big man in recent history and perhaps in the discussion of G.O.A.T. at the center position.
However, many Laker fans will only think of what could have been had Shaq taken Kobe’s approach in preparation. Putting off surgeries, unable to remain healthy, demanding a new contract, all of the above put Shaq in a bad place. His ego got the best of him and ultimately created his exodus from L.A.
In typical Shaq fashion he showed up in Miami ready for the challenge of preserving his legacy. While the new fit and in shape O’Neal was a far cry from the dominant Shaq of the past, he was instrumental in helping the Heat to their first title.
From there out it was one stop after another as Shaq clung to his legacy making stops in Phoenix, Cleveland and finally Boston in hopes of getting another ring.
That fifth ring never came to be. Laker fans such as myself can’t help but think he could have had five rings here in L.A. had he just taken a more sensible approach to his offseason condition.
But such is the nature of Laker fans. We want all we can get. Such is also the nature of Shaquille who seemed content to take what he could, never overextending for the impossible. That is the stark difference between Kobe and Shaq. Kobe is unafraid to chase the impossible even if failure looms large. Shaq played it safe, only putting his chips on certain bets.
None the less, we all rooted for Shaq.
While Wilt felt his dominance was frowned upon, Shaq’s bullying nature was beloved.
We loved it when Shaq caught the ball with two feet in the paint. You knew what was coming next could result in a backboard being broken.
We couldn’t get enough of seeing him treat his fellow 7-footers like ragdolls.
But what made Shaq so unique his game wasn’t all predicated on his size. Shaq could put the ball of the floor and face up almost as comfortably as he did with his back to the hoop – just ask Jerome James.
My opinions of Shaq are varied. I’m in the camp that believes we could have seen a dynasty unrivaled by any other had Shaq taken a more business like approach off the court. But at the same time I couldn’t be more grateful that he helped to resurrect the legacy of Laker big men while reinvigorating a franchise that had endured a title-less decade in the 90’s.
Shaquille O’Neal was always the exception to the rule. On the heels of a Michael Jordan dominated era where perimeter play was the rage Shaq returned the game to its essence and made post play sexy again. He was the Goliath we all rooted for.
While I feel his retirement came about five years too late I can’t help but think we’ll never see another like Shaquille O’Neal. Despite all the turmoil the only memories I’ll have of Shaq are forever hanging in Staples where his #34 will soon be on display for no other Laker to ever wear again.
Thanks for everything, Shaq. You brought the Lakers back to dominance and for that I’m forever grateful.