It Won’t Be The Same Without Shaq

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - June 08, 2011
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Shaquille O’Neal (right) of the Miami heat and LeBron James of the Cleveland cavaliers danced during the 2007 NBA all-star basketball practice in Las Vegas. AP photo/Kevork Djansezian

Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t Kareem, Wilt, Hakeem or Russell. Take away the differences in eras and he may not have been as good as George Mikan, whose dominance led to a widened lane to lessen his impact.

Arguments also can be made for comparable players such as Moses Malone and Elvin Hayes. But Shaq-Fu was unlike any who came before and likely any who will follow. Shaq wasn’t just a basketball player, he was an event.

Had he been less concerned with entertainment he would likely have been a better player, but a less memorable athlete. To see Shaq up close was to see someone almost too big to be human. To sit across from him at a press conference was to see a show - equal parts intimidation, hilarity, thought-provoking commentary, but always entertaining. He was Chamberlin in body and Magic Johnson in personality - just more of both. With expert comedic timing and the ability to provide the punchline or take on the role of straight man, O’Neal was the game’s court jester reminding us sport, even at the highest level, is supposed to be fun.

Of course, sometimes even a clown’s act can wear thin. Shaq could never seem to leave a city without burning a few bridges. He called Orlando a dried up little pond after he left for Los Angeles. And he said he never respected coach Brian Hill. Of course he had run-ins with Penny Hardaway just like he would with Kobe Bryant a few years later. Problems with Phil Jackson and Pat Riley would follow, along with his one-sided disgust of Dwight Howard copying his comic book persona.

While it sounds strange to say the 15-time All Star underachieved on the court, O’Neal could have - and probably should have - accomplished even more. He led the league in scoring just twice and never in rebounds or blocked shots, even though he had a physical advantage over everyone he played against.

To be fair, part of that was due to playing with capable supporting casts and being the most difficult player to officiate. Post play is all about position, and advantages are gained with a nudge here and an elbow there, but because of his size Shaq often couldn’t get away with such devices while such efforts by smaller big men went uncalled.

Shaq’s conditioning and his inability to control his weight also cost him the chance to achieve his ultimate goal: to be the best center in NBA history.

Much like another comical and competitive force of nature, Babe Ruth, O’Neal is known as the jolly fat man and it is forgotten that as a younger man he was an incredibly versatile athlete. Nearly as quick as he was big, O’Neal was the best ball-handling big man in history. Never had Kareem or Russell dreamed of going solo coast-to-coast or even leading a fast break. For a time, Shaq did it with ease. But as his weight crept up to nearly 400 pounds, his game suffered and his body eventually broke down.

O’Neal was bigger, stronger, funnier and more quotable than any of the aforementioned 5s, but what separates him from his athletic peers is his open appreciation for and work with law enforcement, and his commitment to education. While too many athletes and their supporters see academics as just a necessary evil on their way to athletic glory, Shaq has always been quick to discuss the importance of education. The Big Aristotle is currently working on his Ph.D. in human resource development at Berry University in Miami.

He said he will spend the next few months working on his dissertation, and from then on ... who knows?

During an interview with Ahmad Rashad at the beginning of the season, O’Neal said he hoped to play two more seasons then retire without regrets.

He left on his own terms, saying goodbye with a laugh-filled press conference.

Shaq said he will miss the competition, the media, teammates and free throws. He’s retiring his nicknames and will now just be known as The Big AARP.

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