Posted Aug 25 2010 6:10PM
The physics-inspired theory that says what goes up must come down applies to everything except two gravity-challenged items: weight gain and those retired Celtics jerseys hanging in the rafters.
Even Shaquille O'Neal, a devoted follower of Aristotle, would agree to this philosophy. We won't make any jokes about his heft; he can be quite sensitive about that. But with regard to his new team, the Celtics, Shaq has already discovered a change in uniform number will be in order, because of circumstances. He can't wear his usual 33, which was Larry Bird's number. He can't go for 32, his choice in Miami and Phoenix, because it's held in honor of Kevin McHale. And he can't wear the 34 he wore in Los Angeles, because that belongs to the Truth, Paul Pierce.
All of this talk about jersey numbers raises an interesting debate: Will Shaq, surely one of the top five centers of all time, ever have his jersey number retired? And if so, by whom?
He's now on his sixth team; so much for loyalty and spending an entire career in one place, something a number of the all-time greats (Magic, Bird, Russell, etc.) managed to pull off. Arguably, Shaq is the most traveled star of his magnitude in league history. This was due to a variety of reasons, including: wanting too much money to stay in Orlando, Kobe envy (and wanting too much money) in L.A., being a salary dump in Miami, being another salary dump in Phoenix and being too old to keep around while the rebuilding begins in Cleveland.
His travels in his twilight are threatening to parody what has otherwise been an exceptional career. After winning a championship with Dwyane Wade, and then seeing his production fall sharply almost immediately afterward, Shaq has been called a center-for-hire and a piggy-backer (hard to fathom for someone who's 7-foot-1 and listed at 300-plus pounds). The name-calling only intensified when he left the Cavaliers and landed in Boston, where the Big Three have one more run left in the tank.
Mostly, the Celtics need a big body to plug in the lane until Kendrick Perkins recovers from that nasty spill he took in the NBA Finals. So the Celtics signed O'Neal because he's Shaq, a man whose mere presence makes things interesting.
But back to the issue at hand. Assuming that his identity lies mostly with the Lakers, the place where he had the most success, does Shaq qualify as one of the franchise's all-time greats? Should they raise his 34 next to Magic, Kareem, Worthy, et. al? Or do they have to sleep on that a while?
Here's the case against Shaq in L.A., which doesn't sound too convincing: He just wasn't there long enough. Eight years doesn't begin to approach Magic, Kareem, Worthy and West. But it's enough to put Shaq in the ballpark with Gail Goodrich (nine years) and Wilt (five). In fact, Wilt's number was likely retired only because he was a vital member of the historic 1971-72 team that won 33 straight. Wilt was a Warrior, first in Philly, then San Francisco, the places where he put his legend and records out of reach. Not a Laker.
A more valid debate could be who has meant more to Kobe; Shaq or Pau Gasol? We'll revisit that when Gasol retires.
Anyway, Shaq won three of his four championships and his only MVP in L.A. Along with Bryant, who arrived the same year, Shaq reawakened the Lakers when he signed as a free agent in 1996. You can't find an NBA star who won three championships and doesn't have his jersey retired with that team, or won't in the future.
So that settles it. Shaq and Kobe, the two players who created an era and added to the long history of the Lakers, will one day be immortalized right along with Magic and the others. Even Jerry Buss must agree to that. Buss was verbally attacked by Shaq soon after the breakup happened; Shaq accused the Laker owner of playing favorites (which was a wise business move by Dr. Buss, keeping a younger and fitter Kobe) while being angry at the owner for not paying market value. Buss took the high road, and because he doesn't have a history of holding grudges against former players or coaches, he likely won't start with Shaq. Besides, if you're Buss, why be angry at anything or anyone?
In a perfect world, Shaq would still be in a Laker uniform, working on his fifth or sixth championship and happy to be in the shadow of Kobe. You say that never had a chance of happening? Fine.
But maybe someday it will be possible for those two to enjoy each other's company, high above the Staples Center floor, where they'll literally hang out.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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