Posted Aug 6 2010 1:04PM
A sportswriting friend, early in his career, asked an old-timer how he had enjoyed his professional lifetime of covering games, interviewing characters and ducking wet towels. "Well, the first 25 years were great," the geezer said, face lighting up for an instant.
Then came the shrug: "After that, meh."
It wasn't that the fellow lost interest. It was that his bosses started moving furniture around, discovering new phenoms (of the sort he had been back in the day) and taking the veteran a bit for granted.
It's a career arc with which many people are familiar, and now it is Shaquille O'Neal's too.
And it is OK.
Gold watches and comfortable pensions after 30 or 40 years with one employer are largely relics for many of us, replaced out of necessity by a scramble for health insurance and enough cash to pay down the mortgage before the tap gets turned off completely. Sometimes, for the lucky ones, it's a love of their work that enables them to transfer their passion to a seemingly lesser role.
In O'Neal's case, those 30 or 40 years for a working citizen are the equivalent of his 18 NBA seasons. He is the geezer now. And maybe -- given his willingness to sign with the Boston Celtics for a two-year veteran's minimum deal worth about $2.8 million -- you feel like poking fun ("The Big Suitcase") or shaking your head over the churning on the big man's resume here in his twilight.
Well, poke and shake away. But O'Neal has nothing to apologize for when it comes to hanging on or playing hide 'n' seek with all his yellow mail-forwarding labels.
Instead, he has plenty of company:
• Robert Parish: Charlotte Hornets, 1994-96; Chicago Bulls, 1996-97.
• Karl Malone: Los Angeles Lakers, 2003-04.
• Gary Payton: Milwaukee Bucks, 2002-03; L.A. Lakers, 2003-04; Boston Celtics, 2004-05; Miami Heat, 2005-07.
• Scottie Pippen: Houston Rockets, 1998-99; Portland Trail Blazers, 1999-2003; Chicago Bulls, 2003-04.
• Allen Iverson: Denver Nuggets, 2006-08; Detroit Pistons, 2008-09; Memphis Grizzlies, 2009; Philadelphia 76ers, 2009-10.
• Nate Thurmond: Chicago Bulls, 1974-75; Cleveland Cavaliers, 1975-77.
• Hakeem Olajuwon: Toronto Raptors, 2001-02.
• Patrick Ewing: Seattle SuperSonics, 2000-01; Orlando Magic, 2001-02.
• Bill Walton: Boston Celtics, 1985-87.
• Michael Jordan: Washington Wizards, 2001-03.
All current or soon-to-be Hall of Famers. All identified with particular franchises. All enduring a little end-of-career churning, by their hands or someone else's.
Some of their twilights worked out better than others. Payton got his championship ring with the Heat, Walton got his second with the Celtics. Thurmond was regarded highly enough (for his character more than his 5.0 ppg and 6.3 rpg in 114 games) in two seasons with the Cavaliers to have his jersey number retired. The others? Yeah, not so much.
Yet they stuck around, chasing rings, honoring contracts, clutching at paydays. Driven by pride or ego or curiosity or habit or a fear of what might come next. Or maybe -- sappy as it might sound in a world where every motive just has to have an angle -- by a love for the game, the satisfaction that it still brings, the camaraderie and identity that it provides, a sense that they still can compete and the desire to remain an "am" rather than become a "was."
At a certain point, at a certain level, we all become was. Many of us can't wait till we get there, to clock out for the last time and drink that second cup of coffee from home. O'Neal isn't ready to go and for that, regardless of his reasons, I'm glad.
He can't be playing just for the money, not after NBA career earnings of more than $290 million and several Brinks trucks' more in off-court cash flow. It had to be humbling for O'Neal to scrounge for a job this summer while the brightest free-agent spotlight in league history shone on others. It might even be irritating for him to make less than most NBA players next season (and less than a third what Darko Milicic will pull in). But it's unlikely we'll hear a peep from O'Neal ever again about his salary.
He's not hanging around for any individual milestones that we know of. With 28,255 points, O'Neal ranks seventh on the all-time NBA/ABA scoring list and is unlikely to catch Moses Malone (29,580), much less crack 30,000. He is No. 15 in total rebounds (12,921) and probably won't reach the Top 10 (Walt Bellamy, 14,241).
Ego? Sure, O'Neal might be lingering because of that. Perhaps he wants a farewell tour in 2011-12 like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving got in their final seasons, something few on the list above ever got. Maybe Shaq or his advisors feel he needs to remain an active player as a platform for all his extra-curriculars.
Whatever The Big Shillelagh's reasons -- you'd prefer Shaq 'N' Begorrah? -- and his takeaway from this wearing of the green, he'll be giving at least as good as he gets in this limited role. To the Celtics and to NBA fans.
The Celtics get not just a big body but the biggest body, to at least temporarily plug their biggest hole. In a perfect world, Boston coach Doc Rivers would have Kendrick Perkins all season and O'Neal later, instead of the other way around, but Perkins' extended rehab from knee surgery created a void and Shaq overfills it. Defensively, he might have Rivers and Kevin Garnett wishing they had hair long enough to pull out. But he can deliver a hit -- erect a wall is more like it -- and corral defensive rebounds. At the other end, he has to have more than Perkins, whose offensive game went to the mattresses as last season rolled on.
Team chemistry? No worries. This is a bunch that, in the past three years, embraced Sam Cassell, threw a temporary strait jacket on Stephon Marbury, welcomed Rasheed Wallace and got legit help from Nate Robinson. At this point, that Celtics locker room could weather Charlie Sheen.
For the fans, there are all sorts of Shaq-a-licious facets to this. Lots of us like having a throwback big man in the league, a guy who backs in and slams down as often as he can. A whole generation of young fans might not even remember the dinosaurs who played that way.
O'Neal already is a thorn in the sides of Lakers fans, who the other day heard Celtics president Danny Ainge mention the big guy and "Banner 18" in the same sentence. And the fact is, the big lug can be extremely entertaining, something the NBA will need in Shaq-sized doses this season with so many knives out (Miami) and hands wringing (lockout worries).
So as Shaq adds ballast to Boston and stays relevant to the Eastern Conference title race, I'm thinking about other people late in their careers, and something Brett Favre said on the topic last August. Asked if he was concerned about hurting his legacy with yet another comeback to yet another team, Favre said, "It's my legacy."
We're all working on our own. This one is Shaq's.
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