Posted Jun 1 2011 7:04PM
He treated the basketball world as his own personal playground, toggling between pop-culture celebrity and hoop icon. And now -- Kazaam! -- his career is off to that Big Rocking Chair in the sky.
We'll miss Shaq, although he's not really going anywhere. He's not getting lost in the sunset. How could he? He can block out the sunset. He's still 7-foot-1 and 350 (cough, cough) pounds with a personality wider than his sneaker. He won't cash in his Blue Chips anytime soon. Shaq will continue to exist on TV, selling us products and doing shows and maybe someday becoming resurrected, Charles Barkley-style, as a loquacious commentator. But after making it official today, he threw down his last dunk and bricked his final free throw.
"We did it," he video-tweeted. "Nineteen years, baby."
I was lucky enough to be with Shaq when he first suited up, in a preseason game for Orlando against Miami, and when he finally suited down, on the bench for the Celtics last month, body ravaged and spirit damaged. Yes, it was 19 years, baby, of rollicking performances, four championships and then a painful-to-watch fade (aren't they all) into mediocrity.
There were greater centers than Shaq. Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain, no doubt. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, of course. Maybe one or two more. But none of those players had more fun or created more fun. This, we could tell because of how Shaq spent much of his career lighting up rooms he entered, along with arenas he dominated. We witnessed a playful Goliath who took full advantage of his gifts: massive size, an easy smile, a thirst for glamour and a way with the language to elevate himself beyond mere basketball star in the public domain.
But let's talk about the basketball side. A generation that never saw Russell or Wilt and only captured Kareem with a bald spot will forever swear Shaq is the best big man ever. Hard to see why not. Nothing this big moved this quickly and covered more ground except a passing cloud.
From the late 1990s through the early 2000s Shaq had no equal. That's when he was fit and focused, two areas that were legitimately called into question later in the decade, when he grew old fast. He was the core of a Lakers team that peeled off three straight tiles and became a dynasty. While he played on six different teams, he will be mostly identified with Los Angeles, a showy city that fit his persona and a franchise that gave him the platform for greatness. In 1999-2000, his lone MVP season, Shaq averaged 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, almost 4 assists and 3 blocks. He was named MVP of the NBA Finals three times. He was an All-Star 15 times. He made All-NBA first-team eight times. Those were the raw numbers, the cold facts that put Shaq in a class with very few desks.
What the numbers don't tell is how Shaq changed the way teams prepared for his teams. He was much like Wilt in that regard. Wilt was so much more overpowering than the man guarding him that it really was no contest. It almost wasn't fair. The league either tweaked certain rules or changed them completely when it came to Wilt. That didn't happen with Shaq. However, the rules for guarding big men were outdated when it came him. He was too big and strong for that. And so teams resorted to Hack-a-Shaq, to exploit Shaq's chronic and hopeless form at the free-throw line. And when he wanted to, Shaq could be a force on defense, making him the rare player who could impact the game under both baskets.
Just the same, Shaq did have timing on his side. He didn't see many great centers to play against during his time. Hakeem Olajuwon, who denied Shaq a title in 1995, was headed on the downside when Shaq was rising up. Same for David Robinson. Patrick Ewing was about the only center who came close (Tim Duncan was more power forward). So Shaq did have some advantages, beyond his freak-of-nature size. He was right-place, right-time.
Still, he was named to the NBA at 50 team (a controversial choice, given his limited pro experience then) and would likely be dominant in most any era, even to the degree in his own. In his prime, he took three teams to the Finals, winning with the Lakers and later the Heat in 2006.
As a player, his only issue, besides free throw shooting, was conditioning. That's why Shaq played five years too long. He lacked the stamina and health then, and in fact, Shaq never played a full 82-game schedule in 19 years. Not counting his first three seasons in the league, only twice did he dress for at least 75 games.
The playful side of Shaq, at times, overwhelmed the professional side. Which says plenty about Shaq's presence. He made a string of movies and rap CDs, some forgettable, that gave him a prime pop-culture seat and massive appeal for his generation. His commercials, hawking a diverse list of companies and products, flushed out his sense of humor and endeared him to a society that tended to fear or be intimidated by human beings his size.
Two decades of Shaq, in a nutshell? A conference title in Orlando. The move to LA. Falling in step with Kobe Bryant to produce championships. Falling out with Kobe to trigger a breakup. Another title, this one with Dwyane Wade in Miami. A basketball vagabond, drifting between three teams in four years. Finally, the ungraceful, quiet exit, sealed by a tweet.
And now, after 19 years, that's a wrap. To borrow a Shaqism, it was, for the most part, a Shaqtacular ride.
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