Having already broke the news via Twitter (of course) the previous day, friends, family, and members of the media gathered at Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement press conference in eager anticipation of what the Big Diesel had in store. And, much like during most of his 19-year career, O’Neal didn’t disappoint.
After a pre-rehearsed planned skit in which a random crony interrupted Shaq’s intro by handing him a cell phone with “the president of the New York Knicks” on the line offering him the Knicks newly vacated G.M. position, the man of the hour proceeded to thank his parents, coaches, and mentors for pushing him to pursue his dream of becoming one of the great centers in NBA history.
“So in light of today, I am retiring all of my nicknames: The Big Aristotle, Shaq Fu, The Big Shamrock, The Big Cactus, The Big Diesel, and, finally, the original-never-to-be-duplicated-or-replicated, Superman”, O’Neal said with a Shaq-sized grin on his face, playfully ribbing the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard who has gotten a lot of heat for adopting the moniker. No harm though because now we can just call Shaq “the Big 401(k)”.
“I’m going to miss a lot about the game”, O’Neal continued, ”The competition, the camaraderie, the friendships, the fans, joking with the media…and I’m really going to miss the free throws”. After a few more jokes, including a reminder of his performance in the “award winning film Kazaam”, Shaq told reporters to put down the pens and pick up the forks (there was a catered lunch), because “we’re going to party for my last time out”.
And with that it was over. A sincere, poised, silly, and genuinely heartfelt farewell, fitting from a player who has exhibited those qualities throughout his basketball life.
“That’s what I do. I get in and get under people’s skin and all that stuff. But you will remember me — and that’s all that matters.”
Not to go all Bill Simmons on everyone, but in the wake of his retirement it’s important that we consider how Shaq’s career will be remembered historically.
And for that we have to (momentarily) step away from the jokes, pranks, and off-court festivities that have come to personify O’Neal over the course of the last few years, when his 7’2’’, 330 pound frame finally succumbed to the demands of playing more than 50,000 minutes and 1,413 games over the course of nearly twenty years. Because, simply put, Shaq the basketball player was a beast.
His playing career can be viewed in three phases: Pre-Lakers, Lakers, and Post-Lakers. As a 20 year-old on the Orlando Magic, Shaq’s size made people notice him, but his speed and athleticism is what truly set him apart. Orlando Shaq was a force of nature, like a (way) bigger LeBron James, relying on his physicality to simply overpower opponents who had never encountered anything quite like him on a basketball court before.
When he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers for $120 million in 1996, he took his game to the next level. With some added bulk and an increased arsenal of post-moves, O’Neal was at his best during his eight years in L.A., where he led the Lakers to three championships (Shaq was named Finals MVP on all three occasions).
When his feud with teammate Kobe Bryant reached a boiling point, the Lakers sent Shaq to South Beach where he would team up with a young Dwyane Wade and win a title with the Miami Heat in 2006.
After stints with the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, and finally this past season with the Boston Celtics, it was apparent that Shaq’s body simply couldn’t hold up any longer. He was still effective, but just couldn’t stay on the court for any significant stretch, seemingly always working his way back from the latest injury.
Still, Shaq’s legacy remains as one of the greatest centers of all-time, behind Bill Russell and somewhere in between Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem Olajuwon. And you could argue that O’Neal, who had more consecutive seasons averaging 20+ points and 10+ rebounds than any other player in NBA history, had a better career than both.
As his playing ability waned, a lot of the focus on Shaq has been paid toward his off-court antics. And for good reason: No player in any sport is as gregarious a character as Mr. O’Neal. In a sports world where athletes’ interactions with the fans and media come in various forms of uninspired monotony, Shaq remains unique. His quotes, pranks, and non-basketball endeavours are nothing short of amazing. Hell, Shaq’s playful demeanor has even rubbed off on the most unlikely people.
Next stop: your living room?
He’s gone from basketball, but he won’t be forgotten…mostly because he’s not going to let it happen. Shaq has already studied broadcasting and he closed his retirement press conference saying, “I will miss you, but I do plan on entertaining you for the next 19 years. Whether it’s TNT, ESPN, CNN, or whoever wants to hire me, my offices open up on Monday–give me a call”. He had that grin on his face and the media horde broke out in laughter, but I suspect that, rare as it may be, Shaquille O’Neal was dead serious.