His announcement came via Twitter and articles spread instantly, some probably canned and waiting like an aged actor’s obituary. It doesn’t matter how though, they continued unabated for days and most were memorable, extolling the end of an era, capturing the spirit and legacy of the big irrepressible. And still they trickle out and all I can add is a fan’s personal feelings.
I’ve always felt basketball to be a sanctuary and Shaq provided as safe a haven as anyone. If work was bad, if anything was bad, the commuter crawl home somehow soothed, with Chick’s "left-to-right on your radio dial". And finally ensconced in front of the set, watching a supertanker execute the spin-crunch move to perfection - shoulder smashes sternum, up-and-dunk! In turn, he was hacked relentlessly, bludgeoned until he could barely raise his arms. I remember Phil Jackson writing about the toll of abuse, seven long years ago. And still Shaq endured, one lumbering season after another, caught up in the athlete’s curse, searching for that last elusive ring.
One of his great gifts is his personality, a quick comic wit, hugely popular within player circles. He worked the shoot-around like a singer works a lounge. Come game-time however, the little buddies would buzz his head like Messerschmitts. Sometimes he swatted at them angrily, more often he'd continue his dogged dominance inside the box. If he ever truly lost it on somebody, he would have been banned for life. He was a contradiction in many ways, perfecting the art of mumbling in obligatory pressers and holding forth with great charm and clarity when dropping in on some halftime chat.
My favorite on-court moment came at Staples for game 7 of the 2000 western finals - that 4th quarter comeback against Portland, unforgettable and incandescent - Shaq going up for Kobe’s lob, roaring back up the court with Ali moon-eyes, the crowd simply out of their minds. Favorite tangential memory; I was at a bowling alley in Studio City with my daughter and one of Shaq’s sneakers was on the wall. She just stared in awe, it was about the size of a rowboat.
An amazing collegiate career at LSU, overall first pick by the Magic, a guy who changed the game and moved west to the one place he didn’t already dwarf. Phil Jackson couldn’t help but take notice and when the time came, he signed on, "I took this job for the opportunity to coach him, and he made it an experience I will cherish forever". 19 years in the league and he won four rings, the Rookie of the Year, the 99-2000 MVP, 15 All-Star berths, three All-Star MVP’s, three finals MVP’s, two scoring titles, 14 All-NBA teams and three All-Defensive Team selections.
How to distill an oversized career into bite-sized paragraphs? A veteran scribe penned a piece in the L.A. Times yesterday, asking why Shaq didn’t do more. How much would it have taken to satiate you, Bill? For athletes who operate in such rarefied air, much is never enough, they continue long after they shouldn’t. Shaquille loaded up for one last run with the Celtics but his body wouldn’t allow it. He’s finally leaving with grace and humor and the big picture won’t be diminished by the few odd complaints.
In 1993, a skinny Shaq had a career-high 15 blocks in a game against the Nets. In his final season, he managed a season-high 25 points against the same team, a generation removed. The years in-between featured the Shaw-Shaq redemption, rapping, acting, breaking backboards and free-throws that made us cringe and duck for cover. There were feuds and headlines but when the Shaq & Kobe show hit its mark, there was nothing the opposition could do but watch. Their All-Star reunion earned them co-MVP’s and that particular venue always brought out the man-child’s playful best; a mountain-sized fast-break, the sneaker-phone, a 360 dunk in 2000 and of course, the legendary dance-off. Thanks for the memories, Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal - the game will forever be smaller without you.