September 12, 2008
Don't look now (actually, look now), but Shaquille O'Neal has a chance to see his name in the same sentence as the words "tact" and "class," without having a "less" affixed to the rear end of either of those two words.
News out of Florida has the Phoenix Suns center retiring in 734 days, when his contract expires following the 2009-10 season. Normally this bit of news would have us sadly lamenting the tail part of the career of what may have been the game's most dominant force (at times, let's say), but after a few years of boorish behavior, Shaq's hardly on anyone's good side these days.
Between pointlessly rehashing a moronic feud with Kobe Bryant (under the guise of playful joshing, or dealing in some supposedly proud tradition of trading rude rap verses with someone), struggling to get up and down the court at times, while pulling in huge gobs of cash (20 million a year), O'Neal's career has taken a rather inglorious turn of late.
And it probably should have felt a bit more inglorious earlier on, if O'Neal weren't so damned charismatic. And so productive in June. As it stands, and now that the ashes have stopped smoldering, it appears as if O'Neal stands to take the most blame for the way the Los Angeles Lakers fell apart in 2004.
Sure, Kobe Bryant's hard-headed play in the pre-Phil Jackson years, Jackson's own odd bit of martyrdom, and a certain Colorado-themed legal matter had quite a bit to do with it — to say nothing of inept general managing from Mitch Kupchak — but Shaq's refusal to take on a leadership position, while seemingly always coming into camp out of shape save for his 1999-00 MVP turn, probably had the most to do with why things ended up the way they did.
And though Shaq returned to prominence in 2005-06, winning a title while overlooking his ego and ceding his scoring position to Dwyane Wade, he's acted the part of the incorrigible lout more than the role of the lovable oaf as his career dwindles toward the inevitable end. He hasn't looked good. And though he's gamely dealt with injuries professionally and should be applauded for that, he's failed to earn the sort of appreciation that, say, an Alonzo Mourning has developed.
But this? Refusing to angle for a contract extension? This is kinda classy. Remember, this is the guy who decided to yell "PAY ME" toward Laker owner Jerry Buss in full view of the assembled media during an exhibition game in Honolulu back in 2003. While horribly out of shape. This is the guy who discussed a contract extension, apropos of nothing, during his introductory press conference as a Sun last winter. This is a guy who often lets the "he's just a big kid!"-thing get a little out of hand.
And, to be honest, he might be a little quick towards the exit.
(And, to be honest, he's probably going to go back on this statement, and look for that extension; but let's not get into that now.)
He probably shouldn't have to retire in 2010. Shaq in 2008 isn't all that great, he's certainly not an All-Star, but he can play. The guy has defensive issues, but it's nothing that can't be overcome by a sound team defensive scheme (O'Neal was a mitigating factor defending the screen and roll even during his peak, so this is nothing new). He'll be worse in 2010, but the guy should still be able to play.
Really, the only reason Shaq is a millstone now is because of his contract. He's not worth 20 million a year, probably not 12 million a year, and he takes up far too much of the salary cap considering his production. But even in 2010, when the man will be 38, he'll be able to play. He still has those hands. He still has that butt. He would still be an NBA-level player. Maybe not a starter, but definitely worth a contract.
So to hear him talk about bowing out gracefully in 2010, it feels like Shaq's slowly starting to get it. I doubt it will last, and it's long overdue, but it is something.