MIAMI – Goodbye will never come so unceremoniously for Shaquille O’Neal(notes), so abruptly as a 15-second video burst on Twitter. There will be marching bands and music and something much, much louder. This wasn’t a retirement, as much as it was a chance to crash LeBron James’(notes) and Dwyane Wade’s(notes) championship coronation. Maybe O’Neal believes this is the end, but perhaps he’ll prove too intoxicated with the drama of comebacks and rebirths to stay away for good.
Goodbye will never come this way. There’s still a comeback left within him, still some late-season clandestine workouts with teams to show he can be useful in the playoffs.
Shaquille O'Neal won his last title with the Heat in 2006.
Shaq's career stats
Shaquille O'Neal's 19-season career netted him four championships, 15 All-Star appearances and three NBA Finals MVP awards.
* NBA championships
A former front-office executive, former coach and former teammate of O’Neal’s privately agreed with the premise on Wednesday: Shaq will try to play again. There will be one more ill-conceived, clumsy comeback for him.
As one of his ex-coaches says, “If there’s a lockout, I can see him bored with whatever he’s doing, wanting the attention and trying to come back with a team later in the season.”
When you’re bigger than life, that’s the problem. Where do you go next? Television? Movies? As long as O’Neal still thinks he can play, still thinks there’s a basketball job, it’s hard to see him leaving this way. He talked of his Achilles injury, and how that can have such long-term ramifications. Still, he could talk himself back into playing as easily as he’s talking himself out of it now.
Everyone wishes Shaq had retired years ago, but why? His legacy is untouched: four titles, 15 All-Star appearances and somehow only one MVP trophy. Shaq was the superstar’s superstar. No athlete ever blended such dominance and such charisma. As much as anything, he was a force of nature. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are forever centers in the history of basketball, but considering the competition, the times, none were more dominant than Shaq.
Through it all, Shaq had a joyous, jubilant exterior, and a wounded, angry interior. For some reason, he always carried a lot of anger, a lot of resentment within him. He didn’t always leave on good terms, and he didn’t always care about a graceful exit. He would’ve loved to return to Los Angeles or Miami this season, but he destroyed his relationships there. Team owners Jerry Buss and Micky Arison spoke reverently about O’Neal upon his stated retirement on Wednesday, but those teams were never bringing him back as an elder statesman.
After missing 2 ½ months of the Celtics' season, O'Neal finally returned for five minutes of a regular-season game and two largely insignificant playoff performances before the Achilles cost him the end of the Miami series.
In the end, he wanted to play again. He wanted a chance to take on the Heat, and he could never get that Achilles right. When you think of the seminal basketball figures in his professional life – Kobe Bryant(notes), Phil Jackson and Pat Riley – those relationships were fractured. Dwight Howard(notes) idolized Shaq, tried to be like him, and O’Neal was too insecure to be flattered. He considered it fraudulent. Of course, the emergence of Howard was no threat to Shaq. It was a tribute to him. Only, he never saw it that way.
Shaq forever spoke of respecting your NBA elders, and that’s all Howard ever showed him. O’Neal was complex this way, or maybe just a little juvenile. Still, he had a huge heart. He was magnificent and kind to so many people, young and old, and so much of his persona was borne out of a love for being his size and strength and stature. Some giants resent it, want to hide in the crowds. Shaq always marched right for them, and that’s why it’s still hard to see him marching away now.
Everyone issued the requisite statements on Wednesday, and O’Neal’s modest goodbye still seemed suspect. Shaq does everything bigger than life, and this goes for farewells, too. There will be big television jobs awaiting him, but there are no cheering crowds on those sets.
Yes, Shaq sounded so sure that this is forever, but he still thinks he can play, and that Achilles will feel better in a few months and he’ll want to hear those cheers again. Somewhere, sometime, you still get the feeling that he will make one more bid for a dramatic comeback, one more late-season run to be Shaq again. Goodbye doesn’t come so unceremoniously for Shaquille O’Neal.