Shaquille O’Neal’s(notes) totaled 10 points in his past four games, and that includes the goose egg he dropped against his old Los Angeles Lakers in the building he helped make famous. Shaq still fills a room, if not also the lane, and his megawatt personality hasn’t dimmed a bit, but he’s a role player now. He’ll likely be headed to the bench soon, and he’s OK with that, too. Thirty-eight years old and still chasing championships in the twilight of his career with the Boston Celtics – life could be worse.
“It’s hard not being in charge for me. It really is. But I got to accept it,” O’Neal said. “This is a good team. I’m not the only Hall-of-Famer hopeful here.
“If I was on a [expletive] team, I’d be pissed right now. Two points? I would have [expletive] somebody up in the locker room.”
O’Neal cemented his legacy as one of the NBA’s greatest players by averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in his first 13 seasons and winning four championships. With the possible exception of Wilt Chamberlain, the league had never dealt with a player so physically dominating. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Chamberlain have scored more points in NBA history than Shaq, and he’s had a personality to match, nicknaming himself “The Big Aristotle,” “Superman,” “The Diesel” and “Shaq Fu” among other things.
O’Neal’s transformation from superstar to co-star to role player began when the Lakers traded him to the Miami Heat after the 2003-04 season.
“I started waning my CEO skills in Miami when I let Flash take over,” O’Neal said of Dwyane Wade(notes). “Then with LeBron [James] in Cleveland, I just laid back. In this world that we live in everyone wants the younger guys, the younger guys. So when I had my time, my span, I did it my way. I did it dominant. Nobody has done it more flamboyantly.
“And now, you know, it’s someone else’s turn.”
O’Neal doesn’t clear out defenders or dunk as much as he used to. After averaging a career-low 12 points last season for the Cleveland Cavaliers, he has dipped to 9.3 points and 4.9 rebounds. He went scoreless in Boston’s win over the Lakers this week, which prompted his old coach, Phil Jackson, to joke that O’Neal was the only Celtic that L.A. could defend.
“Whatever they do to get me my shots, I’ll shoot at a high clip,” said O’Neal, who is averaging 5.5 shots per game. “But it’s not something I worry about. It’s all about winning, baby. Stats don’t matter. None of that [expletive] matters to me. I’ve been there and done that.
“I’m right behind my father, Wilt Chamberlain. I’m cool with points. I’m good. If I pass him up, I do. If I don’t, I’m cool.”
O’Neal has missed 12 games because of hip, calf and knee injuries, but has helped the Celtics with his presence when he’s been on the floor – particularly with Kendrick Perkins(notes) and Jermaine O’Neal(notes) missing much of the season’s first half with their own injuries. “Shaq is Shaq,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s going to give us a lift on some nights. Some nights he may not. …It doesn’t look like he does a lot for us, but he does.”
O’Neal has started each of the 35 games he has played for the Celtics this season and has come off the bench just nine times in 1,205 career games. The last time the 19-year veteran was used as a reserve was a single game for the Miami Heat during the 2006-07 season. Perkins recently returned from knee surgery, and it’s inevitable he’ll eventually return to the starting lineup because of the continuity he has with the rest of the Celtics’ starters. Once Rivers is ready to make the change, O’Neal says he’ll have no problem moving to the bench.
“You can’t beat the system. You have to join it,” Shaq said. “Even if I could, it wouldn’t be business-ly advantageous to act like that. So no, the system is always right. So whatever the system says you do, you just do it.
“I just enjoy still traveling, going to cities and having a good time. If Perk’s going to be in the starting lineup and I’m coming off the bench that’s fine with me.”
Jackson has said he could see O’Neal playing until he’s 40, and O’Neal plans to at least stay with the Celtics through the end of his contract next season, provided the season isn’t completely erased by a lockout. After that, the pitchman, actor and part-time law enforcement officer plans to go back to school, write a book and work as a TV analyst.
“I don’t worry about my legacy,” O’Neal said. “I look at it like this: There are certain guys that have legacies, and I’ve [expletive] tripled and quadrupled what the [expletive] they did, like Bill Walton. That’s how I look at it. Real talk. Everybody has a pen, so everybody’s going to say otherwise. But I know guys that got one [championship] and they got $60,000 speaking gigs off what they did 30 years ago. My legacy is straight. I don’t worry about it.
“I’ve prepared myself for [the end of his career] when I came in. For like the first 10 years my father would tell me, ‘You need to own some [stuff].’ I said, ‘Why? I make a lot of money.’ He said, ‘What if you hurt your knee or something?’ From then I’ve been in business mode. So I’ve been thinking about the day I’m done playing for a long time. And I’ll be fine.
“It will be real easy, real easy, real easy. Too easy.”