The pulse behind the Cult of Shaq continues apace. The sports-level phenomenon is not hurting anyone, he’s hardly ubiquitous enough to annoy nor sensational enough to offend, so why shouldn’t his sub-prime media reign continue?
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Shaquille O’Neal will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this week, a deserved honor for a four-time NBA champion, Olympic gold medal winner, one-time FIBA World Champion, one-time NBA MVP and exceedingly dominant player and personality. The parallels and concurrent contrasts running between O’Neal and fellow inductees Allen Iverson and Yao Ming’s career arcs are striking, and it only makes sense that the first ballot HoF’er would take his place in the shrine alongside the two most famous of his would-be career combatants.
The idea that fame is what O’Neal coveted above all is best left for someone else to ponder far down the road, long after even more gray hairs take to Shaq’s beardline. That task will probably hit when it comes time for the tell-all book autobiography that will no doubt come off as petty and embarrassing as it does entertaining and thoughtful. What we do have in 2016 is the realization that O’Neal somehow both betrayed his gifts while exceeding expectations along the way, working as no big man ever has either on or off the court.
For decades we’ve attempted to stay on the court as much as possible with Shaquille O’Neal, but at his insistence it’s an increasingly tortuous task to keep things between the lines. This is a man who, just months after leaving the NCAA for the pros, agreed to take on a prominent role in a William Friedkin-directed major motion picture about corruption in NCAA ball.
Shaq entered a league that had been told far too much, by 1992. It had been told that Patrick Ewing would act as some Bill Russell/Moses Malone amalgam, plus about three inches of height, and it had been unfairly lied to. It watched as Bill Walton, Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie saw their legs betray them, while David Robinson already seemed too nice to fear wind of. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s seeming “finesse” game had become a Hollywood joke even before Magic came along, Hakeem Olajuwon was in the midst of a moan-fest about his Houston Rocket teammates, Roy Tarpley couldn’t wrestle down his demons, and Pervis Ellison appeared to be quite the bust on wheels.
The NBA was already established as a big man’s game, despite lead guards driving two different Midwestern teams to the last four league championships by 1992, but somehow more was expected. Blame Sports Illustrated, who in 1986 told you that one dominant big man just wasn’t enough. The league’s fans, in a sentiment still worth debating, had been taunted too many times by large centers that didn’t seem to care about the game as much as Magic, Michael, Larry and Isiah.
With Shaquille O’Neal, we were told, this didn’t matter. Yes, he’d be dogged to pieces every time his smiling mug showed up to hawk some sugar water or ugly sneakers, but his combination of size (no 6-9 Darryl Dawkins-type, here), skill (ditto) and athleticism would overcome any batch of embarrassing-by-then outside interests.
No, basketball wasn’t Shaq’s primary motivation, but somehow this wouldn’t stop him from dropping 30 and 15.
Jordan called him the biggest thing – not center, not presence, not player – biggest thing he’d ever seen. Shaq may have been late on getting out to contest a Brad Lohaus set shot or disrupt a Michael Adams pick and roll on the in-between days, but a pair of perceived slights sneered his way from Mssrs. Ewing and Robinson made sure that O’Neal went after the two relentlessly in what were typically nationally televised affairs. The Admiral and Hakeem may have ranked as better overall players, and Ewing (who drove Jordan’s Bulls to the brink in 1992 and 1993 before heading to the Finals in 1994) was hardly a slouch himself, but no center had a nose for the front of the rim like O’Neal.
There was no foolin’. None of the turnaround jumpers, wispy hooks or bank shots that critics used to damn Ewing, Kareem, or Wilt Chamberlain with. Despite their brilliance, Hakeem and Robinson sometimes seemed overwhelmed by their own repertoires, trading one move for another when the same similar go-to score worked well enough, yet Shaq had no misgivings in this realm. His feet were holding up. The sideburns were growing in. He was what everyone had been begging for, and yet it wasn’t enough.
All he does is dunk!
(But by 1995 he just averaged 29.3 points per game for the second straight season and led the Magic to the Finals in his third year in the league. At only 22.)
He can’t shoot free throws!
(When you’re still scoring six points per game at the line a night, who cares?)
His post game is obvious and simple!
(The basket support is still shaking.)
He takes possessions off defensively!
(OK, we’ll trade you Caldwell Jones in his prime, plus a first-rounder, for Shaq. You want that deal?)
He’s too concerned with making bad movies!
(The movies were terrible.)
Shaq had all the reasons in the sporting world to act as the media’s next great punching bag.
After missing the postseason in his rookie year, his teams were swept out of the playoffs in 1994, 1995, and 1996. It took until 1997 for one of his teams to bow out of the postseason having taken a game in the deciding round, and those Lakers could only muster one win in five tries against Utah. O’Neal’s Lakers would then go on to be swept out of the postseason in 1998 and 1999. Running up a 1-23 record in the six series’ that bounced ya to start a career won’t exactly line up the bugles.
O’Neal left an otherwise-potent Orlando team for nearly-as-potent (and this is before we knew what Kobe Bryant would become) Los Angeles Lakers team in 1996 as a free agent. It was a heel move right out of the script of some awful movie that probably required a “Yasmine Bleeth-type” as female lead before concluding that Yasmine would be out of the budget. Upon signing he dropped the line about winning at all levels, outside of the NBA and NCAA, while referencing a cola sponsor’s since-forgotten tag line at the dais alongside Jerry West.
Even bad sportswriters could work with this stuff. And, back then, bad sportswriters had jobs.
The internet was already dialing in while laying down cable, but this was still an era that breathlessly looked forward to the midweek presence of Sports Illustrated in the mailbox. Local sports columnists still had sway, and O’Neal was infamously peeved by an Orlando Sentinel poll that balked at the hometown team offering Shaq a competitive free agent contract in the days before maximum salaries.
In the waning days of the 1998-99 NBA lockout, O’Neal would fight tooth and nail against a David Falk-led group of star players to help end the labor impasse, knowing full well that not only would his massive beyond-max deal be grandfathered into the new salary era (making it so, in their primes, Kobe Bryant would make nowhere near what Shaq brought in yearly), but that an end to the lockout would result in the return of O’Neal’s weekly paychecks – the largest paychecks in the NBA at the time.
These were the obstacles that he put in place, and the media and its followers worked exceedingly well with the material they were given. And yet it hardly mattered.
Shaq went on to win three championships with Kobe, and another with Dwyane Wade in 2006. For someone who truly only showed up to training camp in peak form once in his career – that MVP season of 1999-00 – he still managed to dominate with his limited low post game and the free throw stroke that routinely saw him trading one miss for each make.
At about the same time that Allen Iverson started to beg off of his teams, prior to AI’s own divorce from the NBA, Shaquille carried on. For someone that supposedly worked strictly off of heft and unrefined talent alone, he was a lasting presence that worked until 2011.
In whatever outpost he passed through – Orlando, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston – O’Neal was regarded as the missing piece. Though we look upon his time with the Suns, Cavs and Celtics less endearingly, he was rightfully regarded as the potential final addition before a championship turn in each of those settings. Whether he was dropping 29 as a youngster or filling the gap in his late 30s, teams were correct in assuming that Shaq was exactly what they needed at the time.
Somehow, he made it work. Patrick Ewing’s time in Seattle and Orlando acted as an embarrassing flop. Hakeem Olajuwon’s turn in Toronto was an art crime. Moses Malone’s final journeyman acts for five teams in nine years felt beneath him, while David Robinson’s slow fade (even with that triumphant championship in his final season) breezed by anonymously.
Shaquille O’Neal? He still made the cover of SI. He hung around long enough for clips of him to go viral, to act as a one-man flash mob, and all those other things we’ve forgotten about the early part of this decade. He was one of the first people you followed on Twitter. He’s still all over Turner and NBA TV and sometimes national network shows, never quite comedian-level funny but passable enough for an ex-jock and all-around Famous Man.
Hall of Fame Famous Man. Larger than life and exactly as advertised.
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