Vertical Q&A: Shaquille O'Neal

For Shaquille O’Neal, enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame forever needed validation: The most dominant player ever.

He entered the NBA out of LSU in 1992 as a powerful yet agile 7-foot-1 center with a skill set that included jump hooks, an ability to run the floor, vicious dunks and an electric personality.

The Hall of Fame now awaits, with O’Neal being inducted in a class that includes Allen Iverson, Yao Ming and Tom Izzo, among others. O’Neal told The Vertical that he has chosen four Hall of Famers – Isiah Thomas, Julius Erving, Bill Russell and Alonzo Mourning – to present him in Friday’s ceremony. In 19 seasons, O’Neal earned four championships, three Finals MVPs, one league MVP and 15 All-Star honors, and is seventh on the all-time scoring list.

But O’Neal, 44, has one more message to his peers, his former competitors and the basketball community.

“I only played 30 percent of my real game,” O’Neal told The Vertical. “I had a great career, but I didn’t get a chance to showcase what I can really do. That’s because the double- and triple-teams were coming so quick, I had to dominate, dominate, dominate inside. I had the ability to step out, go around defenders, dribble by people, but I never got to show that.

“I had to focus on being the most powerful, dominant player to ever play the game.”

In a candid interview with The Vertical, O’Neal discusses his NBA legacy, superstar teammates Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, how he and Yao Ming could be the last true centers enshrined, the end of his brilliant career, his regrets and much more.

Q: The NBA literally altered rules around your presence – the birth of true zone defenses, the “Hack-a-Shaq” tactic and even making the rim sturdier. How do you view your impact, wanting to dominate the league?

O’Neal: When I first entered the league, I figured out my niche early. Not only did I want to be the best big man, I wanted to be the most dominant. A lot of people can claim the title of the best, but only a few can say they were the most dominant. That was my goal. I wanted to be in the conversation championship-wise and stats-wise, changing the game like Mike [Jordan] and Wilt [Chamberlain] did. I really wished I could have continued out my last year in Boston.

Q: The last season of your career with the Celtics – suffering the torn Achilles to end your season – did that encapsulate the regret for how it ended?

O’Neal: All I had to do was stay healthy, score 10 points a game and I was on pace to pass up Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list. I was going to arrogantly, boastfully say: “I’m the most dominant player to ever play the game, don’t mention anybody else’s name.” I passed Wilt in championships, but Bill has 11, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] has six, [Tim] Duncan has five and I have four. As long as I’m in the conversation, that’s good enough for me.”

Q: On the quest for the fifth and sixth championships, did the seasons in Cleveland (2009-10) and Boston (2010-11) sting the most?

O’Neal: When I was in Cleveland, we were in first place. Big Baby [Glen Davis] breaks my hand and I had to sit out five weeks late in the year. I come back finally in the first round of the playoffs, and we lost to Boston in the second round. I was upset. I know for a fact if I was healthy, we would have gotten it done that year and won a ring.

In Boston that next year, we had the Big Three [Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen] do most of the work, and all I had to do was rebound, block shots and knock people on their asses, and [Rajon] Rondo facilitated. I liked my chances that year too.

O'Neal was one of the biggest and most dominant players in league history. (Getty)
O’Neal was one of the biggest and most dominant players in league history. (Getty)

Q: One critique you have heard is people saying, “Shaq cut short his prime years,” and given how it ended in Boston, did you feel anything was left on the table?

O’Neal: You know, my only regret is that I missed almost 200 games due to injury while I was averaging 25 points a game. That’s another 5,000 points that I left on the table. It would have put me No. 2 in scoring and further up in stats. I had a lot of freak injuries – had knee surgeries, toe injuries and my hand broken twice from hard fouls. You miss near 200 games, averaging 25 points, that’s 5,000 points right there to add. That hurts me.

Q: [It] still haunts you?

O’Neal: I’ll always remember missing those games. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.

Q: This Hall of Fame consists of two dominant big men, you and Yao. Duncan and [San Antonio’s] Pau Gasol are the [future] candidates, but both can be categorized as power forwards and won championships playing the four. How long will it take for a legitimate back-to-the-basket center to reach the Hall of Fame now?

O’Neal: There won’t be another one like me, and like Yao, ever again. We feel the dearth of the real center. I believe the way that I dominated, I made guys not want to come inside and feel the pain. That’s why you have a lot of guys stepping out and shooting jumpers now. We’re all products of our environment, so when I was coming up, I saw big men playing in the middle. The kids saw me playing and realized that they couldn’t endure the pain and nor did they want to take the pain. So they started shooting jumpers – a la Dirk Nowitzki.

Q: Shaq and Kobe Bryant. Shaq and Dwyane Wade. You guys will always be linked. How much will you think about them on Friday?

O’Neal: Kobe and D-Wade will definitely be enshrined in the Hall of Fame one day. Everybody needs to partner to win championships, and they were mine. A lot of guys always had the one-two punch to win a title, and now you’re seeing the Big Three. Kobe helped me get those first three and D-Wade helped me get that fourth one. They were my partners.

Q: You have credited your parents, but was there another signature moment in your life where it clicked on how immense a pro career can be on and off the court, even to this day?

O’Neal: It was December 1990. Dick Vitale challenged me when I was at LSU, and we were playing Arizona. Dick said that Arizona had Brian Williams, Sean Rooks and Chris Mills. He came downstairs and said, ‘You’re probably not going to have a big game, but just do your best.’ I knew then that I could create my own pathway right there [posting 29 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks in the upset of the No. 2 Wildcats]. I remembered that.

I always tell players now to be themselves. I see a lot of young players try to emulate others. It’s good to do. But at some point, you have to make a mark for yourself. People in this class – A.I., Yao – we did that.

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