If this seeming playoff tribute to King Fame, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, youth and all the newness and hope a new champion can bring isn’t enough to make an aging hoophead feel ancient, this one cinched it:
Just like that, the Big MVP somehow morphed into the Big AARP.
Shaquille O’Neal, announcing his retirement via tweet video Wednesday afternoon, has backed his last inferior center into the post. Never again will the Diesel, the NBA’s most irresistible force since Wilt Chamberlain, dunk maliciously on a VW bug of a center like Greg Ostertag or Scot Pollard or Aaron Williams or, really, anyone but Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning and, sometimes, Dikembe Mutombo.
One day, I’m interviewing this talented goof from LSU in his Orlando Magic cubicle two years into his career, thinking what might happen if his strength and skill ever match up with his desire. The next, that big kid is 39 years old, has played 19 seasons, won four championships and has more points (28,596) than anyone in NBA history except Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Chamberlain, who, as great and unstoppable as he was, never had a defense designed for him called Hack-a-Stilt.
The most impressive statistic of all: Shaq, as much as he chipped paint off the rim from the foul line, actually finished No. 17 all-time in free throws made — because beating him up physically was the only way anyone thought they could stop him.
A word about where he stood in the pantheon of great centers: 1. Abdul-Jabbar for longevity, the dominance at both ends and the most unalterable shot in the history of the game, the skyhook; 2. Bill Russell for 11 rings and being the consummate teammate and greatest defender of all time; and 3. Shaq.
What many in the Wilt camp fail to realize is, for all O’Neal’s perceived activities away from the game, he actually cared more about being a team player and winning than Chamberlain. As Jack Ramsay, the former coach and longtime basketball analyst, said: “Shaq was more of a team player. Wilt went out and collected stats,” actually deciding in some years “what category he would lead the league in.”
Before my e-mail account is clogged by Wilt’s followers let me add this: part of my logic stems from the fact that the Big Dipper could have never equaled the Big Quipper as an ambassador for the game.
Selling the NBA — and, by association, the Lakers — became a needed asset after the post-Magic Johnson and especially post-Michael Jordan years in the NBA. The American public wasn’t just buying merely Jordan the basketball player anymore; it was buying Jordan the telegenic pitchman.
As big a bully as he could be on the court, Shaq became the antidote for a league devoid of much personality or panache after Jordan’s second retirement after the 1997-98 season coincided with the lockout. If he made nearly $300 million in guaranteed contracts as a player, he made countless more millions as that rare elite athlete, a guy who actually wanted to commune with his public rather than drive away with his tinted windows rolled up.
I know this because I helped him write his autobiography almost 11 years ago. The anecdotes could go on forever, but a couple favorite ones here:
May 1999: I follow him down Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles in a rental car. He is saddling a red chopper with a matching candy-apple red helmet that appears three sizes too small for his head. At an intersection, a young girl of maybe 12 notices him from the passenger’s seat of her mother’s SUV and appears to have a conversation with her mother along the lines of, “Mom, it’s him,” followed by, “No it’s not. Shaq would never drive a motorcycle in the middle of L.A. traffic at rush hour.” And, “But Mom.”
Suddenly, O’Neal began moving his chopper slowly toward the young girl’s window. Poking his head inside, he smiled and said: “Yes, mom. It is me.”
August 2000, the last day we worked on the book at his home in Orlando: A helicopter piloted by a Vietnam tailgunner showed up on his front lawn of the same Isleworth community where Tiger Woods and other sports glitterati reside.
Shaq: “To celebrate the end of the book, I have decided to take us hunting.”
Me: “But I don’t hunt; I fish.”
Shaq: “I don’t care, Mr. Author — get in.”
If you’ve never had a 7-foot-1, 325-plus pound man make room for himself in the back of a small aircraft by basically draping his legs over yours until you cannot breathe in the middle of a humid central Florida summer, boy, have you missed out.
“This is agent Double-Double 34,” Shaq said as he slipped on headphones and the pilot began busting up in laughter. “We’ve got a situation here. We’re going to investigate.”
He actually hummed the theme from “Magnum P.I.” as we buzzed swampland en route to some backwoods hunting preserve in Frostproof, Fla.
“Nice to meet ya, Shaq,’” the owner of the lodge said later, decked out in camouflage. “Damn, son, you are a big ’un.”
On the walls of the hunting lodge were photos of clients with their kill. At one point, O’Neal looked over at our motley crew, which included his personal chef, a high school teammate that still takes care of his house during the season and other friends.
“Uh, I think I’m the first brother here. Ever.”
The comedy during the season will be missed. That indomitable force inside will be missed. Mostly, though, the decent, authentic person Shaq was as a superstar is gone forever.
O’Neal is the most famous athlete I have ever covered who never lost his common touch, his ability to connect with anyone, irrespective of whether he owned his own company or needed a meal and a place to sleep.
When LeBron, Carmelo and the next generation learn that, they, too, will learn what it is to be an ambassador for something larger than their own brands.
Here’s wishing the Big Humanity a peaceful, happy retirement.