Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Shaquille O'Neal Retires: Olympus beckons for Big Aristotle

Shaquille O'Neal has retired and the NBA has lost one of it's born entertainers. The league, and the sporting landscape in general, will be poorer for his departure.

He entered the league with the inevitable comparisons to Wilt Chamberlain, succeeded Wilt in rings won while owning basketball in Los Angeles, won a ring with "Flash" and then turned into a role-player for hire. At times the most overwhelming inside the force the game has seen (remembering Chamberlain often favoured the fadeaway jumper to show he had skills as well as size), he played nineteen years in the league, won four Championships and took part in probably the best feud the NBA has ever seen that didn't involve Charles Oakley.

Even after his athleticism declined he remained a viable second option in Phoenix and Cleveland, before becoming an overstated but important part of the 2011 Celtics. The list of players assembled around him is notable for its extreme quality and without question, his enormous on-court presence added to each of their collective legacies. At times, even he seemed amazed by his remarkable mix of power and explosiveness. While his lithe early years showcased a more fluid offensive game (his first NBA bucket was a fadeaway jumper from 12 feet), he didn't have the breadth of experience that's shaped him into the statesman he is now.

Though his game was extraordinary and a thing of awesome power, the most appealing part ofabout Shaquille O'Neal wasn't necessarily those skills.It is his lighthearted nature. He was, and remains, a fun guy to be around. While others treated the NBA like a game of life and death, Shaq played in the league.

His early years in the league marked him one of the sport's rising cross-media stars. He rapped, did Shaq-Fu, acted (mostly terribly - have you seen Kazaam?) and won scoring titles. He went to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996 to pursue those interests and after the demise of Jordan's Bulls, led the Lakers to three straight NBA Championships. In each Finals he was unstoppable despite the best efforts of designated "Shaq-stoppers" like Dale Davis, Dikembe Mutombo and (cough) Todd MacCulloch. As well as owning the lane at both ends, he had finally developed the inner steel to back his outer confidence leading his teams to destroy the title aspirations of many of the league's recent greats. No-one was stopping the Lakers during that time - not Allen Iverson, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Jason Kidd, Dikembe Mutombo or Kenyon Martin.

He walks into the sunset boasting a more garrulous and accessible media profile than any athlete since Magic Johnson, all part of a man with myriad off-court interests. He has maintained a strong interest in law enforcement and in keeping with his multimedia empire announced his retirement through Tout, a new video-sharing form of Twitter. No-one gave pressers or interviews like Shaq. That his first target here is the notoriously intense Kevin Garnett - who responded well - says volumes about the way his teammates responded to his slightly alternative methods of communication in 2011. When he owned the NBA at the turn of this decade, Shaq played in the league.

Perhaps his background, growing up an Army brat watching his mother and stepfather work for everything they had gave him this unique viewpoint, a sense of perspective allowing him to understand life was bigger than the twenty-nine NBA cities he frequented. To play basketball, be a cross-media baron and basically to do what he wanted with life was fun - and fun things are to be enjoyed. So he did. This awareness contributed to his movement from being thought of as a young punk to being respected across the entire spectrum of the league. As a spokesman for the league in 2011, there are few who speak with the authority - and intelligence - that he does.

In a poll on ESPN today, 72% of respondents said the thing about Shaq they'd remember most outside basketball wasn't the feud or Blue Chips, it was his outgoing media style which prompted his self-appointed moniker "Big Aristotle" among many others. Critics may suggest that these outside activities took his focus away from the game but when a man has four NBA rings, it's a difficult game suggesting he didn't earn them.

Shaquille O'Neal leaves behind a trail of devastation unseen since Willis Reed's (very different) NBA tour of duty. He also leaves behind thousands of happy memories.

Image of Kazaam courtesy:

Image of Shaq dunking on David Robinson c1992 courtesy:

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