Until the very end, he was nothing but Shaq.
Shaquille O’Neal announced his retirement on Wednesday afternoon, via Twitter, which was fitting. Early on, Shaq realized that the microblogging service fit his personality, which was always silly, yet remained refreshing. He was one of the first athletes to embrace Twitter, and won himself more than 3.8 million followers, the most for any athlete on the planet.
He sent to a link to a video-messaging app called Tout (congratulations, Tout, we all now know you exist). In the clip, O’Neal flashed that familiar smile, which was as wide as the man himself, and addressed the camera. “We did it,” he said. “Nineteen years, baby. I want to thank you very much. That’s why I’m telling you first. I’m about to retire. Love you. Talk to you soon.” The camera then panned, for no apparent reason, to a window at his home in Orlando, where you were treated to a view of a foggy golf course. Before making this announcement, he reportedly hadn’t told his own team, the Boston Celtics, of his plans.
Shaq defied all logic. He was a mountain, currently listed at 7-feet, 1-in., 325 pounds, who never kept himself in tip-top shape. During his days in Los Angeles, where he and Kobe Bryant were tension-filled teammates who led the Lakers to three straight championships, Bryant once called him “fat.” Physics dictates that he should have been done years ago.
But O’Neal stuck around for 19 seasons, and piled up 28,596 career points — seventh all-time, and 13,099 rebounds (13th ranked) — and was, at 39, the oldest player in the league this year. He hit 58.2% of his shots, the highest rate of all-time. Yes, the last few seasons weren’t pretty. Since 2009, he has bounced from Phoenix to Cleveland to Boston. With the Cavaliers and Celtics, he was supposed to be the missing piece for championship-caliber teams. But with O’Neal ineffective and injured, those teams fizzled in the playoffs.
Yes, he should have made more foul shots. When “Hack-A-Shaq” morphs into a serious defensive strategy, that’s a failure on his part. And yes, if he dedicated himself to his craft like, say, Bryant, he may have retired as the greatest of all time.
But then he wouldn’t be Shaq, and that would have stunk.
Buried under all his one-liners (“Our offense is like the Pythagorean Theorem. There is no answer.”) and clever catchphrases (in Phoenix, he dubbed himself “The Big Cactus”) was once the most dominant force in basketball. O’Neal was the top overall pick in the 1992 draft, and as a rookie with the Orlando Magic, he averaged 23.4 points and 13.9 rebounds. The NBA hadn’t seen anything like him in years. Shaq was strong enough to dislodge a backboard stanchion — he did that once in New Jersey, pulling the entire hoop contraption to the floor — yet dexterous around the basket. His moves weren’t artful, like those of Hakeem Olajuwon, whose fancy footwork led the Houston Rockets to a pair of titles. Yet he was clever enough that you had to guard him, and 7’2″, 325-pound guys are unguardable.
In his third year, he teamed with Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway to lead Orlando to the Finals, where the Rockets swept them. Pundits called Shaq and Penny the next Kareem and Magic, an inside-outside combo who would built a dynasty in Disneyland. But Hollywood came calling – film buffs, may you always cherish Shaq’s turn in Kazaam – and Shaq headed to Los Angeles after the 1996 season.
He made the right call. Penny never panned out, and during that summer of ’96, Los Angeles took a flier on an 17-year-old kid right out of high school, Kobe Bryant. The Kobe-Shaq psychodrama was delicious fodder. They clashed – Kobe called Shaq out of shape, Shaq called Kobe selfish. But on the court, they still clicked. Shaq won the scoring title, and league MVP award, in 2000. He was also MVP of three straight Finals, from 2000 through 2002, all convincing Laker wins.
In 2004, the Kobe-Shaq saga reached its nadir, and the Lakers would have to choose between its enigmatic all-time talent, or its entertaining, though less motivated, big man. Kobe won, and it probably worked out for both of them. Well before LeBron, Shaq took his talents to South Beach, as the Lakers traded him to the Miami Heat. Shaq was now mature enough to cede the stage to another ascendant talent, Dwyane Wade. Shaq’s assessment of his three wingmen — Hardaway, Bryant and Wade — produced one of his all-time greatest quotes.
“The difference between the three is in the Godfather trilogy, he said. “One is Fredo. Who’s never ready for me to hand it over to him. One is Sonny who will do whatever it takes to be the man. And one is Michael, who if you watch the trilogy, the Godfather hands it over to Michael. So I am now handing it to Dwayne.”
Within two seasons, Don and Michael Corleone brought a title, O’Neal’s fourth, to Miami. From a distance, Shaq and Kobe still enjoyed needling each other. After the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in 2008, still leaving Bryant one championship short of Shaq’s tally, O’Neal went on stage and rapped about his former foe. “Kobe, tell me how my a– tastes,” O’Neal shouted. Remember that point about defying logic? Meanwhile, after Bryant won his fifth title last season, Kobe’s pleasure in passing Shaq was palpable. “Got one more than Shaq,” Bryant said at the post-game press conference, his coy smile hot hiding his elation. “So you can take that to the bank.”
Things soured for Shaq in Miami – late in his career, he too often left teams on rocky terms. Miami traded Shaq to Phoenix in 2008, and he never fit in with Steve Nash’s up-tempo style, though he did enjoy a bit of a revival in 2009, making the All-Star team (the Suns, however, failed to make the playoffs). Nash and O’Neal appear to be on good terms. “Thanks for all the lob passes,” Shaq tweeted to Nash on Wednesday. “Love u boy boy.”
For the 2010 season, Shaq signed with Cleveland, forging one last partnership with another talented wingman, LeBron James. But O’Neal was far from Superman (another favorite nickname). Shaq failed to get James that title with his hometown team, and after an injury-plagued season with the Celtics, who lost to James and the Heat in the Eastern conference semifinals, he’s hanging up his size-22 shoes. Shaq was no longer a factor. The timing is right to step away.
But Shaq won’t disappear. He’ll keep firing away weird tweets (“da guys at @harvard helped me be a sleepin giant n not a snorin giant lol”). You can picture him hosting some kind of TV show. He has already dabbled on the small-screen, as the star of Shaq Vs, a summer series that debuted in 2009. On the show, O’Neal tries to outswim Michael Phelps, and cook a better burger than Rachel Ray.
And if we’re really lucky, Shaq will pursue his interest in law enforcement. “I want to be sheriff,” Shaq told TIME back in 2006. “I know I can run for sheriff and win because I’m Shaq. But if I win just because I’m Shaq, then my troops won’t respect me. But if my troops know I went to the police academy and I go out on warrants and do paperwork, then they’ll understand that I’m serious, that I’m really the man.”
America needs him to wrestle bad guys. And sports could always use more colorful characters like him. Though we’ll likely never see another Shaq.