Thursday, June 2, 2011

Legacy assured, Los Angeles will retire Shaquille O’Neal’s jersey

The recently retired Shaquille O'Neal(notes) will eventually have his number retired by the Los Angeles Lakers, as promised by the team's longtime spokesman, which means there appears to be no bad blood between O'Neal and the organization that traded him to Miami back in the summer of 2004.
As first reported by ESPN's Dave McMenamin, the Lakers appear poised to raise O'Neal's number 34 into the Staples Centers rafters, while O'Neal's former championship partner and combatant Kobe Bryant(notes) watches while in Laker duds. The team essentially (and rightfully) chose Bryant over O'Neal back in 2004 as the two rowed, but all seems to be forgiven in the several years since, and Lakers spokesman John Black was quick to confirm the jersey retirement on the day of O'Neal's NBA retirement.
From an email sent to McMenamin, Black discusses the team's plans:
"We don't have any specific timetable on this, but you can be assured we will retire Shaq's jersey.
"At this point in time I'd guess there's a really good chance that Kobe will still be playing in five years, and by that time Shaq will be elected to the HOF and we will have retired his jersey."
And though O'Neal's potency has been fading for years, it's just starting to hit home that we won't have a Shaquille O'Neal to watch play basketball for the first time since the 1991-92 season. For all manner of NBA fans, that's an increasingly strange thought.
I suppose the nicest thing I can say about Shaquille O'Neal is that, save for the months leading up to the 2010-11 season, I was scared of the guy.
Not his personality or stature -- O'Neal has made a point to act as the loveable big fella throughout his career -- but as a player. At every stop during his NBA career, I assumed the weight of the NBA would tilt as a result of his presence. Not as an out and out championship favorite, mind you, but something not far off. And up to and including his time struggling up and down the court with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009-10, I assumed the man was going to make a near-championship level difference. Usually I was right.
I'm not alone in that. Ask any current or former player, and they'll tell you that O'Neal's literal stature gave opponents or teammates pause more than any other contemporary they'd ever been around. These men have been around Kareem, Wilt, Yao, Dwight Howard(notes) or even David Robinson's squared shoulders, and yet it was Shaq that drew the second look. The man just exuded bigness. And, amongst all the proper big men this league has seen, he was the one most proud of his largesse.
Often to a fault. A short jumper? That wasn't ever really added to his arsenal. Same with a lefty hook, a solid free-throw stroke, or an ability to contest well on screen and rolls. Worse, O'Neal took great delight in publicly taking down other big men whose games didn't pass O'Neal's particular sniff test. There may have been holes to Vlade Divac or Chris Bosh's(notes) game that didn't hold up to Shaq's career averages, but they hardly deserved his on-record scorn.
Things didn't stop with finesse 7-footers, either. Save for Cleveland and (at press time) Boston, O'Neal has sent passive/aggressive shots at each of his former teams. And though each of these former teams failed to win a championship in Shaq's final year with them, none of these shots were really deserved.
Orlando provided O'Neal with a stellar supporting cast, but fell short in 1995 and 1996 due mainly to the holes in O'Neal's game. Kobe Bryant may have acted a prat, and the Lakers bench was definitely lacking, but Shaq's poor conditioning was perhaps the biggest factor in Los Angeles' playoff losses in 2003 and 2004. Miami went all "WIN NOW!" with Shaq from 2004-06, and it failed as his and Dwyane Wade's(notes)bodies failed them. Phoenix broke up a potentially championship core to align themselves with a Shaq-brand of orthodoxy, and fell short when that normality didn't deliver. In Shaq's eyes, at every spot, nothing was his fault.
Or maybe, in his eyes, everything was his fault. It might be the biggest reason behind that anger.

This was the man that was routinely criticized for failing to win, at every level besides a ringer-run 1994 World Championships, between his first year at LSU and his first NBA title in June of 2000. And even coming off that season for the ages, O'Neal had to watch as Bryant took half the credit from media types following 1999-00. This, and a lack of re-entry passes as someone takes a long jumper that doesn't go in, is what creates petulance. It's no excuse for rude words and/or showing up to camp out of shape, but you can see why O'Neal went there.
And you can see why he went wherever he went. Orlando, after a draft. Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston. It's because O'Neal thought, and probably still thinks, that his sort of basketball owns above all else. And who's to say he's wrong, in a thing like that?
Not just because of the breathless odes we wrote regarding his newly established presence, at each of these stops. But because this is how basketball still works. If you have a chance at a talented player taking the highest-percentage shot available, you go to that player. At times, basketball can be stiflingly complex, and yet it still comes down to simple tenets that will (and hopefully never will) go away. If you see the big man in the lane, feed him the ball. Wash, rinse, repeat in whatever city you're paid to be in.
This is why we need people like Shaquille O'Neal around. It doesn't matter if they've scored 60 points in a game, or if they don't even top 60 inches in height. The game needs people repeating this mantra. We'll put up with all the childish posturing just as long as the singular message stays the same. This game, forever and ever amen, will always go inside-out.
So keep on, Brother O'Neal. Keep talking, ToutingTwittering and towering. You changed the game, without changing a single thing about it.

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