By Arturo R. García
Shaquille O’Neal announced his retirement from professional basketball Wednesday in the video posted above, telling his fans, “We did it. Nineteen years, baby. Thank you very much. That’s why I’m telling you first: I’m about to retire. Love you. Talk to you soon.”
O’Neal leaves the NBA with four world championships under his belt, capping a resume that includes 28,596 points scored – good for fifth place on the all-time scoring list – along with 14 All-NBA Team selections, 15 All-Star Game selections, an Olympic gold medal and 13,099 rebounds. But – and this is a guess – it’s perhaps more satisfying for O’Neal that he was able to one-up his idol, Wilt Chamberlain: not only did he win, not only did he command attention, but he got people to “root for Goliath,” defying Chamberlain’s famous lament.
Shaq made himself less intimidating by cultivating a persona that was, at the time he rose up the professional ranks, unique in the NBA: a funny, yet competent, giant. Not that O’Neal didn’t make his share of mistakes: not just his foul-mouthed rhymes directed at then-L.A. Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant, and their accompanying feud, but his racist taunt against Yao Ming in 2002; and [insert your own Kazaam joke here.]
But compared to other players of his era, O’Neal’s schtick was a breath of fresh air. Michael Jordan grabbed more titles and was in more commercials, but while MJ put on a good smile for the camera, everybody knew he was really happiest crushing somebody’s will. And neither Wilt nor an older Jordan would have been able to put on a display like this near the end of their runs:
Nor would either of them have allowed the public to see them sharing this kind of levity – particularly with players who had by that time passed them by on the superstar totem pole:
In a funny way, that second clip might highlight a more underrated aspect of Shaq’s legacy: with his forays from sport into music, film, law enforcement, social media – he posted his video announcement on Twitter, naturally – and, near the end, reality television, O’Neal set the tone for the next wave of jocks like LeBron James and Dwight Howard who define themselves as their own brands on top of their team affiliations. O’Neal created a cult of personality that didn’t depend on titles. Sure, three-peating with the Lakers and winning another championship with Dwyane Wade in Miami helped, but it’s his personality and his unique combination of size, coordination and comic timing that will resonate with casual fans the most. He might not be the best ever to play the game, but at his best, O’Neal seemed to be having the most fun with it. There’s worse ways to be remembered.