Shaq always connected with the fans

In 1992, Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie year, Sports Illustrated basketball scribe Jack McCallum followed the 7-foot-1 Orlando Magic center throughout a weekend road trip to the Big Apple. While roaming around Times Square on a Saturday morning with teammate Dennis Scott, O’Neal grumbled about his dislike for the Manhattan traffic before shooting Scott an ear-to-ear smile. It was at that moment that Shaq looked up and, with what McCallum described as “a bit of awe,” said, “Right in this area, they filmed ‘Home Alone 2.’”

Shaq was just 20 years old at the time, but it’s that very same “bit of awe,” that same unbridled childhood exuberance, and that same unmistakable smile that he had on a Saturday morning in 1992, that kept NBA fans loving Shaquille O’Neal for 19 unparalleled seasons.

You’re not supposed to love NBA big men. Bill Russell was never the most liked or appreciated player on those great Celtics teams. Knicks fans always considered Patrick Ewing too soft, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar never won any popularity contests, even with the “Airplane!” and Bruce Lee movie cameos.

Shaq defied the norm. He was a brutal, menacing behemoth on the court, a downright punishing force — and amazingly, we loved him every step of the way.

And that’s because he was different.

To an NBA fan who grew with the game in the early ’90’s, reared on Saturday mornings watching “NBA Inside Stuff,” afternoons spent humming John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock," and years collecting SkyBox trading cards, Shaq will forever be in a league of his own. When many of the league’s younger stars seemed to cower and quiver in the presence of the NBA legends of that era, Shaq was out posting monster numbers and laying down ridiculous rhymes.

He was one of us. He was just a big, fun-loving kid who happened to be dominant in the game of basketball.

I recall exactly where I was — the downstairs Sam Goody in the Freehold Raceway Mall in Freehold, N.J. — when I first heard O’Neal’s minute-long verse in the Fu-Schnickens’ 1993 rap single, “What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock).” In a flurry of lyrics, Shaq mentions Tony Danza in “Who’s the Boss” and Mary Poppins, and takes shots at Christian Laettner and Alonzo Mourning, his fellow first-round picks from the 1992 draft.

Shortly after the Fu-Schnickens single was released, Kenner Toys came out with a Shaq action figure line. A bit too old to still be strolling into the local Toys ‘R Us, I still shamelessly collected them all. “Kazaam,” “Steel,” “Blue Chips” — my friends and I saw each one of his films. Hell, we probably saw them on the first night.

While others will point to his four NBA championship rings, his 15 All-Star Game appearances and his career averages of 23.7 points and 10.9 rebounds, it’ll always be his personality and off-the-court antics that truly set Shaq apart from the game’s other mega-stars. Even at 39 years of age, as a member of the Boston Celtics this past season, he led the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall and took part in a series of pranks on video with his diminutive teammate Nate Robinson.

Whether it was 1992 or 2011, Shaq wasn’t Alonzo Mourning and he certainly wasn’t Christian Laettner. Nor was he Russell, Ewing or the icy Abdul-Jabbar. At 20 or at 40, Shaq was Shaq. You knew who you were getting. And for that, we were always in his corner.

Over the years, there were the goofy quotes (“My game’s like the Pythagorean Theorem. It ain’t got no answer.”), the witty quotes (“Guys have made livings off me. Nick Anderson got a new contract. Travis Knight got a new contract off me. As a matter of fact, Derek Fisher called me yesterday to thank me, too.”), and the trash talking quotes (“We’re not worried about the Sacramento Queens. Not at all.”). He was the master of the postgame news conference sound bite. A quickly edited “Top Ten” list doesn’t do justice to his unique way with words. His quotes deserve their own special wing in Springfield.

Shaq played for six NBA teams, publicly quarreled with teammate Kobe Bryant and tried his hand at law enforcement. He made cameos in countless movies and TV sitcoms and took countless shots at Vlade Divac and the rest of the Sacramento “Queens.” He donated millions to charitable causes, gave away tricked-out SUVs to loyal Power 106 listeners, and labeled LSU as “Love Shaq University” at his graduation ceremony. He bought teammate Mark Madsen a new wardrobe when Madsen was drafted by the Lakers in 2000, and mocked Madsen’s 2001 victory parade dance moves for years to come.

And yet perhaps his most innovative and lasting off-the-court contribution was his ability to see the potential in a little known social networking site called Twitter.

Back in November 2008, when Shaq first joined the fledgling website, few in the sports world had any idea that Twitter would explode into the social media and news-breaking necessity it has become. With just about every professional and college athlete now detailing what they’re watching on TV on an hourly basis for their legions of followers, Shaq set the standard with player-to-fan direct communication years ago.

@Shaq didn’t bang you over the head with a barrage of self-serving Tweets, and he rarely used the service to promote the products he was endorsing. He was just funny. He was cool. At 7-1, in his late 30s, and with millions of dollars in the bank, he was still just one of us, typing away on his keyboard.

The fact that O’Neal announced his retirement over Twitter, and not in a scripted, “Decision”-like TV event, should be of little shock to anyone. It was only fitting. He always had that connection with his fans. He spoke to us directly with no filter and no pretense. When he had news, he shared it with us. Wednesday afternoon’s announcement was no different.

In that ’92 McCallum profile, the author writes of the rookie, “O’Neal is no doubt due an attack of cynicism sometime soon, but for now he is the archetypal gentle giant, smiling while he stoops to pick a daisy.”

Incredibly, that “sometime soon” never came. Shaq was Shaq for 19 glorious years.

Thankfully, we don’t have to say goodbye. We’ll be his audience for as long as he’ll have us.