Farewell, Big Retirement: Shaq will be missed

Leave it to Shaq.

At the start of the NBA finals, the Big Aristotle – or whatever

nickname he’s going by these days – has managed to steal the

spotlight.

Shaquille O’Neal didn’t need 140 characters. He didn’t need any

punctuation or capitalization. All it took was a simple message on

Twitter: ”im retiring”.

With that proclamation, Shaq has been the banner headline the

past few days. And there’s more to come. He will officially call it

a career Friday in Orlando, Fla., an event that figures to be more

party than press conference.

Now that’s how you announce a decision, LeBron.

The behemoth who ran on Diesel won four NBA titles and exits

stage left as probably the fourth-best center in NBA history

(behind Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain,

ahead of Hakeem Olajuwan, George Mikan and David Robinson).

Shaq the Entertainer, however, has no NBA peer.

He came along at just the right time for the NBA, ready and

willing to take over after Michael Jordan won the last of his six

titles and the league was staggered by a devastating labor

dispute.

He rapped. He made movies. He pontificated on basketball and

life (even law enforcement) for whoever would listen, droning on in

a low voice that was sometimes impossible to decipher but always

flashing those mischievous eyes, leaving you to question whether

anything he told you was to be taken seriously, even if you

understood him.

We were all putty in his massive grip.

Heck, we won’t even hold ”Kazaam” against him.

”I remember meeting him on the elevator my rookie year,”

Dallas center Brendan Haywood was saying Thursday, looking back on

their encounter during an All-Star weekend in Philadelphia, ”and

he asked me, ‘Are you good? Is your family good? Do you need any

money?’ I was like, ‘No, I’m good Shaq, but thanks for

offering.’

”He was just that type of person. He was a good person.”

Wade saw it firsthand.

”I really learned a lot from him as a professional,” Wade

said. ”We had some great years together. Humbled, and totally

honored, to have been a teammate. But as a fan, seeing the

dominance of what he did will never be forgotten.”

So what more can Shaq possibly tell us? He’s already opened up

through every conduit imaginable, whether it was playing a genie on

film or becoming one of the first athletes to jump on board the

social media train.

He mocked. He enchanted. He infuriated. He charmed.

He was simply, Shaq.

No last name necessary.

”To me,” said Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki, ”he’s one of the

all-time greats – not only on the court, but off the floor. Over

the years, being in the same locker room in All-Star games, he’s

one of the funniest characters this league has ever seen. So he’s

going to be missed.”

When a giant of any sport fades away, the race is on to put

their careers in instant perspective. Sizing up Shaq, many looked

down on him (well, actually up, but you get the point) as someone

who benefited from genetic good fortune, a guy who was capable of

simply knocking aside anyone who got in his way.

And, it’s true that he was quite the physical specimen, checking

in at 7-foot-1 and more than 300 pounds, but all of it proportioned

in such a way that it didn’t look freakish. If you think he looked

big on television, you should’ve seen him in person. He stood apart

in the crowd, even in a league where 6-footers are considered

tiny.

Shaq was the unquestioned NBA star of this century, no matter

who was on the team. Kobe played with Shaq, D-Wade took a ride, as

did LeBron. And in the twilight of his career playing with Boston’s

Big Three, even an ineffective Shaq was the darling of Beantown. He

even took a turn with a baton and tails, conducting the Boston

Pops.

”I think he’s probably one of the only big men to ever play

this game to be able to market and to be able to be marketable off

the court,” James said.

But for all of Shaq’s accomplishments – a 15-time All-Star, a

three-time finals MVP, a two-time scoring champion – there was this

sense he could’ve been more. If only he had kept himself in better

shape. If only he had worked a little harder. If only he had spent

more time on his game and less time entertaining.

We can see that side. Shaq captured only one MVP award, in 2000

during the first of his four championship seasons. Despite his

enormity, he never led the league in rebounding. He was never a

first-teamer on the All-Defensive team. He was never quite

Jordanesque.

But that’s OK. MJ played up in the clouds, aloof and a bit out

of reach for both peers and admirers. For all of Shaq’s

persnicketiness – yes, he could be a handful with the media – there

was a sense he was one of us.

”He always had something funny to say, always made you smile,

made you laugh,” Nowitzki said. ”His personality was great.”

Shaq was a role model for players such as Dallas’ Tyson

Chandler, a high school star in Compton while O’Neal was in all his

glory with the Los Angeles Lakers. Even as the game began to pass

him by, ruled now by teeny point guards with all their speed and

quickness, Shaq was still an enormous presence.

”He meant so much to youngsters like myself coming up in the

game,” Chandler said. ”He mentored a lot of us. And it was always

a pleasure to watch him. He never disappointed.”

That’s good enough for us.

Farewell, Big AARP.

You’ll be missed.

National Writer Paul Newberry can be reached at

pnewberry(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963