Shaq gave us true happiness

Published Jun. 2, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

The good Brett Favre. That’s how I’ll remember Shaquille O’Neal.

Brett Favre, old and broken down, left football with three MVP trophies, nearly every significant passing record, one Super Bowl title and an exaggerated importance in football history thanks to John Madden, Peter King and the rest of the football media with access to Favre’s cell number.

Shaquille O’Neal, old and broken down, retired from basketball Wednesday with one MVP trophy, few records, four NBA titles and a largely undervalued importance in basketball history thanks to serving as his own hype man.

This column is not about pitting Shaq vs. Brett or denigrating one to uplift the other. I guess if I had to pick one, I’d choose Shaq’s authenticity and transparency over Brett’s awe-shucks modesty.

But the truth is, O’Neal and Favre are cut from the same cloth. They both love the camera. Out of necessity, Shaq bought a camcorder. Favre simply cooperated with every enthusiastic cameraman.

I already regret the first sentence of this column. “The good Brett Favre.” It implies that Favre was bad. And maybe all he really was, was privileged, a benefactor of a sport free to celebrate the virtues of its stars, particularly if they happened to be Caucasian, and gloss over their shortcomings.

Coverage of the NBA begins with examination and then moves to celebration. It’s a black league plagued by fair and unfair negative stereotypes. Coverage of the NFL begins with celebration and slowly moves to Roger Goodell-approved examination.


John Madden and Peter King vs. Charles Barkley and Bill Simmons/Adrian Wojnarowski.

One group has a reputation for cleverly saying whatever the hell it wants about basketball and the other has a reputation for serving as NFL cheerleaders. How do these reputations manifest themselves?

Brett Favre was a kid out there who loved to play the game. Shaq was a lovable, immature, lazy underachiever.

Reality: Brett and Shaq equally loved their games and probably could’ve squeezed more success out of them had they developed more mature offseason approaches. But had they been more mature, less in love with the camera, they would’ve been far less interesting.

I’m glad they took us along for the ride in such an intimate way. In exposing their flaws, including their vanity, they helped me understand their packaged peers.

At age 64 and some 20 years after retirement, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finally is comfortable enough with himself to be himself. He wants a statue at Staples Center. He wants Scottie Pippen to know who the greatest scorer in league history really is.

Vanity inspires greatness.

Shaq’s combination of vanity and self-deprecation made him the ideal celebrity athlete. It made him real and self-aware.

I have little interest in debating Shaq’s place in hoops history. He’s not as important as Bill Russell, not as skilled as Kareem, not as dominant as Wilt.

I bet Shaq is/was happier than all three. OK, that’s probably a byproduct of the hardships they endured and the freedom they created for Shaq. But it also speaks to the appropriateness of Shaq’s mindset/approach.

He enjoyed his time wearing the crown. He rapped. He ate. He made movies. He policed. He joked. He laughed. He tweeted. He fell in and out of love and marriages. He fully engaged in life.

Shaq didn’t waste time trying to get Kobe Bryant or the media to understand just how heavy the crown weighs on a giant. Shaq gave enough of himself to basketball to carry three different franchises to the NBA Finals and make three additional teams believe he was the key missing ingredient to getting their franchises there.

That’s enough.

In the wake of Tiger Woods’ collapse, I’ve had an awakening about imposing my desires as a fan on how I judge or interpret athletes. A few years ago I wrote a column chastising Serena Williams for not focusing more energy on being the greatest tennis player of all time. I wanted Serena to be single-minded and dogged like Tiger and Jordan. I regret that column.

Within reason, people need to do whatever makes them happy.

As an athlete, celebrity and entertainer, Shaq struck the perfect balance. That’s why I’ll remember him as the good Brett Favre.