The Big Undeniable

Each year I watch the McDonald’s High School All-American basketball game and try to determine who’s going to be the next NBA great. Watching LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, it was easy to see they were going to be stars, but many times the potential for stardom ends as soon as the buzzer sounds that night. In 1989, there was an undeniable talent on the court; he was bigger, stronger, his smile was broader and there was no doubt that he would be one of the greatest players of all-time.
Twenty-two years later Shaquille O’Neal has retired and taken his rightful place among the greatest to ever play the game, but I don’t think he’s getting the proper due deserved of his impact on the game. There has never been anyone to combine such size, speed, skill, strength and flair to the game; he revolutionized the sport when perimeter play had begun to dominate and also made the big man personable and marketable. Shaq became one of the most recognizable faces in the world beyond his ferocious dunks and stature, but because of his smile, his quips, his rap albums and even Kazaam.

We waited three seasons after that McDonald’s game for Shaq to make his NBA debut. Think about that, Shaquille O’Neal stayed in college for three years, we can’t get players with a quarter of his talent to spend two years on campus, but Shaq spent three years not only honing his game, but growing as a man and learning about the larger world he existed in. That, along with the way he was raised by his mother and step-father, has gone a long way to the type of man he’s become and finishing his degree and as he disclosed at his press conference, a Master’s degree and pursuit of a Ph.D.
All of this from a man who easily could’ve easily relied on his size and ability to dunk a ball to define him.

On the court, he dominated. I’ve never seen Wilt Chamberlain play, but I can’t imagine he played with the brute force that Shaq unleashed on opponents. Do you remember when he collapsed the basket support in New Jersey and Phoenix? How about the face defenders had when he caught the ball deep in paint? Sure, he battled with teammates who looked to assert their own greatness and challenged coaches and owners, but that’s all part of the business. On the court, he was all business and dunks and no-look passes and smiles. With the media, he was nicknames and great quotes and in the community, he was hero. Shaq has donated countless dollars and hours of time to various charities and areas where people of his status rarely travel. He arranged for tractor-trailers to deliver supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina and personally went to oversee the distribution. This is who Shaq is.
As a Laker fan, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with him because his battle with starting the season in shape and his part of the death of a dynasty, but I could never deny who he’s been on that court. He may be the last great true center to play the NBA game. I’m a little disappointed in the way Shaq retired, I remember to the farewell tours Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbaar had and I believe Shaq was worthy of that type of sendoff. He’s meant that much as an ambassador for the game, a beacon of light for kids in dire situations and the joy he’s brought to millions watching him control the paint and sweat at the foul line.  Whatever is next for Shaq, we know one thing; it’s going to be entertaining!

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