Somewhere along the way, people forgot who the real Shaquille O’Neal was. Years of being a caricature of his former self, chasing rings with the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics muddied his true image.
He became the player more concerned with crafting cute nicknames and reality boxing shows than getting healthy, getting fit, hitting free throws and making an impact on whatever team he was playing for that week.
Shaq from 2006 to 2011 wasn’t the real Superman, though, just a cheap knock-off of an irreplaceable original.
No, the real Shaq played for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1996 until 2004, and when he was at his best, he was the most dominant force that ever graced the NBA. Three championships, three Finals MVPs, and one regular season MVP are a testament to his brilliance with the purple and gold, but none of those accolades accurately depict how badly he ate opposing defenses alive.
The way that despite being a massive personality off the court, he could back up every single bit of trash talk with athleticism, agility, underrated passing skill and unparalleled efficiency that had never before been seen from a player that towered at 7’1, 300+ pounds.
With the Orlando Magic, O’Neal was young and ripe for the schooling. Hakeem Olajuwon famously destroyed him in the 1995 NBA Finals -- which Shaq later admitted -- and showed him how far he still had to go to reach all-time great status. With the Miami Heat, Shaq was so far past his prime he could start his career all over again. That fourth title of his was the byproduct of Dwyane Wade’s immeasurable greatness, Dirk Nowitzki’s inability to close, and some really, really kind referees. Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston never happened, as far as I’m concerned.
In Los Angeles, though, that’s where Shaq was truly Superman. He was one of only four members of the Lakers to ever win an MVP award, a three-time All-Defensive Second Team member, had the sixth most all-star game selections in franchise history and broke countless free throw (attempts), rebounding and points records.
Not only does Shaq deserve to get his jersey retired by the Lakers, he also deserves a statue outside of the Staples Center before that whiny, little Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Granted, there were some not-so-great episodes during Shaq’s stint with the Lakers. The way he refused to stay in consistently good shape, costing the franchise God knows how many victories and potential titles. His ugly divorce with the team, coupled with the disparaging remarks about the Buss family, the fans and Kobe. His infamously awful, childish “Tell me how my…” rap.
It happens, though. Never forget, Kobe called Jerry Buss a liar at one point. Kareem publicly cried about the Lakers mistreating him. Phil Jackson wrote a book trashing Kobe, only to be welcomed back with open arms. That’s what you get with these generational talents, they have strange personalities and easy-to-bruise egos.
When you’re getting retrospective with the Big Diesel’s time with L.A., it’s best to take a step back and remember the good times. And with Shaq, there were a lot of good times.
On a grander scale, Shaq leaves professional basketball -- in a player capacity, at least -- as one of the best big men to ever lace up ridiculously huge shoes. Currently, he ranks fifth all-time in scoring with 28,596 points and 12th all-time in boards with 13,099 rebounds. He’s a guaranteed Hall of Famer, and his work as an ambassador for the game over the course of 19 undeniably entertaining years deserves recognition as well.
O’Neal may not have gone out with a Michael Jordan-esque crossover to clinch a championship for his team, but heck, neither did Michael Jordan. In the end, all we’re left with is impact, and Shaq’s impact was undeniable.
Thanks for the memories, Superman.
See you in the rafters.