Biggest? Best? Funniest? Nah. But no one can do what Shaq did
One of the worst habits of journalists, including myself, is beginning sentences like this: "There will never be another ..." We do it all the time, caught in the moment, unable to remember the immutable truth that there is an unstoppable tide to history, players and events coming and going, coming and going, coming and going.
Still, I'm going to say this:
There will never be another Shaquille O'Neal. There will be (and has been) bigger players, and there may even be outright funnier players (though not many), but it was the combination of the two that made Shaq sui generis. "Nobody roots for Goliath," Wilt Chamberlain once said, and that was true ... until Shaq came along.
It figures that he would announce his retirement via Twitter. He was among the first athletes to put the "social" in social media. Shaq was the world's biggest circus clown (that's a compliment) and brought an antic sense to his profession that surpassed that of any athlete I ever covered. Kevin McHale was close -- the Boston Celtics forward once told me how complete his life would've been had he invented the phrase "cement pond" from "The Beverly Hillbillies" -- but McHale was a supporting player on teams led by Larry Bird, and, with Bird around, you couldn't get too antic. Shaq, by contrast, was always The Man in Charge, the Jester in Chief, his teams running on Diesel fuel.
I remember at least one analysis that rated O'Neal the greatest center ever, and that is plainly ridiculous. I put him fifth, behind, in some order, Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon. The same qualities that made Shaq irresistible off the court -- should we call it his inclination to be "child-like" or should we call it "immaturity?" -- conspired to limit his productivity. No matter what his claims to the contrary, he never worked as hard as he should've in the offseason, and he broke down too often and probably too soon.
But when Shaq was at his best -- in his first 14 seasons when he averaged 26.2 points per game -- no center besides Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar was as dominant at the offensive end. Yes, he had a certain brute force to his game -- no elegant skyhooks a la Kareem -- but he was an underrated passer with a court sense that rivaled that of another great pivotman, Bill Walton. I'm not sure anyone has ever dominated a Finals for three straight years the way that Shaq did during the Lakers' first three-peat that began in 2000. Had he been so inclined, and had he not had the talented Kobe Bryant as a teammate, I truly believe that Shaq could've averaged 50 a game against the Pacers, the 76ers and the Nets.
It was during the Nets series that Shaq began a memorable press conference with this statement: "So I was in the bathroom taking a [blank] when Rick Adelman comes on and ..." He then took a potshot -- a potty-shot really -- at the then-Sacramento Kings coach for complaining about the refereeing in the just-concluded Western Conference finals. It didn't matter that Adelman had a point or that Shaq himself would've been complaining the loudest had his Lakers come out on the short end. He had us at "So I was in the bathroom."
My favorite Shaq moment goes back to his rookie year when we were working on a book together, the first of many about The Big Subject. (Jackie MacMullan is working on another right now.) I was told that Shaq couldn't be interviewed that day because he was sleeping, but I insisted that I had to see him. I went up to his room and there he was, stretched out in all his 85-inch, 320-pound glory, completely covered by a sheet.
"Put the tape recorder by the pillow," he mumbled. And I spent the next 30 minutes at his side, asking questions and watching the sheet go up and down as Shaq answered them.
He was always bigger than life, even when you couldn't see him.