Sunday, June 5, 2011

Shaquille O'Neal Retires, Leaves Behind Larger Than Life Legacy

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

While the stats are impressive, it’s almost a shame they commanded so much attention during Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement press conference. Because Shaq was so much more than just the 28,596 points he scored, the 13,099 rebounds he grabbed, or the 2,732 shots he blocked.

Even the various MVP awards and, yes, the four NBA Championships he won are only a small part of the giant man’s career.

There were many other things that set Shaq apart from the rest of the players in the NBA.

The first thing that fans noticed about Shaq, the first thing that drew me to the sport of basketball, was of course his unique skill set. He was, in the first half of his career, a beautiful blend of power and finesse. Power dominates the equation, for sure, but Shaq Fu could run the court and was fairly athletic, especially for his immense size.

But really, who was able to stop Shaq? He would bowl over anybody in the post that tried to stop him. His size and strength made him a sheer force. It became so hard to stop him that teams began employing the “Hack-a-Shaq” tactic, fouling him deliberately in the hope (and often times the likely outcome) that he would miss his free throws.

It wasn’t just his opponents O’Neal would go after with tenacity either; he attacked the basket with an unseen amount of power.

After Darryl Dawkins ripped the rim off the backboard a few too many times, the way the basket was built was changed. So Shaq he couldn’t take the rim down the court with him? No problem, he just took the entire basket down to the court.

Another O’Neal staple was his smile, one that stretched across his entire face and sparkled like something out of a toothpaste commercial. Shaq appreciated the opportunities he had thanks to basketball and he enjoyed every single one of them. While he came up with an incredible amount of nicknames for himself, another that would seem fitting for him is “The Big Kid”. He celebrated big plays with a memorable candor. He joked around with teammates and played pranks on them.

He also was cooperative and playful with the media. He was always good for a sound bite and really enjoyed the attention. Shaq even mentioned that one reason he wanted to have his press conference at his house was so he could host the media and feed them, thanking them for a 19-year relationship.

Most importantly though, Shaq was one of the most accessible players to the fans—the ones who helped make him as big a superstar as he was—and was one of the most charitable players in the league.

Shaq was one of the first athletes to really use Twitter to connect with his fans, offering contests to meet him and win tickets to games.

His charity efforts often get overlooked. He helped supply and distribute necessities to victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He gets involved in countless charity events and his “Shaq-A-Claus” routine, delivering toys to less fortunate children on Christmas, is a huge hit.

O’Neal doesn’t isn’t charitable because it’s good for his image, he does it—often times without any fanfare—because, it seems, that he honestly thinks it’s the right thing to do. Fitting that such a large man would also have such a large heart.

Sure Shaq had his moody moments or questionable comments, but he was a true role model. He was never in trouble with the league or the law. He valued education and went back to school, finishing his undergrad degree, obtaining his Master’s and beginning the process of earning a PhD. He is a family man and, backed by his examples of charity and forays into law enforcement, always looks out for the good of others.

After 19 seasons in the NBA there are many fond memories of The Diesel. It’s hard to imagine someone that will capture the attention and entertain the fans as well as O’Neal did, and he will be terribly missed.

That being said, it’s also hard to believe that this will be the last we hear of him. Because once an entertainer, always an entertainer.

Clips from Shaq's retirement press conference. Video from ESPN.

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