So ends the magnificent career I detested.
I hated Shaq, and I suspect many of you also hated Shaq. Oh sure, you’re all about honoring his NBA memory now, but so much of that memory is wrapped around an off court persona. In the Twitter reaction to Shaq’s retirement, his novelty value was paramount. Kazaam this, Big Aristotle that. A pean to the idea of “dominance,” here or there. Not much waxing poetic about what he did with the rock.
People were mostly eulogizing that which O’Neal isn’t really taking from them with this retirement: If anything, he’ll be a bigger force in our living rooms for having shed the jersey. The emphasis on his charisma leads me to believe that few actually felt inspired by his gawky, stilted play. And if your spirit felt lifted for watching Shaq slow a basketball game into a cricket match, then we are powered by fundamentally different wiring.
I’m not one of those who chided O’Neal for never realizing his full potential because, the realization of that potential would have negatively correlated to my enjoyment of the NBA. The era of his dominance was brutal for a fan bent on loving basketball’s grace–because it unmasked the sport as something Shaq could dominate.
Yes, it’s an oversimplification to credit size for a career. O’Neal was quick, he had decent footwork and perceptive court vision. Though, when hoop scholars defend his skills, they often doth protest too much. This was mostly a triumph of mass and force. More importantly: It was gruelingly ugly to behold.
My objection can’t be reduced to “nobody roots for Goliath.” I loved Goliath’s arcing skyhook from those Showtime Lakers highlights. Goliath’s “Dream Shake” was fluid poetry during a mid-90’s era that stylistically looked like roller derby on quicksand. Goliath’s bank shot and spin move blessed the 2000’s Spurs with subtle artistry.
Shaq was the only great modern big man who actually played a Philistine brand of hoop.
The entry pass would arrive as all court movement ceased. O’Neal then slowly, deliberately, pounded floorboards with his dribble.
He would back his helpless defender towards the baseline.
He would whip around, elbows ominously (possibly illegally) jutted. Then, the coup de grace: A flat, one-handed shot put.
This was, sadly, very effective. His play was so dully fantastic that it nearly drove me from the ranks of NBA fandom back during the Lakers dynasty. It was always a drag on my enjoyment, and it made appreciating Kobe, Dwyane, and LeBron a fraught proposition at various points of their careers. As in: You get to see young 2002 Bryant work wonders, but you’re going to have to endure 30 Shaq isolations in between.
This is no fault of O’Neal’s who now rests on many, many laurels. He was great enough to temporarily ruin the sport, a unique accomplishment among living former players. His court play will be missed by many fans, but I would be remiss in praising its entertainment value.