Shaquille O’Neal to Sign with the Celtics: It’s Time for a Confession
Shaquille O’Neal is a gun for hire, so it’s no surprise he will suit up for his fourth team in as many seasons this fall (and the sixth for his career). And, with every organization he joins, he dons not only a new jersey but a new nickname. He’s been Superman, Shaq Diesel, the Big Aristotle, the Big Cactus, the Big Ohio, and people have already begun to call him the Big Shamrock. These names are not frivolous, but they are the effort of fans and the media to define a career that is, with each passing season, unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed. And, seeing as the man needs almost as many names as God, they are also a sign of his hubris, or a showcase of his omnipotence in all things basketball and his omnipresence within the League’s historical timeline.
Shaq’s been the up and comer, who wasn’t quite ready. See: ’95 Finals and Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s been the champion and gravitational force that brings order to the universe. See: 2000 to 2004. He’s been the banished hero. See: summer of 2004. He’s been the wise mentor. See: time spent in Miami. He’s been the perceived dead weight; the clog in the artery; the cerebral hemorage. See: time spent in Phoenix. He’s been the silence of statistics and empty promises. See: Cleveland.
His career spans eons and burns on like the relic of another time and place, and he’s been just about everything a player can be, except for, perhaps–loved–unconditionally and unequivocally, the cost of his own domineering personality, that is matched only by his physical size, and the one thing he’s ever really wanted (how else do we explain his movie career?).
When Shaquille O’Neal first entered the League, hurtling himself across the hardwood, on his belly, tongue flapping in the air, like a meteorite, there were those who dismissed the man as too raw and too brash, and when Hakeem disected him like a frog in the Finals, there were those who decided his game was all physical force and no charm–not a delicate series of adaptations, or years of perfecting footwork or a soft release. At the foul line, he was a brute, bullying the rim into submission, and when it decided to only surrender itself 52.7% of the time, we decided this man was all muscle and no brain; and rooting for the Big Goliath became like rooting for the ham in professional wrestling, or the wooly mammoth in the hunt. We wanted to see him dropkicked and staggering, his side full of spears.
For a player who averaged over 25 ppg and over ten rebounds in ten of his first eleven seasons, while playing with other all-stars, there were always subtle jabs at his level of skill and dedication. He was never in good enough shape. He lacked effort on defense. He was too much Wilt and not enough Russell. But, for a man who is about to enter his nineteenth NBA season, stands over seven feet tall, and weighs approximately 330 pounds, it becomes difficult to dismiss his dedication to the game (the only great centers that rival him in seasons played are Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
In seven of his 18 seasons, Shaq did miss at least 20 games, but using Yao Ming as a prime example, just how much wear and tear is a body of that size designed to take over an extended period of time? When Shaquille O’Neal can barely walk the length of a basketball court at age 70, it will be because he gave his body to the game of basketball his own legacy.
To those who criticize his defense, there is the career average of 2.4 bpg, which is comparable to Dikembe Mutombo’s 2.8 bpg, as well as the countless players, like Kevin Garnett, who after a night of playing against Shaq uttered something akin to you try banging against a brick wall and getting hit with a sledge hammer all night. Shaq may never have been the most efficient of defenders, and he never could guard the pick and roll; but there is something to be said for intimidation.
There is something to be said for magic and mystery. Did the Lakota believe the buffalo to be otherworldly because the design of its physical qualities allowed for every piece of it to be used after the hunt, or did its mystic qualities precede its death and transformation into tents, tools, and weapons? Because, despite the erosion of his explosiveness and the piecemealing of his skill set, Shaq is still a useful player, even if he no longer inspires awe, so at what point does overanalyzing what Shaquille O’Neal is not interfere with seeing what he is and still can be? A rebounder. A few easy buckets in the paint. And an enforcer.
From Orlando to Miami, Shaquille O’Neal’s career was much more Wilt than Russell, much more about himself than the team. He followed the glitz of Hollywood from Orlando to LA. He racked up points and was an unstoppable force in the paint. The court was his unending prairie in which to graze, everything came so easily to the big fella that we dismissed the Pythagorean equations and thereoms that went into his numbers and accepted them to be the same as Wilt’s 10,000 women: perverse and unnatural.
We began to claim that this man did what he did only as a result of his size, that the refs allowed him to lead with his shoulder and to clear out the lane illegally because even they were scared by him. So we ignored his passing ability and how he used his pivot foot. He became all wrecking ball and no swinging chain. But the dumbing down of Shaquille O’Neal was not just a distaste for his old fashioned, center-based style of ball, it was a distaste for his ego as well; his spats with every other great player who came through “his” lockerroom, his need for the lockerroom to be “his” in the first place, and his constant insistence that he was the maker of champions, like Samuel anointing the kings of Israel, except Shaquille was never called by God–for him, the voice always came from within, and it was this egregious amount of cockiness that has caused people to already whisper–not even a decade removed from the feat–that Kobe was the sole proprietor of his and O’Neal’s Laker dynasty. It is the man’s need to be godlike that makes him appear so desperately human, so feeble, so pathetic and shrunken in stature.
So Shaq joins Boston, diminished and unnerved, having failed to anoint Steve Nash, Amar’e, and even King James, showing that he has no more control over the League’s future than you or I, leaving everyone to question what does he have left to give other than his physical body–and that’s exactly the point. For Shaq’s stint in Boston to matter, he has to accomplish something as a small, impotent man, tied to his mortality, rather than as Cronus, Zeus, or Poseidon.
His destiny is no longer to dream and create perfect worlds but to ruin them with a touch of his own humanity.
Make no mistake about it, Shaq’s job is to literally flatten any Celtic opponent who ventures near the basket. He is not being asked to score or make assists. He is being asked to clear land for a new Celtic cathedral, in which to beg forgiveness for all his past assumptions that he was the center of divinity, using his forearms like axes and shovels with which to treat the Wades, Boshes, and LeBrons of the world like tree trunks. He is being asked to toil in the mud, not to shine, or receive credit. He is being asked to do the one thing he has yet to do: be satisfied with being thankless, to enjoy being hated, to enjoy being the wrinkle.
Shaq’s excursion into Boston is a pilgrimage of the infidel into the land of the holy. The Big Ego, the Gasoline Id, finishes his westward journey by limping back to the east, like a diesel truck that has to be pushed along the side of the road to the site of the NBA’s greatest dynasty, to play in Russell’s green and white and to kneel at the altar of Red Auerbach. He is no longer a star in the universe–a nova at best, who will sit behind Kendrick Perkins upon his return from a knee injury–and the only way this works is if Shaq shows humility, if he acknowledges that the legacies of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce are already forged, and he is here for once in his career to serve those around him and to do that only. Without any delusions of grandeur, he must give himself up to the hunt graciously. Like a bison roaming the plains, it is time for Shaquille O’Neal to become The Big Sacrifice.
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