Memories / The gentle giant
O'Neal's retirement triggers recollections of encouters with the affable center.
Shaquille O'Neal's recently announced retirement from the NBA marked the end of a unique career. Shaq was a larger-than-life figure both on and off the court. At 7' 1 1/2" (2.17m ) and a listed weight of 325lbs (147kg ) - though most of his career he probably weighed considerably more - O'Neal was an unstoppable physical presence around the basket, while his warmth, antics and fun-loving personality continually kept him on center stage.
O'Neal's announcement was greeted by the media with tributes, analyses of his career and a flood of personal memories.
My first recollection of O'Neal is of his freshman season at Louisiana State University, in a contest against Georgia Tech during the Sweet Sixteen of the 1990 NCAA championship tournament. Shaq was a man-child who had barely turned 18 years of age at the time.
In the first half, Shaq thoroughly dominated and overpowered Tech's older, more mature frontcourt. My unforgettable memory came at a critical juncture in the game's waning moments as Tech's All-American point guard Kenny Anderson was headed downcourt for an uncontested breakaway bucket. O'Neal tracked the 6-foot Anderson down from three-quarter's the length of the court and blocked his attempted layup. Although LSU eventually lost this thriller 94-91, it was clear to me that I had witnessed an unparalleled combination of height, strength, speed, talent and overall athleticism.
My next memory of Shaq came in his initial NBA season with the Orlando Magic. I had recently made a career move, into sports journalism, and Shaq was the first NBA player that I ever interviewed, so you can say we were both rookies.
Shaq took time out from frolicking with his teammates in the locker room to give me 15 minutes of his time. I had never encountered such an immense human being in my life. Shaq was no ordinary 7-footer. He seemed to be seven feet wide as well.
What touched me even more was his warmth, his boyish enthusiasm (which still exists ) and his gentleness. Shaq's hands were enormous and often cited as one of the causes of his chronic woes at the free-throw line, as if he were gripping a grapefruit instead of a basketball. At one juncture, we shook hands and in a moment of terror I saw my hand completely disappear within his. The fear abated when he gently returned my hand.
At the conclusion of the interview, I made the rookie mistake of asking him for an autograph for my son, the ultimate locker room no-no. Shaq gladly obliged to be an accomplice in my indiscretion.
During O'Neal's 19-year NBA career, he played under the shadow of enormous expectations, winning four championship rings. The off-the-court images of O'Neal became part of pop culture, such as the various nicknames (Shaq Fu, Shaq Diesel, The Big Aristotle, etc. ), the smiling giant in cap and gown, or the biggest cop on the block during his off-season forays with local law enforcement officials.
O'Neal was only a shadow of himself, during his final four seasons due to age and injury. Unlike other fading sports idols, who the public silently waits to retire and stop tarnishing their image, we were always hoping for a little more magic, a little more fun and maybe another championship.
Title contenders like the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, all added Shaq to their rosters between 2007 and this season, in the hope that 15-20 minutes of quality time from the aging center would be the difference between titlist and also-ran. Shaq's final season, which just concluded in Boston, typified the final years of his career. On the court, in limited minutes, he was a valuable member of the Celtic's starting five, until an injury in February effectively shut him down for the remainder of the season.
Off the court, he posed as a human statue in Harvard Square before the season. He also helped warm the hearts of Bostonians during a particularly brutal winter, when, adorned in a tux, he probably earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for tallest symphony conductor by leading the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Upon hearing of O'Neal's retirement, the Sacramento Kings co-owner, Joe Maloof, labeled Shaq an American Icon. I couldn't agree more.