Friday, June 3, 2011

End of an Era - Shaq Retires

1994 - the first year I got fully into loving sports. Shaquille O'Neal was one of the first athletes I knew and like most folks, I was in awe of this giant who dominated the court and was all over TV in commercials, movies and video games. Even though I started my jersey collection with Larry Johnson and Chris Mullin, Shaq's was the one I really wanted.

With the Diesel finally retiring, I thought about the 10 year old me who remembered when Shaq was the biggest dude in the world and he and Penny Hardaway were supposed to be the next dynasty. The kid who bought Shaq Fu even though he'd find out the game was terrible, watched Blue Chips and still thinks it's a great movie and both felt sadness and happiness the day Shaq came to Los Angeles the same year I graduated elementary school.

I'll never forget a camp counselor at my day camp coming up to me a week after he signed. He knew I was a big Orlando fan and he walked right up to me and said, "I only have one thing to say. SHAQ's A LAKER!"

I followed Shaq every step of his career. I got that Orlando jersey after he left  but I wore my Lakers one out to death. He was my favorite player growing up and in the 90's, he and Allen Iverson had the star power that would help transition the game from Michael Jordan to a new era.

And yes, I played the mess out of his hits "Shoot Pass Slam" (Do you want me to shoot it? NOOOOOO) and "I Know I Got Skillz" (a Top 40 hit). I remember those NBA videos where his highlights would come with his own music videos and remember folks, he has a gold and platinum album to his credit. Plus, he did this song with Biggie - one of the most underrated in Big's discography

Since I didn't see Wilt or Kareem, Shaq was the most dominant force I've ever seen play basketball. Allen Iverson dominated as a 6-0 combo guard who scored with blinding speed and a killer crossover but Shaq made his peers look stupid. In the last great era for centers, he destroyed Patrick Ewing, made Alonzo Mourning regret being around the same time he was and, as you'll see later, abused David Robinson every chance he could.

The only center he didn't dominate was Hakeem Olajuwon and that's why I have Shaq as my 5th greatest center ever. That said, Hakeem with his IQ, brilliant post moves and footwork had his trouble keeping Shaq in check all the time.

Of course, I'll remember Shaq from my high school days restoring the Lakers legacy as champs. For those who don't remember, the Lakers in the 90's were a collection of great to decent talent with poor coaching. Shaq and Kobe helped restore the Lakers tradition and got me used to expecting parades in June when I had to settle for watching them in Chicago growing up.

It's a shame because I honestly think they could've won 4 titles together. 2004 was a doomed season from the jump based on that summer and Kobe already on edge. Could they have won against the Pistons? It's possible but a lot of factors went against us.

Many folks think Shaq's decline came in 2006 but I saw a glimpse of it in 2004. In the Finals, Ben and Rasheed Wallace played the best defense I had seen on Shaq since Hakeem in 1995 and Shaq couldn't rise against it. His Game 4 that year told me that we were seeing the beginning of the end. True he rebounded in 2005 where he should've won the MVP against Steve Nash but once 2006 hit and he was a 2nd/3rd option in the Finals, I realized that the dominant Shaq of my youth was gone. Hard moment to see your favorites get old and have to work harder to score.

Shaq and his father "Sarge" - I always loved the bond Shaq had with his parents and I'm glad he respects his father for molding him into a man.

More than anything I'll remember Shaq as one of the first big men who was comfortable in his skin. He was a giant that embraced his celebrity then used it to touch it other lives with charity. I'll be glad to say I've watched a Top 5 NBA scorer most of his career the same way I'll say about Kobe when he retires. He loved the media and the spotlight but he used it to brighten others. Yet in his final moment, he retired with simple class and peace that a man should have in that decision.

I was happy to watch him in his prime during my teen/young adult years. Now I'll be happy to see him go and be one of the coolest retired athletes around. Thanks for the memories and see you real soon Diesel.

Next blog: My 10 Favorite Shaq Moments.

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