With the Miami Heat franchise he helped lead to its lone NBA title in 2006 now just three victories away from another championship, Shaquille O’Neal finally gave in today to the enemy that gets every athlete eventually: Father Time.
At 39, the fifth-leading scorer in NBA history and 2000 Most Valuable Player retired after two seasons in a much lesser capacity, the first with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the second with the Boston Celtics, two championship-caliber teams that finished well short of a title with the 7-foot-1, 325-pound O’Neal playing a supporting role to LeBron James in Cleveland and to the Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston.
O’Neal was a shadow of his once-dominant self this season, averaging just 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in 37 games, all career lows, while missing more than half the season with an Achilles’ injury.
It’s not as if O’Neal really had anything else to prove in basketball. He powered the Orlando Magic to the 1995 finals in just his third season. A year later, at 24, he was the youngest player named to the NBA’s 50-man alltime team.
O’Neal went on to team with Kobe Bryant to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight titles from 2000-02 and helped a young Dwayne Wade win the championship for the Heat in 2006.
Unlike Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, his three most prominent predecessors as the NBA’s best big men during the three decades before his 1992 debut, who were all at least somewhat aloof and unknowable, O’Neal always seemed like a big kid.
Sure, Shaq ruined most nights for his opponents and their fans, but he could also easily disarm potential haters by flashing the wide smile that has landed him roles in seven movies. Shaq played like Godzilla but seemed more like Baby Huey when the game was over, a player to be feared but never hated. He was a lovable overdog, if that’s possible, with the possible exception of his feud with Bryant that prompted the big man to finally move on to Miami.
“He’s a giant,” NBA commissioner David Stern said of O’Neal, a 15-time All-Star. “He’s physically imposing (but) he has an imposing smile. In this game, he imposed his will and he has done it for quite a long time. We’re going to miss him greatly.”
Indeed we will.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.