I’m going to miss having Shaquille O’Neal around the NBA.
It’s the end of an era — Kyrie Irving, the top pick in this coming draft, was born the year Shaq entered the league. But it feels like more than that.
I’ll miss him in part because he was a reminder that this is a game and we should all be having fun with it — players, fans and media alike.
In a league where often players treat basketball like a desk job, where the players practice speaking in clichés like out of Bull Durham, where the media can take itself too seriously, where there is a wall between players and fans (and media), Shaq broke all that down. This is hoops, it isn’t Navy Seals storming an armed compound in the Middle East. This should be fun. Shaq’s persona was the counterbalance to Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
You played practical jokes on teammates, and laughed with them. You tweet with fans (social media was made for Shaq and is part of his legacy). You just show up and pretend to be a statue and let fans come out and hang out with you. Or you conduct the Boston POPS! Or you ride the subway dressed like a woman.
He was a big kid who got to play a game for a living, and why shouldn’t he love that? Why shouldn’t practice have some jokes, why shouldn’t the locker room have laughter? And we were all along for the ride. This was supposed to be fun.
I remember Shaq and Gregg Popovich joking around during the first game of the season and thinking they really got it.
He was a big kid, and maybe that carried over to a lack of responsibility about conditioning at times. Some may remember that and the injury-plagued end of his career. Or the feud with Kobe. But not me. I choose to remember him as dominant force he was a decade ago as a player. There have been few centers better. Ever.
He brought plenty of strength and thunder to the court, but there was lightning there too. Guys who were 7’1”, 325 should not be able to drop lighting quick spin moves to get around their defender, or run the floor with the break. Shaq could do all that in his prime and more. He was a very good passer out of the post. He was a good all around player (save free throws).
He also will forever be at the heart of one of my greatest sports memories.
I lucked into tickets for Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Someone I worked with at the time was a Lakers season ticket holder and had playoff tickets, but he had to fly back to England for his sister’s wedding and so he had to sell his Game 7 seats (well before anyone knew there would be a Game 7).
As a Lakers fan, with obnoxious Blazers fans right behind me, there was nothing like that game. The lows of missed shots. The highs of the comeback (which was fueled by so many Blazer misses of shots they had not missed for six and three quarters games).
Then the ally-oop.
And the explosion of noise in Staples Center. A building where now everyone was hugging and high-fiving everyone, whether you knew them or not. You were now there with your 19,000 best friends. Los Angeles is not like that, you don’t talk to your neighbors, or the guy in the next seat. But on this day we all knew we were witnessing one of the best sports moments of our lives. Los Angeles felt like a family.
Shaq did that. I’m going to miss him for all of it.