Thursday, June 2, 2011

Let Shaq's Legacy Stand on Its Own

GREAT photo: via InsideHoops (and somewhere else)
Shaq retires and within nanoseconds, the sports world goes into a tizzy for good, comical, awful and amazingly predictable reasons.

·    The good: fans of all likes come up with their favorite Shaq moments. The smack talking through the media rings for some while the absurd backboard breaking dunks and his All-Star, run-the-point plays stick out.

·    The comical: though he’ll be missed on the parquet floors around the NBA, it was a chance to revisit some of his great and not-so-great offerings to the entertainment world. (You still can’t stop the reign, though.)

·    The awful: Shaq appeared to have split temperaments – the jolly court jester that was revered the world over and the surly, insecure (and apparently, philandering) side of him earned some ire over the years.

·    The amazingly predictable: as soon as he made the announcement, immediately, people asked the questions about his legacy.
It’s the latter that catches my attention more than the rest.

Why do we even need to rank him?

Shaquille O’Neal is one of the best players of all time. You know it, your mother and father know it, your siblings know it, your neighbors know it…. Heck, everyone who ever held a basketball in their hands for two seconds knows it. His combination of offensive awareness and imposing size was unheard of until he arrived in the NBA; even against the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, who was a physical force in the smaller and seemingly grounded floor game of the 1950s and 1960s. Four championships, Rookie of the Year, 1999 MVP and Finals MVP honors, perennial All-Star appearances, 14-time All-NBA selection, three-time All-Defense… he’s a legend in his own right.

Yet, this idea that he has to be ranked among the all-time greats perturbs me a bit. Let’s be for real, it’s not as if extra cleaning is guaranteed for his Hall of Fame plaque when we do such a thing.

Shaq’s style blended brute force with a shockingly soft touch around the rim. His size at 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds at his absolute prime with the Lakers made it a chore to battle him on the boards, despite not being lauded as a great rebounding center. Defensively, he could have been an absolute monster if he cared – save for the Lakers three-peat where Phil Jackson made him give a hoot – but who in their right minds wanted to challenge him on a layup? He never really had to display a full array of offensive skills like other men in the pivot, but he was highly capable of knocking down a few jumpers and was an underrated passer for someone who demanded the ball as often as he did.

And that’s sort of what stands out to me about O’Neal’s career. He was DOMINANT for someone who didn’t show the full repertoire or maximize his total potential. Then again, he was DOMINANT for someone who never had to display every basketball move conceivable. In his formative years with Orlando, while he put up absurd numbers, he was still being schooled by veteran centers that gave him clinics on brutality. His petulance aside, it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t pick up a few pointers from each of the players he combated with, respectfully or not.

O’Neal was an uncanny player not only for his offensive greatness, but offensive greatness despite flaws. We always said,”imagine if he hit his free throws”. Well, he won four titles, received numerous individual accolades and made over $200 million on the court while compiling an awful career free throw percentage (52.7%). Unlike baseball, that one flaw isn’t going to keep him away from the Hall of Fame for years and years.

He played with power in a league that tried its best to emphasize finesse; the physicality of the 80s and 90s stripped the Association of easy-to-market, but unrealistic to achieve beauty. When he claimed himself to be the LCL – Last Center Left – he was right in more ways than one. The NBA for most of its history was ruled by the pivot from George Mikan to Shaq himself; spanning six decades of letting the big man go to work when it counts. Even the Jordan years were run by the bigs in most other cities; whether it was at the center or power forward position as most teams ran their offenses through them.

He played in the second half of the careers of other legendary centers in Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson while also adjusting to a changing league. In fact, he was catalyst to the single greatest change in the NBA since the three-point line; the restricted zone. Even among those phenomenal players – throw all the greats in the league’s sixty-five year history – how many forced the league to change the rule book and court parameters? A handful.

The story is all there. He was a unique player who bridged across two staunchly different eras of the NBA. His impact to the game was so strong that some in the media still believed that he was the final piece to title hopes for Cleveland last year. They believed that even for ten minutes a game for Boston this year, Shaq could have helped raised Banner #18. Those last two seasons of his career are a testament to how much of a legend he is. His stature on the game allowed for the iconic past to be larger than reality.

For some reason, when a player with a substantial career in a team sport retires, we immediately go into debate mode about her or his credentials and standing. We’re supposed to give Shaq some sort of place atop other greats at his position while likely overhyping or underwhelming the contributions of his contemporaries. We’ve already had enough people overreact and cry foul about the potential of another likely Hall of Famer. Do we have to do go through this again?

He stands on his own without any posturing from us. He doesn’t need #TwitterSports debates that are full of manipulated stats and name dropping. Nor does he need the damning articles that bring up his more sinister side. He doesn’t need validation among anyone, not even his peers. All he needs to know is when to show up to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts and what time will his induction speech will be.

Say What?!?!: I posted this on what’s an important day. It’s been ten years. As mentioned on ‘The Exchange’ on Tuesday, there’s been no greater influence in my life than my parents and no greater champion of the cause than my dad. Instead of writing something new, I figured this would be a good time to take you back. Proud to be your son, Bobby.

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