The original self-styled Superman of the NBA is calling it quits. Shaquille O’Neal announced his retirement in a novel way today, via Twitter.
He’ll finish with four championship rings, three NBA Finals MVP awards and one NBA MVP award. Throughout his career, Shaq was an enigmatic yet spotlight-loving big man who for a long time was by far the most dominant force in the Association. Every team had to plan for him. For the better part of a decade, NBA teams handed out ridiculous contracts to stiff big men in the hopes of finding a “Shaq stopper.” If you didn’t have a big, heavy body to throw at the Big Diesel, he’d eat teams alive. His existence forced the Spurs to farcically list Tim Duncan at power forward rather than center in the hopes of Duncan ever making an All-Star team. Shaq was that kind of player.
Shaq came into the league around the time I came to maturity as an NBA fan. And as a Houston Rockets fan, I enjoyed watching Hakeem Olajuwon eviscerate O’Neal in the 1995 NBA Finals. Olajuwon was the last big man to get the best of Shaq for nearly ten years, when the Pistons played Ben Wallace one-on-one against Shaq in the Finals and came out on top.
O’Neal’s star faded later as he bounced around from Phoenix to Cleveland to Boston as his body failed him. Young Shaq, though, was a force of nature who made the NBA redesign its backboards in the hopes of making something sturdy enough not to be shattered by the young giant.
So while it’s easy to look at Shaq now and see a broken-down, slow, fat guy who never did learn to shoot free throws, remember that late-20s O’Neal combined a scary physicality with a mature set of post moves that made him nearly unstoppable.