On the John
The magnificent, the massive, the only… Shaquille O’Neal
Originally completed June 2, 2011
Shaquille O’Neal has been in my life for 20 years. That alone is incredible. I don’t think of Shaq as “old,” but Shaq is so old that his likeness was used in the Super Nintendo video game NCAA Basketball, a game that once made my friend Luke vomit at Ray Weaver’s house because the entire court spun every time there was a possession change, and we had a sequence with about three steals in a row.
This is almost forgotten now, but in the early 90s Shaq was destroyed by the media for seeming to care more about entertainment than athletics. Part of this criticism was spawned no doubt because he was a “bad” entertainer, releasing forgettable rap albums and starring in – with the exception of Blue Chips – garbage movies.
It’s no wonder then that Shaq was among the first athletes to embrace the platform offered by social media, or that he used such an outlet yesterday to announce his retirement. It was the perfect Shaq vehicle: a camera and no reporter.
And why not? Journalists make life messy, asking all sorts of unnecessary questions about “effort” and “potential,” never able to kick back and enjoy O’Neal for what he was: the consummate showman. Mike Wilbon wrote yesterday about the split between Shaq the Athlete and Shaq the Entertainer; in his Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons wrote: “Shaq could have earned… multiple MVPs, but he happily settled for… some top-five records, three Finals MVPs and a fantastically fun ride.”
I agree with the assessment but not the sentiment. Shaq made sports fun, on the court and off. Simmons places Superman at number 11 on his “NBA Hall of Fame Pyramid,” one spot behind Hakeem with Kobe somewhere in the 6-8 range, even though Shaq won twice as many rings as the former and was more dominant than both. The implication is that since Hakeem and Kobe maximized their talents while Shaq did not, he should be penalized historically. He’s like a genius kid who comes home with a B+ and gloats to his parents, “But I didn’t even study.”
The thing is, sports achievement don’t come on a fixed scale. The A earned by the lackadaisical, prodigious student is worth the same as the one earned by the kid who hits the books for hours each night just to scrape out the 90. Shaq’s B- performance was an A+ career that felt like a C, but was still an A+.
That view was intensified during the 2000-2002 seasons, the three years when Shaq won rings as his team’s top player. The Big Fella always argued that he would produce when the stakes were highest, a claim he backed with these numbers:
2000-02 REGULAR SEASON
28.6, 12.6, 2.6, 57.5% (points, boards, blocks, FG%)
2000-02 WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS
29.9, 14.5, 2.5, 51.0%
2000-02 NBA FINALS
35.9, 15.2, 2.9, 59.5%
That laissez-faire approach is maddening for spectators. Fans use athletes as conduits for our dreams, and both fans and media hold athletes to a higher standard of performance than we demand of ourselves. To see Shaq unleash his true brilliance over 15 Finals games only makes us wish to have seen that level of play every night.
The free throw numbers epitomize this gap between performance and potential. If he’d been able to shoot even 70% from the line instead of 52.7%, he would have scored 1.61 more points per game, giving him three more scoring titles and making him the fifth member of the NBA’s 30,000 points club. In fact, whatever extra effort was needed to raise his foul shooting from historically bad to middle-of-the-road may have also been the effort needed to win some of the MVPs he left on the table in ’95, ’99, ’01, ’02, and ’05, or the rings he left in ’95, ’98, ’04, and ’05.
But so what? Shaq was Shaq, the only one we had. If he’d cared as much about basketball as Jordan or Bryant, yes, he could have won more MVPs, more rings, scored more points, grabbed more boards, and blocked more shots. But would a singularly-obsessed Shaq been nearly as much fun? Can you imagine a Shaquille O’Neal who doesn’t dance with Jabbawockeez, poke fun at reporters, or bestow nicknames upon himself by the barrel? Can you imagine Shaq with Kobe’s personality?
Better question: Do you want to?
Let’s take it back to Blue Chips, because everything that made Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal SHAQ! is on display in that film. Neon Bodeaux isn’t just another bland, dunking lug. He is a total force of nature and personality. For the role to work, the actor portraying him had to be the same. It works because of Shaq. We can buy Neon as a man too smart for the system, someone who scored 520 on his SATs “because I wanted to,” someone who doesn’t care if you think that he thinks that Canada is the country immediately south of the United States, because he knows that if you show him the money, he can reel off “Mexico, followed by Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.”
Conversely, his fellow Western U. recruits Butch McRae and Ricky Roe displayed no thoughts outside of sports. Nor, for that matter, did Jesus Shuttlesworth or Space Jam’s “Michael Jordan.” Both Butch and Jesus were developed as characters – the former was a shy mama’s boy struggling with life in college, the latter a brash ladies man responsible for raising his baby sister – but neither talked about anything outside of basketball or the effect basketball was having on their personal lives.
The character of Neon could have just as easily been a one-note dunker – the film’s box office draw would have been fine – and yet the film takes the trouble to build a character equally boastful and humble, a man who challenges his professor for teaching European history instead of African history, a man good with kids, a man with the intelligence and audacity to tell a woman he’s just met that “You think you’re a liberal, but you’re nothing but a racist” without her wanting to stab him, while also being sweet and childlike enough to ask his coach (a man who has just admitted to his team his personal guilt and shame), “How’d you like my spin move?” and be genuinely pleased when his coach responds, “You did real good Neon. Real good.”
We may not have realized it at the time, but Neon Bodeaux told us everything we needed to know about Shaquille O’Neal. Both were blessed with basketball gifts the likes of which no coach (or fan) had ever seen, yet both were men for whom the game was only a fraction of his life and appeal. Both sought fun and friendship. Both responded to financial motivators without seeming to crave money (“I didn’t ask for this,” he says to the man delivering his illicit Lexus). Both were honest and forthright regardless of the consequences or circumstances. Both led their teams to victory when it mattered most yet only while their motivation was highest. Both were good with kids because they were kids at heart.
Was the role already written with these characteristics and eccentricities, or did the filmmakers develop it once they got a feel for Shaq’s dynamic personality? I’d like to know. Either way, it was a brilliant casting decision, and a genius career move by a man who was full of them. The size, skill, personality, and persona, Shaq was the genuine article, the total package, truly one-of-a-kind. There will never be another. If you don’t believe me, we can bet on it. And I guarantee that whenever our bet expires, somebody in here is gonna owe my ass one hundred dollars.
Jack M Silverstein is a freelance writer covering music, sports, and community in Chicago. His first book, “Our President,” is available at Amazon.com. Say hey at twitter/readjack and catch him on ChicagoNow.