(originally written 12/3/11)
With the end of the prolonged NBA lockout last week, much change is coming to pro basketball on-and-off the court—no doubt. Among them: free agents can receive five-year deals from their previous team, but just four from a new one. Newer stars can be eligible for higher salaries upon receiving certain accolades. There is now a salary floor, a higher luxury tax, plus one annual amnesty per team (cough, Andris Biedrins, cough cough). An era wrought with irresponsible overspending, bloated contracts, and unmotivated players may well be at a close.
As a longtime NBA fan, I should be excited that the season—that is, 80% of it—was saved. (The league may as well have folded if an entire season was lost so that Nate Robinson’s grandkids could have mansions; fortunately, they agreed in time to prevent that.) But I’m not as excited as I should be.
Forgotten among all Derek Fisher updates and cancelled season threats and European contracts was another blockbuster off-court, era-ending event that went down in the Summer of 2011.
Shaquille O’Neal retired.
There was a time in the mid-1990’s, especially during Michael Jordan’s first retirement, that Shaq was bigger than the NBA itself. Drafted by the fledgling Orlando Magic at age 20 out of Louisiana State, the big fella took, oh, about 20 seconds to rise from college athlete to worldwide celebrity.
Even if you somehow couldn’t spot all 7’1”, 300+ lbs. of him in person, you couldn’t possibly miss the oft-played images of backboards crumpled by his crushing dunks. Just one year in, and he’d already changed the NBA—which was forced to redesign its rims lest they all fall victim to Shaq. (To my surprise, they all held up.)
And even if you missed all that, Pepsi, Reebok, and Taco Bell paid zillions to make sure you didn’t miss Shaq endorsing their products. Honest to God, I recently purchased a tube of Icy-Hot over Ben Gay strictly because Shaq endorsed it. (It worked, too!)
He really was larger than life, with a huge personality dwarfed only by his smile. His popularity extended far beyond the NBA—he’d make rap albums and movies, ignoring the uninformed critics who felt that time could be better used on foul shot practice (Shaq was usually terrible at the foul line but he did work very hard to improve; he would have been even worse otherwise.) He could just as easily buzz with corporate executives as he could with “homeboys”—and if you think that’s easy, try to imagine Ron Artest in a boardroom.
With the Magic, Lakers and Heat, he’d reach six NBA finals, winning four. Unlike so many pro athletes, he never got in any legal trouble—just the opposite; he became an honest-to-goodness sheriff—which isn’t to say he was squeaky-clean (see: “Kobe, tell me how my ass tastes” and “Shaq swears live on camera”). But we are all human, and we’ve all got mulligan moments.
I was 12 when Shaq entered the NBA, after which my overall NBA interest took off. By 14, I decided I wanted to be Shaq. I bought his Reebok 32 sneakers, a T-shirt and hat with his image—I even adopted his bald-sideburn look, with what little sideburn I could grow in those days. My friends Chicken and Paul were not at all supportive, referring to me as the “Ghost of Shaq” due to my skin tone, and later the “Ghost of Mutant Shaq”, due to their being jerks. But I’m not here to talk about the past.
It seemed like Shaq would stay young forever, dunking and rebounding and swatting enemy shots for the next 50 years. Despite the tattoos, though, he wasn’t actually Superman, and his body was not indestructible. As time went by, fans saw as much of Shaq in suits as they did in uniform—it became a punchline. Coupled with his advancing age, it became evident by 2008 or so the days of dominant Shaq were past.
An old, hobbled Shaq is still superior to half the centers in the NBA—but Shaq long promised in his book that once he could no longer dominate nightly, he’d be gone. And on June 3, 2011, he followed through on that promise, ending his 19-year career and a special NBA era at age 39.
I felt a sadness similar to what I felt when Ken Griffey Jr. retired in 2010. It was almost as if as long as they were around, time was frozen. I myself was still a kid. Seeing Shaq and Jr. reach “old age” has squashed any delusion that it wouldn’t too happen to me someday. Now that they have metaphorically graduated and gone out into the real world, now I must, as well.
It is officially no longer 1992. Shaq, and all his colorful quotes and nicknames, has left.
But the 2012 NBA season, all 66 games of it, is arriving.
Soon, we can all contribute to the Nate Robinson grandkid mansion fund…