No sequel for this superhero: Shaq calls it quits
Even though he's been a shadow of his former self in recent years, I'm going to miss Shaquille O'Neal, who announced his retirement today after 20 tumultuous years in the NBA. Before moviegoers fell in love with Iron Man, Batman, Wolverine, Thor and the Incredible Hulk, there was Shaq, all 7 feet, 1 inch and 330 pounds of him, with his Superman tattoo, bigger than life and full of mischief.
He made rap albums (they weren't very good), appeared in movies (remember "Kazaam"?), got pranked on "Punk'd" and had his own reality show, "Shaq Vs." He even played himself in an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" in which he was seen confined to bed after Larry David accidentally tripped him while stretching. On the court, he won four NBA championships and as long as Shaq was around, no one was ever bored. He feuded with Kobe, dismissed Dwight Howard as a pretender and during the heat of the Lakers rivalry with the Sacramento Kings, repeatedly referred to the Lakers' opponents as "the Queens." A basketball Superman, his kryptonite was free throws. In one game, he missed all 11 of his foul shots, encouraging opponents to foul him at the end of games, a strategy that became known as "Hack-A-Shaq."
Long, long ago, I wrote a cover story about Shaq for Rolling Stone, which the magazine illustrated with a great Mark Seliger photo of Shaq, in his warm-up shorts, towering over a life-sized human skeleton. He was the modern athlete as celebrity. As our headline put it: "He jams. He raps. He acts. He sells."
I hung around Shaq for a couple of days, riding in his Suburban (license plate: Shaq-Fu), listening to Dr. Dre and Terminator X as Shaq would reminisce about how high school teams would routinely quadruple team him in an effort to prevent him getting to the hoop and dunking on them. Shaq was young and fancy free. He'd go have his head shaved, the barber rubbing cherry alcohol on his dome afterward. He did a book signing and 500 people showed up, everyone wanting an autograph. Because it was Rolling Stone, I asked him lots of embarrassing personal questions, like when he lost his virginity. "Oh, man, it was late," he said reluctantly. "Real late."
This was back in the '90s, when sports figures had only just begun to transform themselves into showbiz brands. Shaq had just made a groundbreaking Reebok commercial that had defined his image as a god with superhuman powers. Everyone knew basketball stars were really first cousins of movie stars. As Shaq's then-manager Leonard Armato explained: "In a lot of ways, the NBA has already become an entertainment company. David Stern says it's just like Disney. He's got these characters, Michael Jordan and Shaq, who sell merchandise the same way Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck sold toys for Disney."
Today the salesmanship remains the same but without the wit that Shaq brought to the show. If Shaq didn't dwarf everyone around him, he could probably carve out a nice niche for himself in the movies or on TV. But he'll probably have to do it on his own, since what movie star would want to stand next to him and look like a Lilliputian? All I can say is that I'm going to miss the Big Leprechaun, as he was known last year when he hobbled around with the Boston Celtics. To paraphrase a great rejoinder from "Sunset Boulevard," Shaq is still big. Without him, it's the NBA that suddenly feels small.
-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Shaquille O'Neal, right, with LeBron James, dancing together during a practice session before the NBA All-Star game. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press