Saturday, November 24, 2007

Go back to the book, Shaq

Maybe instead of playing basketball, Officer Shaq should work full-time for the Miami Beach Police Department.

"I know that when I'm thirty-two and thirty-three, there will probably be a youngster coming in, twenty-four or twenty-five. He will have much more energy. Might even be a little bit bigger, a little better. Once it's time, it's not fun and I can't dominate anymore, then I'll be ready to give it to the next dominant big man." - Shaquille O'Neal, Shaq Talks Back

Shaq the Deeziest wrote those words seven years ago, in his autobiography, shortly after he won his first NBA championship. The upcoming June, he would capture another title, the second of three consecutive for him, solidifying the beginning of the 21st century as The Shaq Era. Maybe it was short, but it was memorable: from 2000-2002, Shaquille O'Neal completely and utterly annihilated several other very large men. He probably peaked in 2001, on the 15-1 Lakers playoff team, when during a two-month stretch he did enough damage to send Arvydas Sabonis into retirement, totally shatter the confidences of Vlade Divac and David Robinson, and make Dikembe Mutombo, four-time Defensive Player of the Year, look as hopeless and helpless as Jake Voskuhl.

By this time, there was no gameplan to even contain him. Sure, he couldn't make his free throws, but so what? At his absolute apex, ages 28-30, at 7-1 and 340, Big Shaq was a wholly unique mix of size, strength, quickness, explosiveness, skill, and attitude. He had developed a varied low post package, featuring a baby turnaround jumper along the baseline on the right block; a baby jumper to the middle off of the left block; the dropstep; and the spin move. He knew how to use the glass and had excellent foot work and passing skills. No one completed more alley-oops, either; remember the lob from Kobe against Portland in 2000 that Bob Costas immortalized ("The Shaq!!!!!"), or the ShawShaq Redemption? In those days, all you had to do was throw it up there, didn't matter how high, and he would get it. Of course, though, he will always be remembered as the ultimate basketball bully. Shaq's go-to move was to establish ridiculously deep low-post position, catch the ball, lower his shoulder, pound it directly into his man's chest until he was right under the basket, reach up and dunk emphatically on his man's head. It was physically abusive, and for him, it was child's play. So unstoppable was Shaq that the NBA - the NBA! - decided to implement zone defenses in a futile attempt to even out the playing field. He was also a dominant rebounder and intimidating defensive presence, because of his sheer size and shotblocking ability. The center position had never been played better.

Now, things are a little bit different.

At least for me, the play that will always symbolize the beginning of the end of Shaq's Reign of Terror happened two years ago, in the Game 5 2006 Eastern Conference Finals, against the Pistons in Auburn Hills, when Ben Wallace stuffed Big Daddy to the floor on an aborted dunk attempt. Understand, stuff like this never happened to Shaq; before, he would have dunked Wallace through the hoop along with the ball, or at least left him splattered up against the stanchion. Maybe he was just as strong as he had always been, but he didn't have the same burst in his legs. I'll always remember that play.

Now, I'm not saying that that was the day he officially starting losing it; Shaq started slipping the year before, in his first year in Miami, only he was still a prohibitive MVP favorite for turning the Heat into title contenders, so few noticed. He averaged a 23-10 that year; the real Shaq was good for 28-12, for the first 12 years of his career. In 2006, he dropped to 20-9, then to 17 and 7 last year. Then he comes out this year, with expected to carry the team through the first week or two of the season with Flash out, and he scores single-digits in his first two games, and everyone is shocked.

Um, why?

(Note: In 2004, Shaq averaged a then career-high 21.5 points per game, but that had more to do with the additions of Malone and Payton, and, thus, fewer shot attempts, than any type of slippage on his part. He was still at the tail end of his prime at this point. For the record.)

Has no one been watching basketball over the past two years? What's so sudden about this? More importantly, why is Shaq, after all these great years and all these accomplishments, being treated with such disrespect? Why is D-Wade calling him out, questioning his motivation? Shaquille O'Neal will be 36 in March. He is in his 16th season, plus another 2 1/2 seasons worth of playoff games. He's on the downside of his career. He's not the same cat anymore. Why would anyone expect him to be?

Come to think of, the answer to that last question is probably the ultimate tribute to his legacy. Through a decade plus of badness and unstoppableness, Shaq has managed to convince everyone - the fans, the media, his own teammates- that he is infallible. Through the thousands of soundbites he gave us over the years declaring his own supremacy and superhero tendencies, Shaq has effectively induced the world into believing he really is Superman. So in a roundabout way, the discourteousness with which he has been treated over this month has actually served as an appropriate homage to his eminence over the past 15 years.

Although I do have one question for you, Shaq: Why do you still play basketball? The premonition you made in your book has come to fruition. Yao, DHow, and Amare are all younger, they all have more energy, and they're all a lot better. You don't seem to be having much fun. You also said in your book that you'd like to retire at 35, and that you would like "to win a couple more (rings) and just say, "You know what? That's it. I don't want to play no more."" Well, you won three more, even one without that damn Kobe. You've played in 14 All-Star Games, won an MVP, scored more than 25,000 points, brought a lot of people (like me and every other Lakers fan during your time here in Los Angeles) joy and happiness. You've got the respect, admiration, and fear of anyone you ever played against, everyone and their momma loves you, you've got hundreds of millions of dollars (that you'll get to keep after you get finished clipping Shaunie becuase of that shrewd prenup - if only Mike had had the same foresight ) and you'll never be forgotten. Why not just hang it up. You have nothing left to prove to this game, or to the people.

Listen, I would never try and suggest to another man what he should do with the prime years of his life, but if I were you, right now I'd be filming the second season of Shaq's Big Challenge, setting up my third pay-per-view celebrity roast, and trying to convince Penny to do Blue Chips II with me. I'd be doing more police work. I'd be negotiating with ESPN for another season of my brilliant 2005 reality show, Shaquille. Remember that show? Remember Shaq ragging Damon Jones after LeBron dunked on his head on TNT? Or the time Van Gundy paired each guy with a teammate at practice and told them they each had to make 10 consecutive free throws before they went home, followed by Michael Doleac and Udonis Haslem ribbing Shaq (coupled with Wade) about his foul shooting, with Haslem joking, "We're gonna come back tomorrow and you're still gonna be here, with the same s--t on." High-class comedy. That show was hilarious. They need to bring it back.

I'd be all over the place, I'd have a full plate, and I'd be having fun. Doesn't that beat averaging 15 points a game on a 41-win team and having to deal with Riley's s--t for the next five months? Any day of the week, right?

1 comment:

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