HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Aging gracefully in professional sports is an art few superstars can master.
Evander Holyfield is still boxing, hockey legend Gordie Howe played one shift at 69 and Satchel Paige threw his last pitch at 59. We still don’t know if Brett Favre is really done or not. They are just some of the glaring examples of a long and storied list of superstars that did not — and do not — know when to say when.
But there is a way to go out gracefully. You can be ushered out of the game without someone’s boot in your back.
Future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal is rewriting the book this season in Boston, showing that it’s possible to age with grace and do it in style. He’s even doing it in a city that loathed him for years when he was starring for the rival Los Angeles Lakers.
Shaq is still the most robust and magnetic personality the NBA has to offer. He’s light years away from being the MDE (Most Dominant Ever), yet he’s not bitter about it. He will step aside for Kendrick Perkins in the Celtics’ starting lineup without any fussing.
How he’s managed this transition should be required viewing for those who will soon follow him into the twilight of their own careers. My main man Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports caught up with the big fella, who waxed reflective about his journey and how close it is to the end:
O’Neal has started each of the 35 games he has played for the Celtics this season and has come off the bench just nine times in 1,205 career games. The last time the 19-year veteran was used as a reserve was a single game for the Miami Heat during the 2006-07 season. Perkins recently returned from knee surgery, and it’s inevitable he’ll eventually return to the starting lineup because of the continuity he has with the rest of the Celtics’ starters. Once Rivers is ready to make the change, O’Neal says he’ll have no problem moving to the bench.
Allen Iverson could never make that transition. When no NBA team offered him a job this season, he signed to play in Turkey before a recent injury.
“You can’t beat the system. You have to join it,” Shaq said. “Even if I could, it wouldn’t be business-ly advantageous to act like that. So no, the system is always right. So whatever the system says you do, you just do it.
“I just enjoy still traveling, going to cities and having a good time. If Perk’s going to be in the starting lineup and I’m coming off the bench that’s fine with me.”
Celtics coach Doc Rivers has praised Shaq’s willingness to do any and everything that’s been asked of him since he arrived in Boston.
Shaq has another year on his contract. And all indications are he’ll finish that deal before making any decision about when he’ll leave the game as a player (you know he’s headed for someone’s set, hopefully one somewhere near the hideout here). With his personality and versatility, he’s already a multi-media superstar, Shaq can write his own post-playing career ticket.
As for what he’ll leave behind, Shaq said it best:
“I don’t worry about my legacy,” O’Neal said. “I look at it like this: There are certain guys that have legacies, and I’ve [expletive] tripled and quadrupled what the [expletive] they did, like Bill Walton. That’s how I look at it. Real talk. Everybody has a pen, so everybody’s going to say otherwise. But I know guys that got one [championship] and they got $60,000 speaking gigs off what they did 30 years ago. My legacy is straight. I don’t worry about it.
“I’ve prepared myself for [the end of his career] when I came in. For like the first 10 years my father would tell me, ‘You need to own some [stuff].’ I said, ‘Why? I make a lot of money.’ He said, ‘What if you hurt your knee or something?’ From then I’ve been in business mode. So I’ve been thinking about the day I’m done playing for a long time. And I’ll be fine.
“It will be real easy, real easy, real easy. Too easy.”