HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS (WEST COAST OFFICE) — The best part about Shaquille O’Neal as an emerging star and then an overpowering presence and ultimately a weighty caricature in the last chapter was, as is often the case with greats, also the worst part. He was a big kid. He was a big kid who could be generous and connect with children despite the mammoth build that could intimidate adults, just as his lack of discipline led to conditioning problems that frustrated Kobe Bryant and helped lead to the breakup of the Lakers.
The Shaq legacy, beyond the obvious of what can be found in the record books, is that there never was a middle ground. He was a torrent of emotions and basketball skill of the highest order who was cheered and disliked at a level few in NBA history can match. That it could be at the same time and in the same city — Los Angeles, just as the decade reached the mid-point — says everything about his reach.
He was stunningly good the first 10 or 12 years, no matter how many fans wrongly tried to discredit his accomplishments by saying O’Neal was nothing more than a mountainous guy crashing through defenses. In truth, he was a 7-foot-1, 320-pounder (later 340… and 350… and…. ) with moves and a passion to play. He was a worker in those days, set about to avenge all the slights he made up for motivation and, most of all, theater. Shaq owed David Robinson a good post thrashing because Robinson had once ignored the San Antonio high school student for an autograph. Nonsense stuff like that.
When the drive faded, O’Neal would put off summer medical treatments or show to camp in bad enough shape that the Lakers knew he wouldn’t be in the right place until after the All-Star break. Sometimes it didn’t matter. They won anyway. And sometimes it did matter and the floor-bound Shaq, as Phil Jackson famously called him, became a major defensive liability and an attitude problem. A lot of the barks were just Shaq unable to grow up in certain ways, but you don’t call out Jerry Buss for underpaying his stars.
More than an athlete, O’Neal was an entertainer. He painted his toe nails for fun, wrestled on the locker room floor, lifted reporters and went with the military press to hoist them horizontal, and inevitably invited media groups to join him at the strip club. The fun was not just in the winning. He needed to be a big kid.