MIAMI — He was comfortable in his own skin.
This is hard for big men, especially the biggest of the big. People who stand seven feet tall are so unusual, rising above the rest of us, there is never a moment of anonymity. Many know the pain of rejection from those who recoil, or attack, based solely on what they perceive a big man to be.
Shaquille O’Neal owned his size, made it an ally. For within his 7-foot-1, 300-(325-? 350-? 375-? after a while we were all guessing) pound frame was a 12-year-old, laughing and joking and rapping and doing terrible, terrible movies that all had the same theme: don’t fear me. And for most of his 19 NBA seasons, he was the same way in the locker room, buying a truck for Mark Madsen here, inviting Keyon Dooling out for family dinners there. At the beginning of their careers, when they were picked first and second in the 1992 Draft, Shaq and Alonzo Mourning were fierce rivals, bulls in a small pen seeking the same rewards; by 2006, they were Miami Heat teammates and fast friends, winning a championship together under Pat Riley.
He was a proud man and easily wounded by criticism, real and imagined, and this is why he and Kobe Bryant ultimately couldn’t co-exist, because Bryant’s words stung at Shaq’s base — you’re not working hard enough. He was wounded when the Lakers thought an old Vlade Divac could replace a middle-aged Shaq, and it motivated him to a title on South Beach.
He is no worse than fourth on the all-time centers list, behind Russell, Wilt and Kareem, a smidge ahead of Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan, the MDE, as he called himself — Most Dominant Ever — of his generation. His destruction of Dikembe Mutombo, who just happened to be one of the great defensive centers of all time, in the 2001 NBA Finals is as complete a performance as I have ever seen.
But I will always remember Shaq in the interview room, and the locker room, in clubs and restaurants, forever accessible, cracking all of us up with jokes and double-entrendre-laced humor (he once called himself “The Big Sewer” for scatological reasons that cannot be disclosed on a family website). He laughed easily and often, and he was a great teammate. The last time I spoke with him was during the Celtics-Heat series. He was in the trainer’s room, injured again with a bad calf and ankle, and didn’t want to come out to talk to the media before Game 2. But he opened the door and let me stand next to it, asking questions seemingly to the air, but ones he could hear and answer.
“I just don’t want to let the fellas down,” he said, knowing that time was running out on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, because time had run out on him, a career that straddled two decades and defined them. It was the Age of Shaquarius.