MIAMI – There’s no need to debate Shaquille O’Neal’s hoops credentials. He made enough All-Star appearances, All-NBA teams and produced enough highlights in 19 NBA seasons to qualify for entry to the Naismith Hall of Fame twice, if he so desired. His four NBA titles and three Finals MVP trophies will tell the story of his basketball playing career for generations to come and keep him among the NBA’s top 10 of all-time for eternity.
It’s the Hall of Fame work he continues to do off the floor — no athlete in my lifetime has done more with his fame and fortune to give back to the community at large — that’s always made him one of my favorite athletes of all time in any sport.
I witnessed the true power of Shaq far from the NBA glare during a preseason trip to Nashville in the fall of 2004 after he’d joined the Miami Heat. This was after his championship years with the Lakers and before he’d help Dwyane Wade and the Heat win their only title.
As I made my way from the airport to my downtown hotel, literally every radio station on the dial (country, gospel, sports, hip-hop, right-wing … you name it) was buzzing about the big party Shaq and the Heat were hosting the night before the game.
What I assumed would be a few hundred people lined up outside of the club to rub shoulders with NBA players turned out to be half of Eastern Tennessee, a group that crossed all racial, ethnic and socio-economic boundaries.
I‘ll never forget the words a security guard at the club said to me as he was frisking me as I entered the party: “I promise, you will never see a another crowd like this in this town again.”
Only the special, truly transcendent athletes can draw crowds like the one I observed that night. And Shaq didn’t hide behind some velvet rope. He hit the dance floor, signed autographs jumped on the mic, posed for pictures and entertained until he and the Heat headed out for what I’m sure was a strict curfew, showing off his bigger-than-life personality for folks that might not ever have experienced it otherwise.
Raw power, brute strength and comedic genius aside, Shaquille O’Neal is easily the most genuinely charismatic athlete of his generation and one of the greatest in the history of sport. I’d rank him on a short list of the MCE (Most Charismatic Ever) right behind Muhammad Ali and ahead of everyone else.