MIAMI — One of my favorite Shaq memories from on the court came way back in April 1994, when he dropped 53 points on a really bad Minnesota Timberwolves crew, back in that team’s pre-Kevin Garnett era. Wait, did I say “dropped?” Thundered down, like Thor’s lightning bolts, was more like it. In fact, the Magic used to have a big “BOOM!” sound effect whenever one of its players would dunk and Shaq was raining down so much pain, it sounded like a rendition of the “1812 Overture” that night. Cannons blazing!
The thing is, when I think of Shaq now and surely later, it will be less about his skills than about the fun he had flexing them and the joy others got from his game, his frame and his personality. It was staggering to see him amble up to opponents generally considered to be NBA “big men,” only to have Shaq completely eclipse them. I mean, they would disappear, right to left, top to bottom, somewhere behind him.
You might have called that the “dark side of Shaq,” except that he was so playful, there wasn’t really any dark side in a public way. Yeah, the feud with Kobe was silly, yet understandable. It’s just that Shaq’s playful ways — the biggest Labrador puppy in pro sports — made you smile and his struggles through injuries, weight issues and multiple teams brought out a little empathy. Most NBA stars, you never get past the admire stage.
All-time? I’m still partial to Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell as my top three centers. Shaq will have to settle for a spot on my second roster of 12. But he surely would sneak into the first-stringers’ locker room, turn up the thermostat and turn off the lights on them.