Monday, June 6, 2011

Somehow, Shaq's presence was bigger than his game

The end of Shaquille's career came much faster and sooner than I expected it. Not because I didn't see the signs coming - the guy only played half the 2011 season and had been battling injuries for years. I had heard so often that this man was the oldest player in the league. But how could the biggest personality in the league be its oldest? Maybe I didn't believe it because his still gregarious demeanor belied everything I saw in his declining game. His interviews had not waned from the time when his nightly 30 point, 12 rebound human blitzkrieg seemed like nothing more than a precursor to his plug for the new Shaq-Fu video game. Usually legends fade quietly into the background. It is like their slow decline in skill serve as a ballast of humility for their bravado and ego that once, and perhaps rightly, floated so high above everyone's head. Most times, the swagger fades in concert with the vertical leap - so no matter who you are, I suppose that age is the greatest equalizer of them all. But Shaquille, even on his last day as a professional basketball player, still loomed larger and more important in the sport than that night's game between the last remaining 30 men of the 2011 season.

To get a little perspective on the Diesel leaving the league, let's look at his accomplishments. He went to 6 NBA Finals, 15 NBA All-Star games and was named 1st Team All-NBA 8 times. He unjustly won the regular season MVP only once, but won the Finals MVP thrice - three Finals MVPs out of his 4 championships. He finishes his career with averages of 23.7 points per game, 10.9 rebounds per game, 2.7 blocks per game, all while shooting 58%. He ranks 17th in NBA history in minutes played, 12th in rebounds, 7th in blocks and 5th in points. He is a surefire Hall of Famer, and one of the 15 greatest players EVER. But maybe even more impressive than his resume could be the teammates he played with.

Out of all of his teammates he played with, 2 are already a Hall of Famers (Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman, a forgotten member of the '99 Lakers), and 9 will be at some point in the future. The list (in chronological order) is Kobe Bryant, Dennis Rodman, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Grant Hill, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Those guys are almost all unmistakable Hall of Famers (Hill for his contributions both in college and in the pros), and that's not counting teammates Alonzo Mourning, Rajon Rondo and Amar'e Stoudemire and Hall of Fame coaches Phil Jackson, Tex Winter and Pat Riley. That's 11 Hall of Fame teammates, with potentially 3 more, and 3 Hall of Fame coaches. Only one other guy played with a similar amount of talent - 11 Hall of Famers in Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Tommy Heinsohn, Bailey Howell, Ed McCauley, KC Jones, Sam Jones, Frank Ramsey, Clyde Lovellette, Andy Phillip and Arnie Risen. This man is Bill Russell. Great stat.

What is so amazing is that even with the enormity of all these accomplishments, when I think of him, I remember how entertaining he was. Will you remember his place on the all-time scoring list - or "Can you dig it?". Will you remember how him and Kobe were the two best players in the league on the same team - or will you remember everything else about their off-court relationship. Incredibly, I think it's the latter; Shaquille bouncing out of a limo with super-soakers to an adoring Miami crowd in July, 2004, or doing a 2009 All-Star intro dance with the Jabowockeez. It would take a presence of something massive to overshadow the accomplishments of a career like Shaquille's - and in saying that, it's not at all surprising that we'll most remember him more for being the most enduring personality in the history of the NBA.

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