If he were born in in the 11th Century, we wouldn't remember Shaquille O'Neal. Enthusiastic crotch-dust pitchman, mumbling broadcaster, perpetual thorn in Kobe Bryant's side, star of Kazaam and player of a bit part in Grown Ups 2, prominent hamburger investor, NBA champion, borderline adequate rapper, brave advocate for recovering from surgery "On Company Time"—we would know none of this. We'd have no knowledge of any public pissing matches with the Sacramento Kings, any intellectual property legal wrangling with Steve Nash. We would not know of the time O'Neal totally beefed it on the "Inside the NBA" set, or have seen video of it.
Had we been children of the 11th Century, we might have a sort of vague idea about an enormous, dual-swords wielding knight who carved a bloody path through Gaul. A ballad would be written, and if it were any good it would move on and on. "The Tale of the Magnificent Wave" or something. Our Bard would have added an entire bullshit verse about Shaq kneeling over his enemies and praying for their souls, giving him a dimension of humanity and love, but our dude actually would have been grinding their bones for decent pie flour on the low. That's Shaq, and that's also the 11th century, which was a pretty gnarly time overall.
One thing that would be similar? We wouldn't really talk about the man's actual capacity and tendencies on the basketball court. Most recollections of Shaq's career tend to fixate on his relationships to other things: Kobe, Phil, his own free-throw shooting, his spotty work ethic. Hell, the most popular video of Shaq on Dawkins, the YouTube NBA Highlight Dispensary, is "Kobe Bryant vs Shaquille O'Neal Full Duel Highlights 2009.03.01 - 82 Pts Combined, MUST Watch!" His life on the court tracks best when it's mixed with his off-court intrigues. The structure of Shaq's actual basketball career is somehow of little interest. Which is weird, because it was a spectacular career.
If Shaq really is really "Possibly the last great center in NBA History"*then why have the sporting-chatters done so little to explore what it was like to, you know, watch him play basketball? Enough. I combed through some of his on-court highlights to make some hasty conclusions. You deserve nothing less.
We will start at the end. When Shaq signed with the Boston Celtics for the veteran's minimum in 2010, he was looking for a good old-fashioned role player title to round out his impressive NBA tenure. There were two problems with this plan. The first was that this Celtics team was destined to become LebronChow sooner or later. The second, more intractable, problem was that Shaq himself was enormously out of shape and drifting into the perpetually injured phase of his career.
But to watch Boston Shaq, this virulent, bizarre, practically sprouted manifestation of Shaq, is to get to a fundamental truth: he is a gigantic man.
Not to brag or anything, but from time to time, I cover NBA games as a reporter. On occasion, this puts me in very close proximity to NBA LargeMen. And the thing that always impresses on me is not how tall they are—though they are very tall, don't get me wrong—but how extraordinarily slight of frame many of them are. Even, like, Marc Gasol, for instance, seems much thinner than a replacement level human being, even if he reads like a giant powerful borderline fattish-dude on television. You have to be like that, just to be that tall and still run up and down a wood court for 70-some odd games a year and not find that your feetbones have been turned into dust.
But Shaq, by a miracle bestowed to him and to us by God Herself, has GIGANTIC feet. Enormous! These feet could handle any weight he stacked on them, be it muscle or fat or both at the same time, as well as probably also a small school bus filled with frightened children that Shaq had strapped to his back as dictated by the plot of a Fu-Schnickens video. The result is that he was a giant man, in every conceivable meaning of the word, who can still operate fully and freely on a basketball court.
Even at 38 years of age, it turns out, and even after 19 years playing in and out of condition in the NBA. Even with Boston, Shaq still amazes with his mere ability to move himself around a basketball court without vomiting. By this point, he had made some concessions to age: that jogging form, always idiosyncratic, has become completely insane, and he needs to assume a good crouch if he's going to really dunk the ball. But the fundamentals of moving himself and others in a half-court set are still there and still really very impressive. Try to keep this kernel in your mind as we go back.
PORTRAIT OF SHAQ AS A YOUNG BEAST
Look at these, small, floppy haired little boys. They're still alive, most likely, probably sitting upright in their beds at three in the morning, their wives fast asleep next to them, reliving the horror of being completely dominated by the Earth's ultimate jumbo human. Watch these blocks at around 1:30: these reasonable basketball shots never had a chance. They tried to work through it with a shrink once, but they were laughed out of the office. The memory of being consumed by this enormous human inevitability ... there is no rationalizing that. It is as if they have already faced death once, found it deeply unpleasant, and are now living, hunched over, consumed by the fear of a looming second death.
The only mercy Shaq afforded the bowl of boys that he used to make into his dunk chowder was the knowledge that, one day—not on these days, but later—the people he played against might be vaguely capable of defending him. He understood this, and so sought to develop a feel for passing, whether it was necessary in the moment or not. So we see him handle, nail a cutter in transition, practice some short range jump shots even though he could readily shed any double put on by the comparatively sad and infirm opponents he faced.
THE LAKE SHOW
Here is an extended mix made from O'Neal's career-high scoring performance playing for the '99-00 Lakers, playing on his birthday at his physical and conditioning peak. I suspect that, at the time, he was workshopping a "SHAQ2K" type nickname that he never introduced to the public.
Even against NBA players, Peak Shaquille seems to be driven by a wave of inevitably, catching offensive rebounds and shoving them back into the rim, as easy as eating a single chocolate chip. The only way to stop him is to foul. Poor Michael Olowokandi and Pete Chilcutt, haunted as their predecessors were by the specter of ShaqDeath. Size, strength, instinct: good luck with all that, because anyone under the rim is completely fucked. Those last few points are all but conceded by the sad, broken remains of the Clippers' frontcourt. This was a bad time for the Clips, but also a bad time for anyone playing against Shaq.
Again, though, we see that he's not a one dimensional player. Look at those lovely passes at about 1:39 and 3:47. Shaq operating as a playmaking hub in transition like an enormous prototype Draymond Green. It's an innate skill he acquired by limiting himself against the sad, little men he destroyed in his youth. They won't thank him for it.
Aesthetically, the greatest post player who ever lived is Hakeem Olajuwon. Flips and trick and head turns, footwork honed by soccer, layups that made no sense while also making perfect sense. Nearly everyone looks like a caveman rubbing sticks together in the light of his highly advanced nuclear reactor of a game.
I mention this to head off an inevitable argument against an aesthetic defense of Shaq: he got a lot of his points on the block, and he's not exactly a complicated post player. Wait for double, pass out, turn right for hook shot, turn left for drop step.
Here is our man doing it to the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 Finals.** His defenders try. Oh, how they try. It's the most important moment of their careers. But the tools Shaq has, physical and tactical, are so effective, so murderous, that he really didn't need any post-twisty arsenal. Watch him turn around and throw in a hook over Dale Davis at 6:16. Shaq cuts across the lane, moving Davis, himself a giant human being, like a bookcase. He catches, turns and shoots in one motion. Simple, inevitable, economical.
"How can I score on this dude?" Hakeem's answer is something along the lines of "Can I Twist/And Turn and Spin/Move up my chin/And lay it in." Elegant, poetic, the apparent touch of genius marked on every one. O'Neal, on the other hand, says "Well I am stronger and bigger, so ... " A simple answer. Minimalist Basketball. You don't have to love it, or even like it. It just is.
Take a minute and listen to the first movement of Steve Reich's wonderful 1983 composition. Is it repetitive, maybe even flirting with the edge of "irritating?" I guess. But it's also overpowering and propulsive, creating a feeling of pressure and anxiety in the listener. It's helpful when thinking about Shaq, and what it would be like to actually play against him, to have all of that size and strength pressing firmly into your body, dun dun dun dun, your feet slide back, Shaq makes his move and you got scored on.
Isn't there a beauty in inevitability? Seeing this dude who looks like he was made in a lab to play basketball actually play basketball in a way that isn't pretentious or overworked? It's a perfect straight line answer to a question that always seems so complicated when other people answer it. It's admirable.
Here is a video that estimates Shaq's top ten plays, compiles them, and sets them over weird stock music. It's mostly Shaq dunking on people and things. Some of those people include: Alonzo Mourning (twice), Dikembe Mutombo (in the All-Star Game, get out of the way dude) David Robinson (particularly satisfying, since he spent his life as a patriotic, well-mannered professional who never made waves and Shaq was a big, fun fuck-up), as well as a whole backboard and the Portland Trail Blazers' best title shot in ten years. Watching Shaq dunk on people is great.
There is a certain kind of person who will disagree. They think that a great poster dunk is supposed to be performed by a striver, someone reaching beyond the limits of themselves, and owning a dude at the rim in a way that shocks the audience. Shaq is too big, they say. Shaq is too powerful.
I say: that is some horseshit. Here is proof, in the form of Shaq's Greatest Masterpiece. Shaq dunking on Chris Dudley, then shoving him to the ground and somehow getting away with it:
Oh hoho! Disrespect doesn't get more pure and leisurely, ladies and gentleman. Hits me like a blast of good-ass drugs every time I see it. Let's check consult the loop, to really let it bake into our hearts:
Delicious. And, I might argue: nutritious, for the soul. We fetishize the underdog, pray for his good victory. But to not recognize when nature, the mysterious coding that lives in all of our bones and our hearts, bequeaths a permanent advantage in a war between two souls: that's a glorious truth, a sun rising over the horizon and dunking on Chris Dudley, and we should respect it. We must.
Also, Chris Dudley ran for Governor in Oregon as a Republican.
Billy Hunter? The Moderately-Corrupt Director of the Player's Union, the man who presided over the largest scaling back of NBA salaries of all time? This ineffably Yale-ish Yalie? This man cosmically deserved to get dunked on and shoved to the ground. Shaq was nature's tool, and it was beautiful. Would that nature deigned that ALL Republican politicians face Prime-Ass Shaq in the key, feel his force come thundering down on their frail, breakable bodies.
Thank you for reading. Blessings to you and your family as you reflect on everything you read, today, about Shaq.
*He isn't, though it is becoming harder and harder not to concede that he is might be the last great center who manifests in the form he took.
**I'm sorry you had to hear Bob Costas say "Shawshaq Redemption"