Shaquille O’Neal: The Big Choice

Shaquille O’Neal’s story, regardless of what the masses seem to opine, is not one about underachievement.

It’s not one about what could have been when there was more than enough of what was.

It is not one about a colossal talent failing to fulfill the ultimate legacy that, oddly enough, others wanted for him.

No, Shaquille O’Neal’s story is none of that.

This is a story about a man and a choice.

When Shaq took to the makeshift stage inside his home gym in Florida last week to officially announce his retirement from the NBA, America reflected on 19 professional seasons of mostly dominance and a career of never-ending comical moments. Shaq, wearing a three-piece gray suit with a pink tie and a fresh shave on his bald head, took a seat next to Dale Brown, his former coach at LSU. Cameras rolled, photographers shot, reporters took notes. The press conference lasted more than a half hour, with Shaq giving thanks, telling serious stories and, of course, cracking jokes.

While Shaq was busy answering questions about his years with Kobe, his abysmal free throw shooting, why he didn’t win more championships, and other topics reporters were trying to mold like putty into juicy storylines, I couldn’t help but wonder about The Choice. His choice. I watched this hulking, lovable man speak about his 19 seasons, and not once did I wonder why he didn’t get more out of his talent. Instead, I merely wondered why he made the choice that he did.

The choice may have been made on a oppressively muggy summer day in Orlando when Shaq was a young ballplayer, dreaming of the crisp ocean air of the Pacific and the intoxicating flair of Hollywood.

The choice could have been made on a Saturday night amid the co-eds of Baton Rouge, dreaming of the day when billboards held his face and the nation screamed his name.

But the choice most likely was made on the cold hard streets of Newark, N.J. When Shaq was a young boy, he didn’t like his name and he didn’t like his height. They both embarrassed him, and he told his mother so. Instead of lecturing her son about being proud of whom he was, Lucille O’Neal took the opportunity to challenge Shaq.

“My mother just said, ‘Make them remember your name, make them remember you,’” Shaq said. “Y’all (the media) have been saying my name, and that’s enough.”

* * *

What motivates you?

It’s a funny question in life. What motivates you?

It’s funny because it’s simplistic on the surface yet elusive at its core. Is it success? Is it fame? Is it happiness? Is it celebrity, money, love, redemption, triumph, vindication, promises, pride, self-worth, jealousy, envy, greed, doubt, fear, survival? Is it any of those things? All of those things?

To even come close to putting a finger on it, you must first be self-aware and absent of the fear of owning what you see. Shaq may be the most self-aware athlete of my lifetime, which is one of the reasons why I find it hilarious when media members question his work ethic, his commitment, his integrity. We are so mesmerized by the physical gifts that we are unable to examine the rest of the package. It’s like never getting past the wrapping on Christmas morning.

We can only imagine the points and the rebounds and the titles that should be accumulated with those physical gifts, and so we assume that those are the only things Shaq imagines, too. We look back at the 28,596 points, the 10.9 rebounds per game, the four championships, and we cynically wonder what those totals would be if Shaq singularly devoted his life to success on the basketball court like we wanted him to. We act as if this rare talent obliviously cruised through his career and didn’t realize he could accomplish more on the court until years had passed and his body had betrayed him more times than he could handle.

In the midst of our selfishness as fans of the game, we fail to realize that Shaq consciously decided his path, and we fail to accept that he chose what we considered to be a second-fiddle narrative.

* * *

I am not innocent.

For years, I wondered why Shaq couldn’t give just a little bit more on the basketball court. Growing up in Southern California as a Los Angeles Lakers fan, I wished Shaq would be more like Kobe Bryant. He didn’t have to share Kobe’s complete and utter disdain for losing even a mid-February contest against the Sacramento Kings, but I wished Shaq would share Kobe’s unwavering commitment to winning championships. Every fall, I hoped Shaq reported to training camp in shape with his weight in check.

It often struck me that a fan shouldn’t have to hope one of his team’s star players put in the necessary off-season work so that he could capture in-season glory. For a guy making millions upon millions of dollars, ultimate preparation should be a given, I thought. It took me a long time to think differently because Shaq helped spoil Lakers fans. He teamed with Kobe to bring three consecutive titles to L.A. Hanging banners became the norm. It became expected. It probably even became a little unappreciated.

When the two stars couldn’t put their egos aside to continue the dynasty, management shipped Shaq off to Miami and kept the younger, hungrier Bryant. This made me irate, considering it came after being embarrassed in the ’04 Finals by the Detroit Pistons. When Shaq left, I knew people who spent their spare time drawing up new nicknames for the departed center, such as “The Big Shaq-Of-(spit).” As far as I can remember, “The Big Love” was never mentioned.

It wasn’t until Shaq joined LeBron in Cleveland that I started to view him in a different light. By then, he had won a fourth title with Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, and he tried to help Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire win one in Phoenix. When Shaq was announced as a new edition to the Cavs, he said his motto was, “Win a ring for the King.” It had become clear that the most dominant big man I had witnessed in my life had simply morphed into a rook to another star’s king.

I no longer cared about Shaq’s numbers, about where he stood among the all-time greats. Yes, he was in the conversation with Kareem, Russell, Wilt and Olajuwon, but in what order I didn’t really care to figure out. That didn’t matter to me. That wasn’t the question I pondered.

Instead it was, In 10 or 20 years, when you think of Shaq, how are you going to remember him and what are you going to remember him for?

* * *

I know people look up to me as a role model, and I have no problem with that. But I would rather be known as a “real model,” someone with flaws and weaknesses, like everyone else.

—   Shaquille O’Neal, “Shaq Talks Back”

Don’t ask me why that book is currently sitting on a shelf in my house. I don’t know why. But I thought of that book during Shaq’s retirement press conference last week. As we watched the press conference, we all tried to think about our favorite Shaq memories and place him in a neat historical context. We, once again, wanted to write Shaq’s final chapter. I thought of that book as the many sides of Shaq’s personality revealed themselves during the press conference.

Shaq wasn’t even three sentences into his opening remarks when he had someone bring a cell phone up to the podium. Shaq, ever the showman, put the phone up to his ear and began having a one-sided conversation. News recently broke that Donnie Walsh wouldn’t be back as the GM of the New York Knicks. Shaq acted like he was listening to a voice on the other end of the line and said, “You want me to apply for the Knicks general manager job? OK, I’ll be right up after the press conference!” The reporters in the room loved it. This was unequivocally Shaq.

Reporters asked Shaq about his relationship with Kobe and why he left Orlando, and the man said they were both based on business. “I’m task-driven in business, and with the task being to win championships, I figured out how to push Kobe’s buttons,” Shaq said. “I left Orlando because L.A. reached the number and Orlando couldn’t match it at the time. I also went for other selfish reasons, like movies.” This was unequivocally Shaq.

Three different times Shaq took it upon himself to mention that he didn’t reach 30,000 points. He talked about how his poor free throw shooting kept him from reaching that plateau and that if he was within one season’s worth of points from reaching 30,000 he probably would come back. “That’s the one thing that really bothers me. If I played to my full potential, I would probably be second in points.” This was unequivocally Shaq.

Shaq decided to have the press conference at his house because he wanted to give back to the writers who covered him for so many years. “I just wanted to say thanks to you guys, and bring in some food, have you guys over for lunch, and just have good times.” This was unequivocally Shaq.

In one retirement press conference, Shaq showed all the little pieces of himself that were dissected over the course of his career. It was telling that Shaq so often brought up the fact that he didn’t reach 30,000 career points. It was telling that he said the “one thing that really bothers” him was related to scoring points, not winning more titles. There was a perfect chance for a follow-up question that, as far as I can tell, was missed. After the sentence, “If I played to my full potential, I would probably be second in points,” somebody needed to simply ask, “Why didn’t you?” Or, “What stopped you?” Something.

But retirements are days of celebration, and nobody wanted to ruin that. Instead, we moved along with the “Shaq should have been more” story when it really doesn’t fit. I suspect this story is so popular because it gets at the heart of a grand American virtue. Give it your all, Johnny. You can be the best if you put your mind to it. If you leave it all on the field, you can be proud. Don’t settle for second place.

There is honor in those things, which is why we repeat those phrases to our kids in their formative years. We hope a couple of them will stick. In some eyes, Shaq probably didn’t hold up his end of that bargain. I don’t think he always put his mind to being the best nor did he always leave it all on the court. He probably did settle. That’s what some people will remember.

I’ll remember Shaq as real, and I’ll remember him as a man who may seemingly have passed on one virtue because he accepted another. Things we also tell our kids: You can be whatever you want to be. Don’t let anybody tell you no. Be a leader, not a follower. You are in control of your dreams. You decide. You CHOOSE.

Because Shaq sometimes chose fame and celebrity over low-post moves and winning basketball games, he’s denigrated for it. People harp on his flaws as a basketball player because he sometimes chose to be something else. To be sure, there were times, good times, to be very critical of Shaq. He wasn’t always a professional in the way he approached his work, although he was always compensated like a prince. That’s fair.

But a theme that is being overlooked in conjunction with Shaq’s career is that everybody has their own choices to make, professionally and personally, and many are much too afraid to choose. Choices have consequences, and some don’t have the stomach or the will to deal with those consequences.

Shaq did. When Shaq had to make his choice, he didn’t listen to what the world thought he should be. Shaq chose his own pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

And, you know, what’s so wrong with that?

Follow Teddy Mitrosilis on Twitter. You can reach him at tm4000@yahoo.com.

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