Not to sound presumptuous when it comes a top 10 NBA big man, but I've always thought Spurs fans looked at Shaquille O'Neal a little bit differently than fans of other teams. And, when I say "looked at" - let me just come out and say it - I mean that we feared him. The man was as big as a mountain; a living, breathing Game of Thrones character in signature sneakers. When Shaq established position in the post, it was like the moment just before the roller coaster goes over the first hill when your heart starts to go into your stomach. You knew what was coming and were powerless to stop it; even more terrifying was that you knew your team was powerless to stop it. Then the thundering dunk came, breaking your soul if not the backboard.
Shaq played almost all of the most impactful portions of his career pre-Twitter, but he may have been the most viral player in league history. His dunks literally brought down houses of steel and plexiglass. His soundbites and dizzying array of verbal nom de plume such as "Big Aristotle" shattered the image of the talented-but-reserved basketball colossus. Russell and Kareem may have won more titles, but they didn't possess mega-watt smiles, rap albums, or Icy/Hot endorsements. Before Shaq proved that big men could sell sneakers and become their own brand of aspirational figure, outsized personalities were ironically relegated to the Clyde Fraziers, Magic Johnsons, Charles Barkleys and Air Jordans. The smaller men were the players that regular fans could relate to. They faced the basket and looked us in the eye, while the big men toiled with their backs to the bucket, playing a game that common fans had a hard time relating to. Before Shaq, big men were aliens in sneakers. It was Shaq who made first contact by proving to mainstream fans that a back-to-the-basket game could be fun, not just efficient.
Part of Shaq's narrative that is often forgotten is something important that humanizes his legacy. Between 1994 and 1999, Shaq's Magic and Laker teams were swept out of the playoffs a total of five times (in the 1997 playoffs, the Lakers lost 4-1 to the Jazz in the Western Semis). This is where we return to a Spurs fans' perception of Shaq. In 1999, the Spurs finished off the last of those five sweeps. The Great Western Forum closed down, and the San Antonio went on to win its first title. But little did we know that 1999 would be the last time in a long stretch that Shaq would not be an immovable object.
O'Neal had lamented how fatigued he'd grown with being swept, and over the course of the next three years, "Superman" did the equivalent of Christopher Reeves' furious laps around the earth. But Shaq wasn't saving Margot Kidder, he was saving his career. Prior to the 1999 playoffs, Shaq was a monstrous hulk who couldn't push his team through the playoffs. After that? He may have gone from an overwhelming disappointment to first-ballot Hall of Famer as quickly as anyone in NBA history. In his MVP season in the 1999-2000 season, Shaq put up 29.7/13.6/3.8 while shooting .574 from the floor in 40 minutes a game. This superlative performance propelled the Lakers to their first post-Showtime title.
The next year Shaq didn't win MVP but put up a playoff performance which came to define his career, leading the Lakers to a 15-1 record while putting up high scoring games of 44, 44, 43, 35, 34, and 32 points. Only one of those performances came in the Western Conference Finals, when Shaq and Company swept the Silver and Black out of the playoffs. But that series represented a harrowing moment in Spurs history. Tim Duncan had just signed a long-term contract and David Robinson still possessed plenty of defensive ability. Yet it felt like as long as Shaq was in the Purple and Gold the Spurs would not win the West.
As the 2016-17 season approaches, that familiar sense of dread has begun to creep in, representing another seemingly unconquerable California team. For my money, I'd rather face the Steph Curry Warriors than the Lakers when Shaq was at his peak. In retrospect, that peak didn't last as long as it felt at the time. The second half of Shaq's career was exemplified less by physical dominance than it was petty feuds and (increasingly stale) fresh starts in Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland, and Boston.
With each stop in the latter half of his career, Shaq became less of a player and more of a sideshow. But I get the feeling that young Shaq would have approved. He never saw himself as merely a basketball player. His job was always to entertain, with basketball sometimes coming first, and sometimes lower. He was famously unconcerned with matters like conditioning or free throw percentage, preferring to play himself into shape and vowing to "make them when I need to." You couldn't exactly say he was lazy, but the question will linger as Shaq walks into Springfield as one of the top 10 NBA big men in the history of the league; was No. 1 within reach? As a Spurs fan whose team was talented enough to win titles each year except for the presence of their greatest rival, I always figured - assumed, even - that the Shaq-Kobe-Phil Lakers would continue to win titles as long as they wanted to. They didn't, so a mere three-peat sits on Shaq's resume along with his '06 title with Miami.
Unlike Kobe, who famously proclaimed basketball was his life, Shaq frequently discussed life after basketball. He's had a particular interest in law enforcement, recently being sworn in as a Deputy City Marshall in Louisiana. Had Shaq managed to overcome his own, largely self-created, distractions, it's easy to envision him climbing the ranks and challenging Russell and Kareem at the top - if not Jordan himself. If all you remember is the Shaq who had slap fights with Dwight Howard or the Shaq who called himself Phoenix's "Big Cactus", that may sound a little strange. Trust me, he could have had the ability, if not the temperament.
Alas, when it comes to Shaq, we must be content with the entertainment he provided. And, just as frequently, the terror.