Michael Jordan had a great work ethic and a obsession with winning that bordered on insanity. He also had word-class athleticism: Speed, strength, durability...the whole package.
Allen Iverson was as tough as any NBA player you'll ever see. He made his living by careening his body into guys who, in many cases, outweighed him by well over 150 pounds. He could intimidate opponents who stood a full foot, or more, taller than him with a stare. The guy had swagger that no coach could ever teach Justin Bieber. Iverson also possessed mind-blowing speed, agility and balance.
Steve Nash possess similar qualities to Jordan and Iverson. He's tough. He works hard. But he also has incredible vision and balance.
I bring this up because last week, Shaq retired and I needed a solid week to gather my thoughts (OK, I was just really busy). But it was shocking how little fanfare greeted the exit of one of the greatest basketball players ever. Ever!
Personally, I found myself thinking how he managed, even as one of the top ten players of all time, to be underrated during his best years. Yep, everyone loves Shaq now, but don't forget that, during his prime, many people dismissed his dominance as rooted solely from his size, as something unearned. Of course, those people were forgetting the fantastic footwork and post moves that Shaq certainly had to learn. And they were forgetting that the incredible athleticism possessed by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird's basketball intelligence, and Magic and Nash's vision and balance were every bit as genetic as Shaq's impossibly giant body.
There were downsides to that size, too. I can't imagine how difficult officiating a game with an in-his-prime Shaq must've been. A teammate would pound the ball in to the big fella, and, in the blink of an eye, he'd spin around his defender, then go up for an easy score as two help defenders pulled at his arms or rammed into him. Before you could even process what had happened, the defenders had gone bouncing off Shaq, and he'd be called for a charge. I mean, look at the damage he did to those guys. How was it not an offensive foul? The game was called differently for Shaq, because Shaq was like nobody else.
But no matter how big Shaq is, facts are facts, and for a stretch of 7 or 8 years, Shaq was by far the best center anyone born before the mid-70s has ever seen. Shaq's in that special group of athletes, guys that we probably won't see something similar to for a long time, if ever: Jordan, Barry Bonds, Allen Iverson, Barry Sanders, Randy Moss, Pedro Martinez, guys who were so remarkable in some way that it didn't quite seem fair. I always like to compare Shaq to Bonds from 2001-2004. If you threw Bonds something that went over the plate during that stretch, he was almost certain to hit the ball really hard, possibly for a home run. If Shaq got the ball anywhere near the basket, he was going to score. And just like Bonds, coaches employed strategies that would've seem ridiculous applied to any other guy. In Bonds's case, he was walked with the bases loaded, as a matter of course. In Shaq's case, you just fouled him any time he got the ball, because, yeah, you were giving him a free point or two. And, yeah, you were getting your team into foul trouble, but he was going to get two anyway, when he dunked on your guy's head. And he might just draw the foul too.
So you sent Shaq to the line, where he struggled. Free-throw shooting was always one of the knocks on Shaq. And yes, you can only imagine how great he would've been if he could've been a 75% FT shooter. But, it is what it is. Everyone could be better.
And that was the other big knock. That nagging feeling that he could've been even better. That if he had wanted it so badly, like Jordan and Kobe, if he hadn't played his way into shape in some of those later years, if he could've just gotten along with Kobe, if he would've spent every day of every summer practicing free throws and doing yoga and doing situps or whatever else would keep that body from balooning and becoming an even bigger burden on his back and legs, that he could've been the greatest player ever, that he and Kobe would've won eight or nine or ten titles with ease.
Maybe that's true. But who doesn't leave something to be desired? You can nitpick all you want. Stuff happens. People aren't perfect, and the very reasons Shaq was only one of the ten best players of all time, instead of arguably the greatest, are the very reasons that make him so likable. You can't look at Michael Jordan or Larry Bird and see yourself in there. Those guys seem crazy, mean, removed from the realm of humanity. But Shaq. Shaq's kind of like me, well, plus 18 inches, 200 lbs and hundreds of millions of dollars. He's probably kind of like you, too.
He always seemed like he cared about what he did, like he wanted to be really good at it, but that he knew life was short, and he just wanted to enjoy it as much as possible. Winning a bunch of NBA championships was part of that fun, but he could enjoy himself doing other stuff too.
People don't like that, sometimes. They think every athlete should be like Jordan, like Bonds and have a singular focus on being exceptional at what they do. But those people are kind of unlikeable, and when they display their obsessiveness outsides the confines of the game -- Jordan's Hall-of-Fame induction speech, Bonds's steroid use and general arrogance, Kobe's alleged declaration to Colorado police that he could get away with a crime because he's awesome at basketball -- everyone is shocked at how alien those guys end up seeming to us mortals.
But Shaq -- flaws and all -- always seems human, despite the superhuman body. He seems like the guy who, if he showed up at your house one day, would be a friend within five surprisingly not so awkward minutes. There was always a smile on his face. It wasn't a smile that said "I'm the best and I know it," though. It said "Man, this sh*t is fun!"
There's bad stuff you can say about Shaq, too. I just said most of it, but you have to admit: When he inevitably resurfaces in some other profession, he's going to be just as hugely entertaining as he was for the past 19 years. For my part, I'll always remember the NBA version of him as the guy from the 2000 Western Finals, running down the floor, hands raised in pure amazement and joy after stuffing home an alley-oop from Kobe to put away the Blazers. From there, Shaq tore through the league for the next 25 months, and the doubters continued, even as he won, and won and won. But people had complaints.
He didn't care enough.
He's no Michael Jordan.
Kobe was the better player.
Personally, I think Shaq will be having the last laugh, because unlike most people, he'll be laughing.