8. Getting To Know The Real Shaq

This sort of comes out of left field, but this week I wrote something about the Gilbert Arenas-Shaquille O’Neal love triangle, and I was reminded of something I learned last year: Shaquille O’Neal is quite possibly a terrible person. This is really difficult to appreciate when you think of Shaq. It’s not a cliche to say that he’s a larger-than-life personality; literally, he is larger in size than just about anyone you might encounter in daily life. But he can relate to the average person, and for that, we love him.

Most people would resent someone with even a fraction of Shaq’s size and power, but because he’s not afraid to be self-deprecating, fond of goofy dance routines, and quick to flash a gigantic smile, he’s looked upon as the NBA’s resident gentle giant. And yet, after years of adulation, NBA titles, and hundreds of millions of dollars, we’ve missed the biggest attribute of all: his massive, unremitting, and altogether repulsive ego.

And sometime during last season, all of this crystallized for me. Just days after calling Chris Bosh the “Rupaul of Big Men,” he unleashed the following tirade on Coach Stan Van Gundy:

First of all, none of his players like him. When it gets tough, he will become the master of panic like he did before and he will quit like he did before. The one thing I despise is frontrunners. Yeah, he’s got a young team playing good but don’t be a frontrunner.

Him and his brother and even the legend on the bench ain’t done what I’ve done in my whole career. So flopping would be the wrong choice of words.

[…]

Remember, I’ve done more than him, his brother and Patrick Ewing. Stan Van Gundy reminds me of a broke navigational system. He knows everything about everything but ain’t never been nowhere. Think about that. If I’m right here and I type in the address of where you’re going, I know where it’s at but I’m not going there.

When a bum says some s—- about it and I respond, you can f—-ing cancel that cuz I know how he is in real life. We’ll see when the playoffs start and he f—-ing panics and quits like he did when he was here (in Miami). And you f—-ing print it just like that. Do I look soft to you like you can say something and I’m not going to say something?

Just a galling, immature, and shockingly personal tirade directed at a guy that most people seem to think of fondly, and who appeared to treat him more than fairly during their time together in Miami. (If anything, Shaq went behind Van Gundy’s back to convince Pat Riley to return, and toss Stan to the curb before the Heat’s championship season.) This, after Van Gundy (who eventually took over the Magic) had the nerve to call this play a flop:

But wait, there’s more! Around this time, Dwight Howard explained that while just about every big man in history had offered him valuable advice over the course of his career, Shaq’s never said a damn thing to help him out. And you know, that says a whole lot more about his character than even his petty tirade above. Howard’s exact words, via the Orlando Sentinel

“The only thing I would expect from him is that he would try to help me improve my game and that’s it.”

Has he?

“No,” Howard said.

“Like all the other big guys [do], you know, like Hakeem [Olajuwon], Pat Ewing, Dikembe [Mutombo], Bill Russell, David Robinson . . . tried to help me improve. . . . Taking shots at somebody else, I wouldn’t do that.”

Howard said he expected some helpful “comments to come from Shaq,” but added that the only advice he received has been basically useless.

Then, of course, there was the time he double crossed Steve Nash and stole his idea for a reality show. When the show debuted, it was fairly successful, and fans around the country delighted at watching this big buffoon try his hand at different sports with fellow celebrities. Just a bunch of good, clean fun, some laughs, and one, giant sight gag. A formula that’s made Shaquille O’Neal into an icon.

And yet, even that dumbass reality show was proof that beneath the veneer that America cheers, Shaq is kind of a bad person. And not offering even a little bit of advice to Dwight Howard—a guy who not-so-subtlely has been called “The Next Shaq” by just about everyone in the league—is equally evocative of Shaq’s true colors. He’s a selfish, immature boor, that looks out for his own best interests first, last, and always.

Taken on their own, none of these anecdotes really changes things; he’s still a great player, with four championship rings, and a basketball legacy that’s beyond reproach. But when considered alongside each other, it all contributes to a much darker portrayal. Whether it’s sleeping with Gilbert Arenas’ girlfriend, stealing Steve Nash’s television show, needlessly bullying Stan Van Gundy, or ignoring a benevolent young player eager to learn, you get the feeling that after all these years, and toxic situations in L.A., Orlando, and Miami, maybe Shaq was the problem.

It prompts you to reconsider his entire career. Did the Lakers win because of him, or in spite of him? Maybe Penny Hardaway wasn’t such a fool, after all. And how about Dwyane Wade, having the maturity to placate Shaq’s ego for the greater good. Nothing could erase the memories of his dominance, but perhaps it puts an asterisk next to some of those performances. As in, keep in mind: Shaq was a phenomenal player, but at the end of the day, he created a lot problems for teammates, and treated people terribly. Does that make him less phenomenal?

Of course not, but like Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech, might it make it a little harder for us to romanticize his career? I say yes. Over the years Shaq’s done a masterful job painting himself the victim, but as he stubbornly refuses to retire and continues to collect massive paychecks ($21 million this year), he’s keeping himself in the public eye, and unwittingly revealing a whole lot more about "The_Real_Shaq" than he ever wanted us to know.

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