Shaq, who announced on Wednesday he will retire from the NBA at the age of 39, with 19 seasons in the books, was much, much more than a basketball player, even in the early days. Michael Jordan was the first media star in the NBA, with his signature sneaker line, groundbreaking ad presence and -- of course -- Space Jam. Shaq wasn't the first media star of the NBA, and he wouldn't be the last.
But he would become the best.
Shaq had what we now wish every NBA superstar had: a genuine personality, love of the spotlight and willingness to step outside his comfort zone. This isn't to say LeBron James is boring, or Dwight Howard's self-created caricature seems forced, but ... LeBron James is boring and Dwight Howard's self-created caricature seems forced. Shaq was perfectly natural, whether it be selling shoes, walking the red carpet for a no-doubt awful movie, appearing on a rap track, stalking around an awards show stage ... anything Shaq, everyone watched, because it was impossible not to.
That O'Neal happened to be among the best players in NBA history was a tremendous boost to his mythology; without that factor, it's hard to see how the rest of his oeuvre would have found legitimacy. There was more than enough meat and potatoes in Shaq as a player to allow Shaq the entertainer to feel -- or at least look -- natural.
Shaq came into the NBA primarily a force of nature, not some genius entertainer. Shaq's game was his entertainment; never underestimate the visceral power of knowing a guy can tear down a rim at moment's notice. Young Shaq was the embodiment of power, thanks to his otherworldly athleticism and agility mixed with a massive frame and incredible strength. Early Shaq was such a physical anomaly -- much more so than Jordan, Magic or Bird, especially -- that you believed all was possible with him.
He carried with him none of the reservations about failures of the past; at least for my generation -- I was 11 when Shaq made his NBA debut -- O'Neal was destined to be great from the jump-off. Big men with that skill level always lack power and athleticism. Big men with that power and athleticism always lack skill. Shaq had both, and it was obvious from the start.
He always had non-basketball aspirations from the very beginning; his first album, Shaq Diesel, came out in 1993. He starred in Blue Chips with real life teammate Penny Hardaway; the movie came out in 1994. His video game Shaq Fu, a fighting game in which Shaq is tasked with saving a kidnapped Japanese boy for the reanimated corpse of a pharoah, came out in October 1994, before his second NBA season had begun. Shaq didn't want on basketball superstardom to dip his toes in popular culture. The rises were simultaneous.
Of course, Shaq was a bust as a box office headliner; Kazaam and Steel were bombs. Hollywood's like the NBA in certain ways -- not everyone can be the superstar. Sometimes, you've got to be a roleplayer. And Shaq has succeeded in that way; he has almost complete recognition by Americans with TVs, and the four letters that make up his name elicit kind reactions among all but the most recently disappointed basketball fans. (O'Neal wasn't particularly helpful in Cleveland or Boston, his last two stops.)
Meanwhile, on the court, the Hollywood turn both informed his NBA career -- he proved it's difficult to make movies and remain in top physical condition -- and trailed it. Shaq was better than ever in Los Angeles, where he starred for the Lakers for eight seasons. His 2000 season might be the best non-Jordan performance of the post-merger NBA. He won the regular season MVP award and the Finals MVP; he was at the pinnacle of his basketball career, and had he replicated the effort once or twice more, we'd be talking about him as better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and maybe Wilt Chamberlain. That's not an indictment, just a recognition of how incredible that season was.
It's been a slow downhill since then on the court, which has let his personality and media presence pick up the slack. From becoming a cop to embracing Twitter to starring in commercials and making cameos to more musical interludes to giving just about every NBA player in history a nickname to feuding with everyone from Kobe Bryant to Stan Van Gundy to Dwight Howard ... Shaq is always in the news, and always entertaining. That fills me with happiness, because if kids of a '00s felt the same way about Shaq as I did in the '90s -- when I walked into a Reebok store to buy trainers and they had a real-life Shaq size 23 replica, larger than life, just like the player who wore it -- then the world is a better place.
* Note: my feelings about Shaq as a Sacramento Kings fan are a bit of a contrast.