For those of us basketball fanatics born in the early 1980s, Shaquille O’Neal was the first superstar that was completely our own. Michael Jordan’s legend sprouted when we were toddlers and he was a Tar Heel, the story of Bird and Magic preceded our existence and Dr. J was done before we came of age as basketball fans.
If you figure age seven or eight is the earliest one can truly appreciate witnessing greatness and that age 10 is when the formative years of fandom really begin, Shaq was our guy. He was our force of nature, our jaw-dropping realization that there is nothing outside of the bounds of possibility.
Not too many folks outside the Bayou saw a lot of LSU games while Shaq dominated down in Baton Rouge. He’d be on ESPN occasionally, but he wasn’t Christian Laettner or even Chris Webber. You’d be more likely to see glimpses of him on SportsCenter dunking the hell out of the ball, racking up spectacular blocks or, in one case, tearing down a rim. The highlights wormed their way through schoolyards, described breathlessly by those lucky enough to catch them in a pre-Vine, pre-YouTube era.
After he’d been drafted, he shattered a backboard playing Ahmad Rashad 1-on-1 on Inside Stuff.
One of my friends recorded it on his VCR. We wore that tape out.
We didn’t really have to, because Shaq broke two backboards in the NBA as a rookie and those clips were replayed on SportsCenter over and over until everyone knew O’Neal was something special. His rookie card became the hottest commodity in the trading circles.
Soon enough, Shaq had captured the imagination of society beyond just hoopheads. It happened so fast: the infamous Fu-Schnickens song “What’s Up Doc?” — featuring a verse from Shaq — came out in 1993. O’Neal released his own album, Shaq Diesel, that same year. Shaq Fu, the incredible little fighting game that features Shaq doing kung fu against monsters on a quest to rescue a boy from an evil mummy, came out in 1994, just two years after O’Neal entered the NBA. Imagine a standalone Andrew Wiggins video game coming out this summer. Crazy, right?
Shaq’s decision to flee for Hollywood in 1996 seemed obvious: he was a superstar that belonged in front of cameras and the widest audience possible. He followed Jordan into movies and ads; he represented Reebok’s best chance at challenging Nike, until fellow Hall of Fame inductee Allen Iverson brought a different edge to the brand.
Hollywood didn’t just make capitalizing on his fame easier. Teaming up with Jerry West, Kobe Bryant and eventually Phil Jackson brought basketball glory as well. He won three titles with the Lakers in the 2000s, and another with the Miami Heat as his pop culture star faded.
Since retiring, Shaq has reinvented himself to stay in the public realm. Instead of hawking shoes, rap albums and glass-shattering dunks, he’s become a wealthy investor. This side of his persona actually started during his NBA prime, when he became an early investor in Google. It’s funny that Shaq’s co-star and rival Kobe has made a big deal about getting into venture capital in retirement, because Shaq was a venture capitalist while winning MVPs. Shaq’s also invested in VitaminWater, 24-Hour Fitness and the Sacramento Kings.
In terms of business successes away from basketball, basketball shoes and basketball endorsements, Shaq is right up there with Magic Johnson. (Shaq in fact turned down an opportunity from Magic to invest in Starbucks franchises many years ago because Shaq didn’t personally drink coffee. You can’t always be right.)
Shaq has found his lane on TNT’s Inside the NBA, going full slapstick to great effect. He continues to pitch Gold Bond and Buick and seemingly a dozen other brands. He’s good for at least one incredible meme per year. For example, here’s the 2014 vintage:
In some ways, Shaq is bigger than ever. You could totally see him as the majority partner in an NBA team soon enough. Imagine that: Shaq holding court at a Board of Governors meeting.
But to us ‘90s kids, he’ll always be the impossibly huge dude leaping into orbit to dunk something or block something or break something. He’ll always be our first superstar, our baptism into experiencing the full arc of a legend from genesis to ascension. And for us, there will be never be anything like him again.