Shaquille O’Neal’s most obvious asset, his remarkable 7-foot-1, 325-pound frame, was a gift and a curse. When he dominated, which he did frequently, well, he was supposed to. And as much as he was able to accomplish, there would always be people saying he should have done even more; even his former coach, Phil Jackson, believed he underachieved. Choosing to play for the Lakers simply added to that: Having to be compared to franchise standouts Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain was like tilting at windmills.
Of course, after arriving in the NBA as one of the most hyped No. 1 picks of all time, all Shaq did was become a 15-time All-Star, an MVP in 2000, a two-time scoring champion, a four-time NBA champion and a Hall of Famer. Users of Basketball Reference rank him as the No. 7 player of all time — ahead of Kareem, Wilt and — for good measure — Magic Johnson. Want to cite advanced statistics? Shaq is third all-time in player efficiency rating, ranking only behind two guys named Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
One weakness was his terrible free-throw shooting, but he made a good point about his Achilles’ heel: “So me shooting 40 percent at the foul line is just God’s way of saying that nobody’s perfect. If I shot 90 percent from the line, it just wouldn’t be right.” Who could argue with that logic?
Now that the fearsome monolith in the paint has retired, leaving us primarily with a lovable goof, it’s easy to forget sometimes just how big Shaq got in the early 90’s. (Figuratively, of course.) The lean, mean backboard destroying machine that arrived via LSU was a full-fledged superstar before he ever played an NBA game. He had a name that rolled off the tongue, the great nickname, a colorful personality and he was a dunk a minute. Of course everyone loved him.
As a rookie, Shaq was a credible alternative in every way for fans burned out on Michael Jordan. While Jordan was a guard, Shaq was a larger-than-life center. Jordan had already won multiple titles; Shaq was the future. Jordan was Nike; Shaq was Reebok. Jordan had Scottie Pippen; Shaq would soon have Penny Hardaway. And while O’Neal wasn’t quite 1A to Jordan’s No. 1 — MJ was in his own stratosphere — the young Orlando center captured the imagination of basketball fans right off the bat. It didn’t hurt that he scored 35 points in his third career game, letting everyone know the hype was completely justified. Shaq would win the Rookie of the Year, and he became the first rookie to start the All-Star Game since — surprise! — Jordan in 1985.
From there, Shaq’s career continued to pick up steam in a hurry. In his second season, he averaged 29.4 points, finishing second in the league to David Robinson, who needed a 71-point final game to stave him off. With Hardaway on board, the Magic won 50 games and made the playoffs for the first time ever, though they were swept by the Pacers.
The following season, the Magic won 57 games and ousted the Bulls and a rusty Jordan, who had returned from baseball that spring, in the second round. They made the NBA Finals, where they were swept by the defending champion Rockets. The following season, the Magic cruised to the East Finals, where the Bulls — now at full strength — swept them out of the playoffs.
And that summer, Shaq’s destiny would famously manifest itself in California. O’Neal signed with the Lakers as a free agent, describing his motivations as such: “I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.” Regardless, the move west was good for his fledgling acting career, and for his championship prospects.
The first big title piece fell into place when the Lakers traded for teenage sensation Kobe Bryant, who would quickly blossom and give them two of the absolute best players in the NBA. The addition of Phil Jackson as coach brought everything together. Jackson challenged both O’Neal and Bryant to reach their potential, and his fluid Triangle Offense was a perfect system for a team with such star power. O’Neal won the NBA MVP Award in 2000, in addition to being named First-Team All-Defense for the first time in his career.
Despite stiff challenges from conference rivals Portland and Sacramento, the Lakers rode their two superstars and Hall of Fame coach to three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002, a mini-dynasty reminiscent of Jackson’s Bulls. At that point, however, O’Neal’s age, size and ego began to show: He clashed with Bryant, and an arthritic pinky toe situation caused him to have multiple surgical procedures. His career with Los Angeles ended in ignominious fashion, as a star-laden team that included Karl Malone and Gary Payton lost to the underdog Pistons in the NBA Finals. Jackson was asked to step down, and O’Neal requested — and received — a trade.
Shaq joined the Miami Heat, immediately vowing to bring the franchise its first championship and citing his admiration for young superstar Dwyane Wade. In his second season, with O’Neal at the waning end of his dominance, the Heat upset the favored Mavericks to win the title.
As would become a pattern, however, O’Neal began clashing with his teammates and iconic coach Pat Riley. He would be traded to the Suns, where he remained a solid, useful player, but nowhere near the supernova days of his youth.
He was acquired by the Cavs to help LeBron James win a championship, but their season ended in disappointment with a second-round loss to Boston, and then James left — somewhat ironically — for Miami. With his body betraying him, O’Neal wrapped up his career with the Celtics after a playoff loss to — you guessed it — the Heat.
In retirement, Shaq has continued to be something of a renaissance man, as he always was. (He actually wasn’t that terrible as a rapper in his youth.) He’s dabbled in filmmaking and acting, has participated in law enforcement efforts, helped to host a TNT basketball studio show, invested in real estate ventures, joined the Freemasons and has even conducted the Boston Pops orchestra. He was simply too smart, too ebullient and too likable to shrink away into obscurity.
Given his success on the court and his myriad off-court interests, it’s difficult for us to argue he underachieved. In fact, it would seem quite the opposite.