“Can you dig it?”
Ever since the Lakers were unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by the Mavericks, I’ve found it difficult to genuinely care about anything that’s happening in the realm of sports.
I’ve witnessed Barcelona thoroughly dominate Manchester United in the Champions League final, the soon to be Mrs. Vujacic cruising through the preliminary rounds of the French Open and the Vancouver Canucks advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals without a hint of emotion.
Quick tangent: seeing as I live in Vancouver, it’s nearly impossible not to get caught up in the whirlwind of excitement surrounding the Canucks’ quest for the cup. But when it comes to my loyalty, it’s the Lakers first and all the other teams I support follow in no particular order.
“We did it,” Shaquille O’Neal said in his TwitVid. “Nineteen years, baby. I want to thank you very much. That’s why I’m telling you first: I’m about to retire. I love you. Talk to you soon.”
I found myself wondering if this was actually the end of Shaq’s career. The man has played basketball professionally for as long as I have lived.
Ask anyone that watched Shaq play this season, and they would tell you it was time for Shaq to hang up his size 22 sneakers. O’Neal’s final season in Boston was plagued by injuries.; the calf injury he suffered mid-way through the season was a result of a mundane jog up the court.
A man that was once so dominant had never looked more vulnerable.
At his apex, Shaquille O’Neal was virtually unstoppable. To the benefit of the Lakers, he spent his apex in purple and gold.
Take a look at these numbers: Shaq averaged 38 points and 17 rebounds in the 2000 Finals against the Pacers, 33 and 16 in 2001 against the Sixers and 36 and 12 in 2002 against the Nets.
Dwight Howard can’t touch those numbers. Lest we forget, in the 2001 Finals Shaq posted those numbers despite being matched up with Dikembe Mutombo, the reigning defensive player of the year. His dominance of Rik Smits (Pacers’ center) and Todd MacCulloch (Nets’ center) resembled a Hummer crushing a Smart Car in a demolition derby.
Needless to say, O’Neal was awarded the Finals MVP in all three of the Laker championship runs in the Shaq-Kobe era.
As a kid, I never fully appreciated Shaq because I was blinded by my admiration of Kobe Bryant.
I was enamored with Bryant for the same reasons Dr. Jerry Buss decided to keep him over Shaq when the two offered the Lakers’ management with an ultimatum: Kobe was younger, he could take over the game at any point, his habit of making jaw dropping plays was unmatched and you could never question his dedication to basketball.
As a little dude, I would go out on the playground and try to replicate all of Bryant’s acrobatics after watching a Laker game, while Shaq’s arsenal of moves dulled in comparison.
What I didn’t know at the time was we won’t be seeing another Shaquille O’Neal in a long time.
In hindsight, O’Neal was undeniably the key to the Lakers’ dynasty. Over the course of the Shaq-Kobe era, the Lakers were 55-45 when Bryant played without Shaq and 36-8 when Shaq played without Bryant.
Upon receiving the entry pass, Shaq would catch, spin and finish emphatically before his defender could analyze how to defend 350 pounds.
Shaq was unstoppable to the extent where teams adopted the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy as the last resort to stop him.
If Shaq was as dedicated to the game of basketball as Kobe was, who knows how many more championships the Lakers would’ve collected. The two superstars contrasting approach to basketball collided repeatedly, for Kobe basketball was his life, but for Shaq basketball was merely a hobby he happened to be extraordinary at because of his God- given size and abilities.
“Super players have super egos. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t,” assistant coach Tex Winter commentated when asked about the duo. “They take challenges, sometimes with a teammate, it’s the nature of the beast.”
Next: After the Lakers