As is often the case when a superstar retires, analysts, fans, heck everyone begins to analyze where that particular superstar fits in the pantheon of all-time greats. When Shaquille O’Neal announced his retirement from the NBA this week after 19 seasons discussions of his place in history among centers began almost immediately (personally I have him as #5 behind Wilt; Bill, obviously Russell and not Walton; Kareem; and Hakeem). But there is one thing Shaq did better than any of those players and better than any player thus far in NBA history: manipulate and manage the media. If you read any article or watch any montage on ESPN the focus is often on Shaq’s jovial, almost childlike, behavior. Often mentioned is how he was able to overcome the stigma that comes along with being 7’1”, 325 (he’s listed at 325 but 340 is probably closer to accurate) by seeming approachable and always having a witty retort.
Because of his large personality, Shaq was able to have many of his misdeeds swept completely under the rug and not placed under the 24 hour media microscope like so many other players. How many players would have gotten away with this completely racist and stereotypical portrayal of Yao Ming?
Yao is one of many players Shaq mocked over his career. Youtube is filled with “hilarious” clips of Shaq just being Shaq. Which is excused because hey, he’s just joking right?
Another thing Shaq seems to have been given a pass by the media for is his ability to wear out his welcome on every single team on which he played. While Orlando didn’t want him to go, he had nothing good to say about the organization when he left. This pattern would repeat several times over his 19 year career. There’s more to the story than a Kobe ultimatum as to why Shaq left LA and three championships. Fans (and some members of the media) love to point the finger at Kobe as to why that relationship was rocky. However, Shaq should shoulder some of that blame. Shaq was never going to play Robin to Kobe’s Batman period, even though the younger Bryant came into his own and earned the right to be the first option. Shaq would never allow it and thus that combo was done, even though most felt they could have won more championships together. The infamous freestyle rap shows you exactly how Shaq felt about Kobe.
Shaq rolled into Miami in 2004 on a big rig bringing big promises and smiles. He delivered on those promises, winning his 4th championship in 2006 but in 2008 he was unceremoniously moved to Phoenix after averaging career lows in almost every category. No one thought his career was over, but no one in Miami was campaigning to keep him. These same events were repeated in Phoenix where he stayed for two seasons before trying to win yet another championship by joining LeBron James in Cleveland. Of course now all his ex teammates speak about how wonderful a player he was but if you listen carefully few speak of the man that he was.
Shaq now has features in magazines featuring his new girlfriend (who also happens to be the first winner of “Flavor of Love,” Hoopz). He is the picture of a fun-loving boyfriend and partner, one that every girl would want. Lost in that is the divorce from his wife in 2009 and the cheating that surrounded the marriage (listen to the Kobe rap where he calls Kobe a snitch but doesn’t deny the cheating). Shaq made quite a few gossip blogs because of his affairs and while I wouldn’t expect the “real” media to cover such salacious details, I’m surprised that he’s now allowed to reinvent himself as this great catch.
Throughout his 19 year career Shaquille O’Neal has been a master at media manipulation. He’s been a master at managing his persona. Other players should take notes on how he’s been able to cultivate his personality and should learn that giving a few good quotes can go a long way in forming the public opinion of you. We’re left with the picture of the grinning, happy big man walking off into the sunset (or to the closest television camera because no one really believes he’s going away).