MIAMI – With Shaquille O’Neal announcing his Big Sayonara on Wednesday, it was the perfect time to reminisce about the Big Fella’s impact. Nobody ever did it like Shaq, or will ever do it like Shaq again.
He was one of a kind, an original. He was the last of the dominant centers, the first to market himself across platforms – from sports, to hip-hop, to movies, to pop culture.
I thought back to my last great interview with O’Neal, last October when he was embarking on what would become a frustrating, unfulfilling, and ultimately failed one-year experiment in Boston. After failing to get a “ring for the King” in Cleveland, O’Neal had hoped to capture his fifth championship and the 18th for the Celtics by teaming with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo. In the end, father time came calling for Shaq and sent him exiting, stage left.
Before he goes, a detailed look at that last interview in New York – a particularly candid moment that harkened back to a time when Shaq’s game was as loud and penetrating as his voice and ideas:
• On the era of the dominant center: “I think I killed off all the centers, and now all the centers want to play the European-style basketball. There’s only one-and-a-half or two real centers left -- Dwight Howard and Yao Ming. Every now and then, Yao Ming steps outside and wants to shoot jumpers. But it’s gone more toward the European style. The days of the Patrick Ewings and Rik Smits and Kevin Duckworth and Robert Parish, those days are over, thanks to me.”
• On whether it will ever come back: “No. Never.”
• On his hip-hop career: “I was the one that did everything right and made it to the top and did it respectfully and kept it going. A lot of guys tried to come in, but I actually came in from the bottom, worked my way up with the crew and did this and did that. I was just a young kid coming from the projects of Newark, N.J., fulfilling one of his dreams.”
• About the opportunities basketball has given him: “The good thing about being a humble athlete and a humble guy is, you get to meet people and you get to shake people’s hands. We all know that we all come from the same place. For me growing up, on the way to the court I was mimicking LL Cool J, and once I got to the court I was Dr. J. So it was pretty much even. And I always stated that the thing that made me a great athlete is because I’m a great dancer. I have rhythm.”
• On any individual goals he had left: “If I did have an individual goal, it probably would be to pass Wilt Chamberlain in scoring. … Then I could feel complete with myself saying that I was the most dominant player if I had more championships and more points than him. But I don’t have any other individual goals that I’m going for. I’m just trying to get No. 5 this year.”
• On whether centers can still be difference-makers: “No, not shooting jumpers. … I’ve never lost a series to a guy shooting jumpers – besides Pau (Gasol), but Pau has a couple of extra weapons with him. There hasn’t been a center that has won shooting jumpers. Pau is 60-40 – 60 inside and 40 shooting jumpers. So I think the centers are getting a little more Pau Gasolish.”
• On whether that could change: “Dwight Howard plays like a true big man like we all played. … He’s actually in my eyes a true center. The game has changed, but to me he’s 95-5 – 95 inside and every now and then he’ll try to face up and shoot it off the glass. That’s how I like to see dominant big men play.”
• On his love of sports cars: “I’ve always loved sports cars. I had a couple of Ferraris and had a Lamborghini. But I was coming off the 395 one night trying to get to the beach – chillin, looking good, smelling good. I don’t know why, but I hit something and spun around and the only thing I was thinking about was hitting that ___ wall and going into the water. I closed my eyes and when I stopped a ___ truck was coming this way, so I had to get in my mode and put that ___ in reverse and do like some Bruce Willis ___ and I traded it in the next day. No, as a matter of fact, when I came to Phoenix, I sold it to Amar’e (Stoudemire). I was speeding and I was trying to get to a party and I don’t even know what happened. I was just thinking about hitting a wall and thinking about all the courses I took, like if the car hit the water, what the ___ you gotta do.”
• On being so critical of Howard in the past: “I wasn’t critical. It’s just that I know how to add fuel to the fire. But he does play like a true big man. I can’t say that he doesn’t play like a true big man. I was just saying last year that when I was his age, I didn’t have the luxury of calling a double to help me on Patrick Ewing. I would’ve loved to have help on ___ Pat Ewing and Rick Smits and all those guys, but I played them straight up. So if you want my respect, play straight up. That’s all I said.”