ORLANDO, Fla. -- At the end of the cul-de-sac, in a palatial home appropriately named "The Mansion," Shaquille O'Neal said good-bye Friday in a way that seemed just right. The big fella promptly retired all his nicknames, opened with some comedy, and had plenty to say to the younger generation -- a pool of advice that was bigger than Lake Butler glistening in his backyard.
At the end of a packed retirement news conference hosted in his very own indoor basketball court -- his various jerseys hanging on the wall along with two Superman logos -- O'Neal limped off the stage for the last time in the basketball chapter of his life, making it clear there is a whole lot more in store.
"I have a lot of options," said O'Neal, 39, who is retiring after 19 seasons in the NBA, most of them spent as the most dominant force in the paint since Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And you can put them in any order you like, Shaq said, as long as his name is mentioned.
"Even though I didn't reach my full potential," O'Neal said, "I can look at my mother and father and say, 'We made it. A poor family from Newark, New Jersey -- from the projects, we made it. We did it.' "
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He did it big, did it his own way -- a way it's never been done before. The NBA will never be the same.
"I can remember a time telling my parents, I was like, 'Mom, I don't like my name. I don't like my height,'" O'Neal said. "And my mother said, 'You know what? Make them remember your name.' So when I started creating my style in high school and college, my thing was to make people remember the name Shaquille O'Neal. Make people say, 'This is a funny guy.' Make people say, 'He's not the average superstar. I just saw this guy in Wal-Mart. I just saw this guy at Target. He's a normal guy.' And I think I did that.
"I always wanted to be a leader," he said. "And I always wanted to do it my way. And I'm very comfortable here today saying I did it my way."
O'Neal retires as the fifth-highest scorer in NBA history, behind only Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Chamberlain. The only regret, Shaq said, is not listening to his father and working more on his free throws so he could've passed Wilt and become "the most dominant player in the world." In fact, the 3,000 points or so separating him from Chamberlain represent the reason O'Neal said he will never come out of retirement.
"I definitely won't be back," O'Neal said. "If I had like 100 points fewer than him, then I would come back to pass him up."
O'Neal's sendoff was everything you'd expect from one of the most dominant ever, and from one of the biggest cultural icons the game of basketball has ever known. It was catered, of course, and provided a glimpse into the incomparable life one of the giants of sports and marketing.
Parked cars lined the narrow road for a good quarter-mile leading to O'Neal's house inside the gated community of Windermere Country Club. A red carpet marked the way up O'Neal's driveway into his garage, which had Superman rims displayed on the wall and a white Mercedes and red Ferrari parked in a mini showroom with a black-tiled floor.
Inside, memorabilia galore. There were Hall of Famers' signed jerseys from every sport -- Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Jerry West, plus Terry Bradshaw, Walter Payton and O.J. Simpson (USC and Buffalo Bills), as well as Wayne Gretzky. Sitting atop a row of soda machines was a vintage photo of a baby-faced Shaq, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott from the Orlando days.
My personal favorite: a double-paned frame with John Wooden's "Seven Traits" on one side and a photo of Wooden, Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, O'Neal and Bill Walton on the other.
Magic had written on his No. 32 jersey: "To the most versatile Big Man ever. Keep rapping. Earvin Magic Johnson."
And this will be O'Neal's enduring service to the league, as a giant whose accomplishments connect the present to the past and also bridge the gap to the future. O'Neal played that part well Friday, thanking his elders like the late Chamberlain and George Mikan, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar (who deserves a statue outside Staples Center before he himself gets one, Shaq said) while also dishing out advice for the players who have the responsibility to carry the NBA forward from here.
"As long as Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade and Carmelo, guys like that are around, the league will be in pretty good shape," O'Neal said. "There's only really one dominant big man left and that's Dwight Howard. I'm going to expect him to win three or four championships. If he doesn't win three or four championships, I'll be disappointed."
There was more where that came from, including a mea culpa that his feuds with Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade were cleverly engineered motivational "tactics," a product of O'Neal playing CEO and using the media to deliver his message.
"As I got into business mode early in my career, I learned to push buttons," O'Neal said. "So a lot of people on the outside looking in would say, 'He and Kobe had problems.' No. As a CEO, you have to differentiate relationship-driven and task-driven, and I was task-driven. And the task was to win championships. I pushed Kobe's buttons, Kobe pushed my buttons, and we were able to win three out of four. And I did the same thing with D-Wade. A lot of people really didn't understand my tactics. But [it was] business."
Later, in the last of a long line of media huddles as O'Neal sat against a wall below one of the Superman emblems, he said, "It's all marketing. I know how to get you guys. I help you guys out, you help me out. A lot of stuff I say is bull___, we all know that. But you guys write it, they read it, the fans read it, come to the arena and boo; it's all a system. It's all part of the game. ... I knew what I was doing."
Since it was time to set some of the record straight, O'Neal admitted to a small group of reporters that the infamous Orlando Sentinel poll when he was a free agent in 1996 was 40 percent responsible for driving him out of town and to the Lakers. I call B.S. there and give the Lakers' 121 million reasons the nod. But to play along, more than 90 percent of respondents to the newspaper poll back then said "No" when asked if O'Neal was worth $115 million. He eventually accepted the Lakers' offer of $121 million over seven years.
"I was very, very sensitive at a young age," O'Neal said. "So that had about 40 percent to do with it. Fifty percent was I was selfish; I had a lot of stuff going on in L.A., a lot of stuff I thought I couldn't pass up at the time. The organization, they did everything right, they did everything top-notch. I just think that they were a little slow. Because I told them that L.A. wanted me and they didn't really match it. And then Alonzo [Mourning] and Juwan [Howard] got the money, and even then they still didn't match it. And then Jerry came with the 121, so I had to take it."
Shaq was in a giving mood when it came to advice, too. And while he wouldn't go there when asked who was his greatest teammate -- Kobe, LeBron or Wade -- he did have plenty to say about how LeBron could have orchestrated his Shaq-like departure from Cleveland better.
"If he had been straight up with the guy [Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert], like, 'I'm not coming back,' and let the guy make moves and try to build his team, everything would've been all right," O'Neal said. "But you can't keep messing around -- 'I don't know, I don't know, I don't know.' And then, 'All right, Mike [Brown], you're gone. All right, you're gone, you're gone.' The guy was trying to make it better for LeBron, but LeBron and his group of guys didn't tell him what was going on. And then at the last minute, it was too late. The guy couldn't go out and get any free agents. I just think if LeBron had just done it better business-tactically, things would've been all right."
As for Howard, who soon will face Shaq's decision of whether to stay in Orlando or leave as a free agent after next season, O'Neal said, "I read his comments the other day, and I thought those were the correct comments for him to say: 'I don't want to follow anybody. I don't want to follow Shaq. I want to make my own path.' And I agree. So hopefully he lives up to those comments and he stays here. And I'm going to be watching. I'm gonna be in the front row watching and hopefully he can get two, three or four championships, because he's a fabulous player and he deserves to win."
O'Neal's frequent tweaking of Howard -- saying things like "Everything he's done, I invented" -- was all part of the marketing plan, too, he said. On Friday, after O'Neal announced that all his nicknames are hereby retired with him, he offered to bequeath the Superman stage name to Howard.
"I once told my father that I wanted to be Kareem," O'Neal said. "And he said, 'That's all fine and dandy, but you've got big shoes to fill.' Anybody who wants to be me has got big shoes to fill. He has Superman, the dunk was great and all that, and if he wants the name, that's fine with me. There's really no hard feelings."
So what's next for the self-proclaimed "Big AARP"? O'Neal said he plans to have surgery on the calf injury that ended his career, and eventually will run for sheriff of neighboring Lake County. He's looking into TV and movie opportunities, and said he's part of an investment group that wants to either bring an NFL team to Los Angeles or buy an NBA team.
And he'll be keeping an eye on his legacy, hoping Howard gets a few championships, and watching the next generation of basketball talent that will be responsible for carrying the NBA to heights even O'Neal wasn't able to achieve. The one guy he wished he had a chance to play with or compete against?
"Blake 'Earthquake' Griffin," Shaq said. "He's a special kid right there. I would love to play against somebody like that."
As for somebody like Shaq, we'll never see one of those again.