I Hate Shaq
I hate Shaq.
Shaquille O’Neal is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. He is a four-time NBA champion, league MVP and three-time MVP of the NBA Finals. He’s had platinum recording albums and has transitioned into a full-fledged media personality and basketball analyst following his 19-year career. He also made “Kazaam” and “Steel”. And despite all of these accolades, I hate him with every fiber of my being.
There are two main aspects of Shaquille O’Neal that I need to discuss separately. The first is his immense talent. O’Neal possessed a combination of strength, size, skill and agility that has only ever been replicated by fellow Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain. On defense, O’Neal would control the paint and protect the rim with his timing for blocks and sheer intimidation of opposing players. It was impossible to post him up in the low post, as his massive frame made him an immovable object. There were some questions around his motor and defensive focus, but when engaged O’Neal was an All-NBA defender and capable of locking down formidable Hall of Fame foes such as David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
On the offensive end, O’Neal was equally as adept at terrorizing opponents. He was bigger and stronger than every other center and power forward in the league, so he would relentlessly bully the opposing team’s big men into either submission, foul trouble, or both. When team’s would inevitably send help in the form of a double team, O’Neal used his passing skill and vision to make them question the effectiveness of this strategy. He had the speed to lead the fast break, hook shots that could go over either shoulder, and an impeccable sense of feel and timing for the lost art of offensive rebounding, which is a relic in today’s NBA. O’Neal is widely regarded as the best offensive center in NBA history, and I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment.
The other aspect of O’Neal I need to discuss, and the main reason why I hate him, is his legacy. O’Neal was a decorated and celebrated player in college for LSU, so it was no surprise that he was drafted #1 overall to the Orlando Magic in 1992. His partnership with budding young superstar Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway led them to the brink of success but they were no match for the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston Rockets or the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. Those Rockets and Bulls teams won every single NBA championship from 1991 to 1998. Frustrated by being a perennial runner-up, O’Neal decided to leave the Magic and go to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996.
In Los Angeles, O’Neal joined up with another budding young superstar in Kobe Bryant. Once the organization hired Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, who coached all of the Bulls’ championship teams, they made the NBA Finals four times in five years and emerged victorious in three straight seasons. Jackson found a way to handle the melting pot of personalities on those star-studded Lakers rosters especially O’Neal and Bryant, who had grown to hate each other by the end of their tenure together.
Prior to winning their third championship, the Lakers had to defeat an extremely tough opponent in the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 Western Conference Finals. The Kings played the Lakers tougher than any opponent had in a 7-game series. The Kings used a combination of strategy, stretch big men, big bodies there to eat up fouls, and an understanding between the entire team of how to best slow down or negate the impact of O’Neal, who was the focal point of the Lakers triangle offense. The Lakers were actually on the brink of elimination in Game 6 when then-commissioner David Stern decided it was time to take matters into his own hands.
Disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, who spent time in prison for fixing and gambling on NBA games, was assigned to the officiating crew for that pivotal Game 6. That Game 6 was one of the worst officiated games in NBA history, with an obvious bias in the foul calling going in favor of the Lakers. There was even an inbound play where Bryant elbowed Kings player Mike Bibby in the face causing Bibby to bleed, only for the foul to be called on Bibby. I’m going to include video of the entire fourth quarter of the game and allow you to see for yourself if you feel so inclined.
I’ve mentioned this in another newsletter, but Stern has been quoted as saying that the ideal NBA Finals matchup during the end of his tenure would have been “the Lakers versus the Lakers”. Because the NBA is a business, it makes perfect business sense to put your biggest stars onto your biggest stage. The Lakers star power with O’Neal, Bryant and Jackson dwarfed that of the Kings, so Stern and the league were prepared to do whatever was necessary to make sure that the Lakers made it to the NBA Finals.
After their three championships, the Lakers would go on to miss the NBA Finals and then lose in humiliating fashion to the Detroit Pistons. After this Finals loss in 2004, O’Neal and Bryant both demanded trades away from the organization. The Lakers decided it made more sense to keep the younger Bryant, so O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat to partner with yet another budding young superstar in Dwyane Wade. After falling out with head coach Stan Van Gundy in his first year in Miami, the Heat replaced Van Gundy with Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley and they went on to win the 2006 NBA championship.
Similar to O’Neal’s run in 2002 to the title, this championship would also be marred by controversy. The Heat would lose the first two games to the Dallas Mavericks before rattling off four consecutive victories to win the title. During the series, Wade attempted 97 free throws, with 73 of those free throw attempts being attempted in the four wins. In Game 5 of the series, Wade hilariously attempted the same number of free throws, 25, as the entire Mavericks team combined.
I’ve spoken recently about subjective penalties in sports. These are calls where the officials are in complete control of the decision to call a foul because it’s not a binary penalty. Basketball is the sport with the most number of subjective penalties because of the nature of the sport and how much contact occurs on each play. The number of fouls each team gets called for has a direct impact on the result, as free throw attempts are highly efficient opportunities to score since you are unguarded. Giving one team an advantage at the free throw line is one of the easiest ways to manipulate a basketball game, according to Donaghy.
Stern notoriously had an axe to grind with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, because of how outspoken Cuban was regarding the league’s officiating. Cuban was famously quoted as saying he wouldn’t hire the NBA’s head of officiating to manage a Dairy Queen. Cuban was fined millions of dollars because of his comments regarding the integrity and ethics of NBA referees and consulted with a retired FBI agent to investigate the league for manipulating games. It would be rather easy for Stern to make an example out of Cuban by not allowing the Mavericks to win a championship despite their 2–0 lead if he wanted to. It would simply be a bonus to crown two transcendent superstars and entertainers in Wade and O’Neal as champions as a result.
I needed to provide that context, because O’Neal’s legacy as a retired basketball player and his analysis of today’s game as part of the NBA on TNT crew heavily revolves around the championships he won as a player. O’Neal approaches every interaction with Hall of Famer and colleague Charles Barkley with the very tone-deaf brush of “I won championships and you didn’t”, disregarding that there are so many variables that go into NBA success. A singular talent cannot win a championship on their own, as they need complementary teammates, good coaching, good strategy and game plans, and finally, the right roll of the dice in terms of officiating. If any of these factors don’t fall perfectly into place, you can spend an entire Hall of Fame career being a perennial bridesmaid. From this perspective, O’Neal’s four championships are very fortunate events that accentuated his physical gifts and talent.
Another example of this involves an interaction with former teammate Wade and future Hall of Famer Candace Parker. O’Neal, Wade and Parker discussed the nuances of playing pick and roll defense in the modern NBA, which is heavily reliant on floor spacing and three point shooting. The rapid rise of three point shooting occurred after O’Neal had left the league and he’s unable to comprehend that the way he defended that led him to championship success could now be outdated and make him a liability to his teammates.
Whenever I hear one of O’Neal’s boneheaded lukewarm takes, I can’t help but think about how different his legacy would be if he didn’t win those four championships. I wonder how we would view and remember O’Neal if the Kings had won that Game 6, or if Wade didn’t singlehandedly shoot 100 free throws during a six-game NBA Finals series. How would O’Neal’s career change if Stern wasn’t a tyrant that wielded his influence over the league’s officiating whenever he pleased? What happens if O’Neal doesn’t go on his parade of teams, partnering up with future Hall of Fame players and coaches at every stop? Would we view O’Neal as the revered superstar and media personality he’s become now? Or would we view him in a similar light as Allen Iverson or Yao Ming? Both were trail blazers in their own right with unique skillsets but neither received the legacy boost that comes from winning a championship.
Basically, would Shaquille O’Neal be Charles Barkley?
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