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The Big Shaqtus Walks Away…

June 2, 2011 Leave a comment

In a move that is a year overdue, but is also somewhat surprising, Shaq, the Diesel, Superman, Shaq-fu, the Big Aristotle, and the Big Shamrock, is hanging up his size 749 boots and retiring to a life chasing crime and staring in bad television shows.  The news broke, as news does these days, not with a press conference, but rather with a video post on Shaq’s website… The Diesel is gassed.

When Shaq arrived in the league, he was a force beyond anything we’d ever seen.  Like Dwight Howard now, but bigger.  Much, much bigger.  He was larger than life both physically and in personality.  His presence marked the beginning of a new era, an attitude era if you will, in which the beloved stars of the previous generation (Magic, Larry, and eventually Jordan) gave way to the Hip Hop generation.  A generation embodied by Allen Iverson, but with his rapping career, intrepid acting efforts, and verbosity, Shaq was frightening to the establishment.  He was a controversial selection to the NBA’s 50 at 50, which since he’s now a clearcut top 15 player (probably top ten), seems silly, but that’s how it was.

In his first few years, he didn’t win anything: he couldn’t shoot free throws, was only capable of dunking, and wasn’t focused enough on basketball to be great.  Or so we said.  In reality, those complaints  – which today are being lobbed Howard’s way – mask our own limited understanding of the game.  We try to pigeon hole young players into what we already know.  We want Kobe and LeBron to be the “Next Michael,” not really understanding that by the time they are ready to be the “Next Michael,” they will just be who they are.

We wanted Shaq to shoot little 14 foot jump shots like Patrick Ewing; we wanted him to have a move like Hakeem Olajuwon’s dream shake; we wanted him to be stoic like David Robinson; to show as much effort as Moses Malone, or have a sky hook like Kareem.  Those were the centers we knew, the centers we loved.  We didn’t understand that Shaq was something different.  He was a beast, capable of getting to any spot in the paint he wanted.  From there, able to push, drive, bull his way to the basket where every attempt was basically a gimme.  And if dunking was his only shot, why did he need another when he dropped 56% from the floor as a 20 year old rookie?

Eventually, as always happens, new becomes old and Shaq matured into the Big Aristotle.  A sage source of wisdom, or at least a fabulous quote.  He also won.  And sure, it might have taken the presence of Phil Jackson to extract the most out of Shaq’s talent, but that’s what the great coaches do.  They make the great players find that inner pool of excellence, channel it, and extract it to the detriment of opponents.  And Shaq’s pool of excellence was a reservoir beyond almost any player in history.

He won only one MVP, but of course that’s more a sign that we took his dominance for granted, because he probably should have won three or four.  From 1997-98 to 2001-02 he lead the league in PER five straight times.  The first year of that run was Michael’s final Bulls season, so MJ taking home the hardware is pretty understandable.  But the next year the award went for a second time to Karl Malone…

That year, Shaq led Malone in PER 30.5 to 25.6.  He led Malone in points 27.2 to 23.8, rebounds 11.1 to 9.4, field goal percentage .576 to .493 and pretty much everything else you could think to look up.  But Malone was viewed as the successor to Jordan’s title as the best player in the game and once a narrative is written, it’s hard for the national media to un-write it…  Thus, Malone took home the prize.

Shaq-fu did win the MVP in 1999-2000, when he had perhaps his greatest season and won the first of four titles.

But that was it for Shaq and the MVP award.  In 2000-01 he lost to Iverson and in 2001-02 he lost to Tim Duncan.  He probably should have won both years, but Shaq didn’t even finish second.  He came in third behind Duncan in ’01 and third behind Kidd in ’02.  You could make a case that Duncan deserved the MVP in ’02, but every other year in that stretch should have been Shaq’s.

He loafed through regular seasons, he feuded with Kobe, he left every team he ever played for in an ugly fashion, but damn was he awesome.  At his best, he truly was Superman.  A power beyond anything we’d seen and a man capable of seemingly moving mountains.

Beyond that, he was witty, loquacious, and a boon to any reporter needing a quote.  He will almost certainly remain in our lives, a presence on studio shows and a series of other television projects that will probably make us groan, but I for one will miss watching him play the game.  Watching him grab rebounds and take off up the court like a point guard in a game of giants; watching him take that little one handed flip shot he perfected latter in life; watching him laugh, shout, and taunt other players; watching him do that little mirthful dance after he hit a big shot; watching him double clutch like Charles Barkley swinging a golf club while shooting foul shots; heck, I’ll even miss watching him grip the ball, it practically a tennis ball in his massive hands.

Hopefully as the Diesel walks away, we understand that there will never be another like him and that waiting for, or comparing, youngsters to Shaq-fu is futile.

Shaq truly was one of a kind.  A force beyond anything we’ve ever seen and a personality to match.

Categories: Basketball Tags: , ,

Warner Takes the Lonely Man Walk…

January 30, 2010 Leave a comment

(Ed. Note: This post is best read if you first open a second browser, click here, press play, and read with the music in the background)

I was never a fan of Kurt Warner. There’s no obvious reason why, I just didn’t like him. It might have been how he and his wife Brenda wore their religion on their sleeve, or it might have been that I resented that he was a former grocery store clerk who was suddenly making an argument as the best quarterback in football. Or it might have been that he could pull off a goatee, while facial hair makes me look like a pug. But whatever it was, Warner just wasn’t a favorite of mine. I cheered against him during his St. Louis days, I felt some small vindication when he bottomed out with the Giants, and I shrugged indifferently when he was chosen to “tutor” Matt Leinart.

Yet, somehow over the last two years, I’ve come to respect Warner. Not enough to cheer for the Cardinals, but enough to be pleased for him when they succeed. So, yesterday’s news that he has decided to retire brought me some mixed feelings. In sports, football especially, too often it is a guy’s body or depreciating skills that tell him he’s done, whatever his heart might feel. So, Warner being able to listen to his heart, or God if you will, and decide it’s time to take the lonely man walk leaves me sorry to see him leave, but happy to see him go on his terms.

Of course, this assumes that he’s actually gone. For Warner, like that other greybeard who might be retiring this off-season, has long done the off-season “will I or wont I retire” dance. He hasn’t been as outward as Farve, and as far as I know Rachel Nichols hasn’t spent her summers camped out on his lawn, but he’s still flipped more times than NBC’s late night schedule.

I’ve long maintained that professional athletes have every right to retire, un-retire, and retire again. Actually, I have no earthly idea why people get so up in arms about this. Is it jealously? Is it because most of us don’t have the option of leaving our jobs at forty? Is it because we want them to leave while they’re still great, so we don’t have to remember them floundering like Willie Mays with the Mets? I don’t know.

All I know is that if I were able to play a sport well enough to be paid, I would want to play that game for as long as someone was willing to pay me. But, I also understand that at some point the strange hours and perpetual travel, the season long absence from your family, the lack of privacy, the general wear and tear, and pounding on your body, would be enough to make you question whether you still wanted to play. So, I can see how when you are 38 years old and you take a hit like the one Bobby McCray laid on Warner two weeks ago, well, I can understand how that makes you want to walk away…

… I can also understand how four months later, when the muscle memory of your body has forgotten the ferocity of that hit, when the travel seems like only a mild annoyance, when your family is encouraging you to return (no doubt tired of you mopping around the house), well, I can understand how over time the desire to play returns.

For most of his career Brett Farve was beloved by everyone for how much he loved football. Journalists gushed over his childlike enthusiasm on the field; that he looked like a boy out there made him real, made him like one of us. He epitomized the child in our hearts still dreaming of one day playing in the bigs. And yet, it is that same love that makes these guys want to come back, to play again. It’s what they know, it’s what they are passionate about, it’s what they’ve always done. It’s a love of the game itself, but it’s also a love of the locker room.

Tony Kornheiser was recently talking with Phil Jackson about when the Lakers’ coach plans on walking away. Phil spoke of how he’d already walked away and how it was the locker room that brought him back. The cocoon of knowing a place where you belong, where you’ve spent most of your life, where you’re comfortable. This, more than anything, might be the hardest part for guys to walk away from. So why do we crucify older players for changing their minds about whether or not they want to play?

Doesn’t every one of us miss the known when we leave it? Don’t we all have moments, often prolonged, of doubt? Don’t we have the right to make a decision, change our mind and un-make said decision? So, why can’t athletes?

Warner has decided to retire. He is, like Bruce Banner leaving town, taking the lonely man walk towards the unknown, and to him I say: congratulations on an incredible career, enjoy the rest of your life. But, if he were to change his mind in August, if he were to decide that now just wasn’t quite the right time to walk along that unknown path, well… I’d be just as quick to say, welcome back.

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