Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Legacy of Fun: Why Shaq's Deficiencies Don't Matter

Greetings, gentle readers. A protracted stretch of family-related goings-on has kept me away from this space for a stretch, but I'm back now. And it's time to talk about that oft-bandied theme in these NBA playoffs: legacy. I don't ever recall a postseason so filled with discussions about how the outcome will affect our perceptions of so many players in a historical context. Kobe's quest to tie or exceed MJ's six titles was effectively quashed, so where do we put him in the pantheon of greats now? Were the long-range perceptions of Boston's Big Three altered by that ignoble second-round exit? Will the acrimony with Russell Westbrook affect KD's chances at a title in the immediate future? So many questions, and those are just the guys who are already packed off to home. The finals are so implication-filled as to be every journalist, pundit, blogger, and TV producer's richest and most beautiful daydream.

Will Dirk's lingering playoff demons be exercised if he gets a chance to hoist the hardware? Does his standing on the list of all-time greats change with a ring? How about Jason(s) Kidd and Terry? What will D-Wade's already glorious career look like if we view him in ten years through the rose-tinted lens of three or four titles as opposed to his current single championship. Will Chris Bosh's historical imprint be magnified by a few titles, or will his third-wheel status alongside the Heat's dynamic duo condemn him to "yeah, he was good, but ..." status forever? And that LeBron James guy. Where will he sit at the high table of Hoops Valhalla if the Heat win this title, or the next five, but he continues to exhibit the fourth-quarter uncertainty and deferral we've seen so far in the finals?

We won't get the answers in the next week or month or year, but we'll get there. Through some alchemical process, an eventual consensus will be reached. We'll crunch stats, rewatch films, reread columns, and rely on our own recollections. Every player's cumulative basketball impact will be distilled down to a common perception, and plaques will go up in Springfield. I'm intrigued to see where Dirk and Wade and LBJ end up when that process is complete, but today I'm not thinking about any of them. Today, I wonder about the legacy of a man whose recent retirement probably got short shrift, coming as it did amidst the whirlwind of the finals. The question, ladies and gents, is what to do with Shaquille O'Neal?

Let's start with the obvious. First-ballot Hall-of-Famer? You betcha. The man is fifth on the all-time scoring list. He's got four rings, and averaged a 23-10 with 2.3 blocks for his career. As with all the greats, his playoff averages are even better: 24-11, 2 BPG, and, at his apex, complete dominance over every other player on the court. They called him the Big Diesel, but it should have been the Big Effing Freight Train. All those Robin/Batman metaphors vis-a-vis Kobe and Wade were inaccurate too. If you're going to compare Shaq to a comic book character, you have to go Marvel, not DC. Colossus, Juggernaut, something like that. It's safe to say the man's formidable accomplishments and reputation make him a lock for the all-time phenomenal team. And yet ... something keeps bugging me. The fact is, Shaq could have been better. Possibly a lot better. How much should that factor in, if at all, when we enshrine him in his eventual place in basketball history?

It was obvious from jump that he wasn't particularly interested in honing his craft. His natural abilities and sheer size allowed him to execute prodigiously without the need for intensive gym-ratting. Dude was so massive and powerful we redefined what constituted a foul just for him. Even when he wasn't trying, look at what he achieved at his peak. Give the guy one good perimeter counterpart (Kobe, Wade) and you were all but assured a title. Still, he obviously left something on the table. If his gaudy numbers are indicative of his dominance, that career .527 free-throw percentage is a testament to his neglect of some of the finer points of the game. But somehow, in Shaq's case, we don't seem to care about how much potential went untapped. Why, exactly, is that? Is there some vague threshold of talent or achievement he crossed that exempts him from the criticisms we levy against other, lesser players? We kill guys like Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter for their failure to become all they could have been. We've been killing LeBron for the past few years because he's more interested in being a global icon than developing a decent post game. As fans, there is nothing we loathe quite so much as an athlete who does not exhibit devotion to the game. We laud the fanatical dedication of a Kobe or a Jordan, and tear down those who don't push themselves, who are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to reach their maximum potential. Except for the Big Fella, who apparently has Survivor-style immunity from the harsher winds of our critical nature.

I suspect our collective willingness to give Shaq a free pass on his permanent defrayal of a true apex stems from where he set the bar when he entered the league. A gregarious, charismatic personality goes a long way towards the forgiveness of sins, and O'Neal charmed the hell out of us from the minute he was drafted. All that joviality with the public and the media, not to mention the atrociously (and hilariously) bad movies and rap albums, served immediate notice that this guy was here primarily to enjoy the ride. Of course, he was going to kick a lot of tail and shatter some backboards in the process, but that seemed almost ancillary. That outsized, happy-go-lucky persona simply subsumed all his faults. Even when we were picking on the weaknesses in his game, it was with a grin and a chuckle. "Oh, there goes that supremely talented goofball bricking free throws again. How adorable." "He showed up to camp 50 pounds overweight? Oh well, he's still a beast." You know the phrase "Manny being Manny"? Shaq beat Manny Ramirez to that punch decades ago. He's the original take-nothing-seriously superstar. And we know it. We've always known it. If your expectations for a player aren't centered around 500 extra shots after practice and an obsessive conditioning regimen, how disappointed can you possibly be when a guy still wrecks everything in his path at maybe 83% of his ceiling? Not very, especially when he's doing it all with a smile on his face, a song in his heart, and a jape always ready for this loyal constituents. Even his protracted and often painful-to-watch decline can't deface his brilliance. Ultimately, we'll likely make the choice to view Shaq's Phoenix/Cleveland/Boston years through the same prism we apply to MJ with the Wizards: with our eyes closed, because it never happened ... right? Good.

In the end, it's not the rings or those 28,596 points I'll think of first when I remember Shaq. I'll remember the jokes, the laughs, and the pranks. I'll remember how congenial and open he was with the fans. I'll remember the replays of guys ducking out of the way as backboard glass rained down like shrapnel. I'll remember learning all the words to "Shoot Pass Slam." Shaq will end up somewhere in the Top 15 All-Timers list when everything is said and done. But more than that, he's the undisputed alpha-dog starter on the All-time fun athletes list. His basketball legacy won't be quite what it could have been, but I get the feeling his legacy of enjoying himself and entertaining the rest of us is the one Shaq cares about. Maybe we should too.

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