Since Shaquille O'Neal announced his retirement, many people have already mentioned the Wilt Chamberlain-inspired quote from the Big Dipper's favorite coach, Alex Hannum, “Nobody loves Goliath.” Shaq was the first Goliath to be not only loved but eventually the most popular player in league. The notion that normal sized fans could never relate to physical titans was disabused by Shaq. His charisma, energy, humor and kindness is legendary. Even folks who didn’t like the NBA knew and liked something about Shaq.
Shaq also became the first ultra modern NBA player. It’s not surprising that he used social networking to break the news of his retirement. That’s who he is. In the 90s, Shaq was the guy who made multiple albums, had starring roles in multiple movies (including Kazaam which is not about basketball) and made commercials for everything under the sun.
Famously, Shaq also left the team that drafted him, the Orlando Magic, for the bright lights of LA. It’s Shaq who used free agency to re-set the balance of team vs. player control. His exhibition of his own power to choose his playing destiny was the start of the current trend of big time free agent movement being determined mostly by the players themselves. So yes, it’s Shaq we should thank or blame for leading indirectly to the Heat trio of stars hoping to win their own championship this season. More broadly, he helped change the landscape of the NBA by picking location over other considerations. Now, some cities are clearly more equal than others.
Shaq’s most important on court achievement is one that I have never seen noted before. Shaq was so physically dominant that he changed the positions of his most worthy adversaries. The tallest guys in basketball have avoided being labeled centers in response to Shaq. The level of Shaq avoidance is amazing.
Consider that the most prominent NBA centers when Shaq arrived in the league were Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson. These guys were all centers by both size and choice. Because of their size, it is perfectly natural to think of them as centers. They also chose that position when they had an option to be power forwards. All 3 were in Twin Tower situations but wanted to be centers.* Center is the position of greatest historical legacy in basketball.
Since Shaq’s arrival in the NBA, the generation of guys who should have been the next great centers chose not to be centers. Chris Webber, Tim Duncan, Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Jermaine O’Neal, Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge would have been centers at any other time but have simply decided not to be centers. Now it’s common that those 6’ 10” plus men aren’t thought of as centers at all now. Duncan is so adamant about being listed as a forward instead of a center that it’s often caused trouble for voters for All-Star and All-NBA teams. These guys went out of their way to avoid guarding Shaq and now many starting centers in the league have jobs simply because of their ability to provide a strong defensive presence. Now, that’s impact.
*-Olajuwon had Ralph Sampson, Ewing had Bill Cartwright and Robinson had Duncan. While Robinson was taller, Duncan’s strength, relative lack of speed and post game all meant he was a more natural center than Robinson. For instance, ESPN’s John Hollinger refuses to acknowledge Duncan as a forward.