The Right to Bleed

It’s hard to feel sorry for a guy who makes $20 million a year, who’s on the books for another $40 over the next two. It’s hard to feel sorry for a guy who screamed “pay me” at his owner in the preseason, who seems perfectly happy burning his bridges and dismissing the past as he moves on. A guy who constantly refused to get into shape, whose discontent clearly played a role in the dismantling of the last true NBA dynasty (and if you think the Spurs count, you’re wrong – but that’s another rant altogether). Every story about Shaquille O’Neal always refers to that line from Wilt Chamberlain: “Nobody roots for Goliath.” That’s because he was the exception. He still is.

I don’t feel as blindingly devoted to Shaq as I used to, however. Maybe it’s the absence of that polarizing dynamic between him and Kobe, or the simple fact that he’s wearing a Heat jersey instead of the purple and gold. Time passes, and you see things a little differently. I’m clearly no fan of Kobe’s, and never will be, but I think I blame him a little bit less for everything that happened in 2004. Just a tad. But as fruity as it sounds, there’ll always be a special place in my heart for the big fella. And it’s the simplest thing in the world. He gave us three rings. He gave us three rings.

You see his body breaking down in Miami, and you can’t help but think of the beating he took out here every game for the five or six years he was the most dominant player in the league. When he lashed out and nearly murdered Brad Miller, the question was never why it happened, but why it took so long for him to snap. The national guys always called him the toughest player to ref, but that was small consolation for the abuse he took in the paint night-in night-out, the constant hacks at his arms, the yanking down of his shoulders. If you don’t make a play on the ball, that’s a flagrant foul – but they never applied that rule with Shaq. He was big. He was strong. So everyone else had free reign.

It’s easy to lose track of how great he was. Nowadays, he can barely get more than a few inches off the ground. He’s a statue in the post. There’s no spin move, no fake; he just goes straight up, throws that ugly flat hook off the glass, or lowers his shoulder and charges towards the basket. But remember that lob in the Portland series. Remember that explosiveness, that agility. There’s not a lot of signature Shaquille O’Neal highlights. That’s because he was there all game long, carrying the team on his back. 36 and 15 in the Finals, three years straight. 36 and 15.

Fading doesn’t begin to capture the trajectory of his career. Yeah, he still bellows about getting the ball, and he can put up 20 points once in a while, but how much of that comes in the first half? How many rebounds does he get from outworking the other guy? The free throw thing used to be the kryptonite, the one ‘but’ in it all that had the side effect of humanizing the guy on the court. Now, it encapsulates everything else. The lack of lift, the inconsistency… the discomfort of watching. He’s crumbling. He’s done. And I feel sorry for the guy. Thanks for the championships, Shaq. Thanks for the dynasty.

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