In 2000, Shaquille O’Neal won the first NBA Most Valuable Player award of his career. He had just led the league in scoring for the second time, finished second in rebounding, and carried the Lakers to 67 wins, one of the best seasons in their history.
As he accepted his MVP trophy, he shared a favorite quote of his from an ancient Greek philosopher.
“Excellence is not a singular act, but a habit,” he noted. “You are what you repeatedly do.”
From that moment on, Shaq was the Big Aristotle.
He was 28 then. He was on the verge of winning the first championship of his career, and he had all the time in the world to add to his legacy.
He’s done just that — he’s piled up three more rings since 2000, winning two more alongside Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles and then another with Dwyane Wade in Miami. He’s cemented his status as one of the great winners of his era in professional sports.
But in the decade that’s passed since Shaq won his first — and as we now realize, only — MVP trophy, the sordid details of his career have begun to come out. Is it possible that Shaq, the living legend, has left four different teams on bad terms?
He skipped Orlando at 24, pulling a LeBron James and making a spectacle out of his departure for a bigger, more glamorous market in Los Angeles. Once he got to L.A., he clashed with co-star Kobe Bryant and forced a divorce that threw one of America’s great sports franchises into turmoil.
He then went to Miami, where he won one ring but spent most of his time looking lazy, out of shape and ineffective. Dwyane Wade wasn’t having any of that. Then to Phoenix — where not only was he ineffective on the court, but off it, he allegedly stole the idea for the reality show Shaq Vs. from teammate Steve Nash. (Nash is now listed, oddly, as an executive producer. Hmm.)
Maybe Shaq is the Big Cancer.
Now his fifth team, the Cavaliers that were abandoned last week by King James, is in disarray. Shaq’s contract — a five-year, $100 million max deal signed back in 2005 — is now history, and he’s got to find a new employer that will keep cutting him paychecks.
But he’s well past his 38th birthday, and since the retirement of Lindsey Hunter back in March, Shaq has been the oldest player in the Association.
Maybe he’s just the Big Old Fart.
But the man knows his role now. When he was brought in last summer to support LeBron, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao, he repeatedly referred to himself as nothing more than a “high-level role player.” His job, as he saw it, was to give the Cavs size in the frontcourt, grab a few rebounds and defend against some of the tougher low-post guys out there like Dwight Howard and Al Horford. That’s it. Nothing more. No taking over games.
Maybe he’s the Big Realist.
But the ultimate draw to Shaq in Cleveland was his value in the playoffs — when it comes time to win the big one, you want the four-time champion and three-time Finals MVP by your side. And yet Shaq did nothing in the postseason — he couldn’t defend or rebound worth a lick, and he dragged down the Cavaliers’ offense by trying to do too much by himself. For the Cavs, playoff basketball was over by the middle of May.
Maybe he’s the Big Letdown.
It won’t be easy for the guy to find employment now. His resume has never looked sketchier, and there aren’t many teams willing to take a chance on him that can offer what he wants: a shot at another championship.
The Celtics were a candidate, but they’ve instead settled on another former Heat center named O’Neal — Jermaine.
The Hawks have been rumored, but Horford is the future in Atlanta, and Shaq would only get in the way. Not a fit.
The Spurs and Mavericks, two veteran teams looking for an extra big man, are each possibilities. If the price is right.
But perhaps the most intriguing possibility of all is Shaq back in Miami — the Heat have just rounded up LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh in the hopes of making a run at multiple titles, and they need a serviceable big man to help them reach that goal.
O’Neal might fit the bill. He’s willing to take less money — he’s already got plenty. He’s willing to take a diminished role, being in the twilight of his career. And he’s got the postseason chops to help the Heat win the big one.
Call me crazy, but I say Shaq in South Beach could work out this time.
Maybe he’s the Big Glimmer of Hope.