Shaquille O’Neal had an amazing NBA career. It just didn’t end how he envisioned.
O’Neal signed a two-year contract with the Celtics before the 2010-11 season, as he wanted to play alongside Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett while ultimately enjoying a farewell tour in which his storied career was celebrated in venues across the league. The popular big man, who was 38 at the time, suffered various injuries, though, preventing him from playing up to his full potential with Boston, which is something he regrets in hindsight.
“Had the career-ending injury. Said to myself, ‘I’m old. I don’t wanna do the whole rehab thing and try to be the great Shaq player,’ ” O’Neal recalled in a recent interview with Kristine Leahy on FOX Sports 1’s “Fair Game.” “Because one thing I am with myself, I’m honest. I’m Shaq, but I’m not Shaq (in 2010-11). Shaq is not Shaq when he’s averaging seven, eight, nine points (per game). That’s not Shaq. I can still entertain and do stuff to make people giggle, but that’s not Shaq. I’m robbing the people. I’m robbing the Celtics. ‘You’re only paying me a million (dollars). I don’t feel right. I’m not coming back. Here’s your money back, sir. Thank you very much.’ ”
As someone who was accustomed to stuffing the stat sheet, O’Neal struggled with the reality that his numbers were diminishing due to several factors, including age, health, role and deteriorating skills. Thus, he walked away from basketball after the 2010-11 campaign — without the farewell tour he desperately wanted — while the Celtics picked up the pieces from a second-round playoff exit at the hands of the Miami Heat.
“I’m used to parades and banners and making people complain to the refs and making people say, ‘Oh, we’re playing against Shaq. I don’t want to play tonight.’ That’s what I want to be remembered as,” O’Neal said. “And growing up in that military family, my father said, ‘You always gotta look a man or woman in their face and be honest.’ And I felt like I was robbing them. I didn’t feel right. (Then-Celtics coach) Doc (Rivers) told me when I came in, he said ‘We’re not gonna need you to do much. Just rebound.’ And I accepted it, I said, ‘OK.’
“I was ring chasing, I’ll be honest. I was ring chasing. We did (have a chance to win a title). I think if I wouldn’t have gotten hurt and I think if they would have kept (Kendrick) Perkins, I definitely think we could have won. I was ring chasing. I really was. I wanted to help Paul, because Paul was one of my favorite players, and I love KG. So I wanted to play with them, come and do all I can to help them get (another ring); it would be No. 5 for me. And that’s what I was trying to do. I said, ‘OK, I’ve got four (rings). Just let me go try to play with a couple of teams, stack the deck, see what I can do.’ But I didn’t feel right — six points, eight points, nine points. I did what I did, got acclimated with the city, worked hard. And Boston is a town where they appreciate when you work hard. They saw that I was giving it my all. They knew that. And so when I tore my Achilles and (Celtics president of basketball operations) Danny (Ainge) said, ‘We want you to come back,’ I was like ‘(shakes head).’
“I felt like I was robbing them. I could’ve took the 1.5 (million dollars) and did the six months (rehab) and tried to come back, but no, I don’t want to waste people’s time. Take the 1.5 (million dollars) and see if you can get you another player, somebody better. But the only thing I regret about that is I wanted the farewell tour.”
O’Neal, a 15-time All-Star, averaged 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in 37 contests with Boston. His performance was a far cry from his heyday with the Orlando Magic, the Los Angeles Lakers and, to a lesser extent, the Miami Heat, but he at least acknowledges the brief tenure for the disaster it proved to be.