My grandmother Kicki lives on the second floor of my house, and she rarely knows what’s going on in the world of sports. She thinks Larry Bird is an exotic animal with wings, Big Papi is my grandfather’s nickname and the Super Bowl is the world’s biggest advertising convention. You can imagine my shock, then, when she asked me, “So the Celtics signed Shaq, huh?”
Speechless for a few seconds, I finally answered, “Umm, yeah, Kicki. They did.” If I didn’t know the power of Shaq’s star before then, I do now. When even Kicki knows who a sports player is, his appeal extends far, far beyond the basketball court. And from a recognition standpoint, Shaq might be the biggest star in Boston history.
How many sports stars has the city of Boston called its own?
Bill Russell. Bobby Orr. Larry Bird. Bob Cousy. Ted Williams. Tom Brady. Red Auerbach. Bill Belichick. The list of names goes on and on, spoiling the city of Boston year after year with a sporting history that rivals that of any city in the country. Yet when Shaquille O’Neal plays his first game for the Celtics, the biggest star, the most recognizable face, to ever participate in a professional athletic event for a Boston team will be a 38-year old who may or may not have made his team worse last season.
Bill Russell won 11 NBA championships and is still considered by some (including Charles Barkley) to be the greatest NBA player of all time. Larry Bird won three titles himself and was a co-star in the most important college basketball game ever played.
But neither of them ever had Shaq’s star power.
“I read on the Internet that I’m the third most recognized face in the world,” Shaq told the Boston Globe. I’m not sure he’s really THAT well-recognized, but it’s difficult not to know Shaq’s face. Since he took the NBA by storm as Shaq Attaq, Shaq has used his never-before-seen combination of otherworldy size, laugh-out-loud humor and dominant basketball abilities to become a household name. He has been Kazaam, Neon Bordeau and Steel in movies. He competes against people at their own craft on his television show. He’s the Big Aristotle, Shaq Fu and Shaq-tis. If he isn’t the most dominant center ever to play basketball he’s one of them, but Shaq might be better-known for all his other exploits.
That fact has often been seen as one of his faults. We laugh at Shaq’s jokes and appreciate his nicknames, but we’ve always wondered why he isn’t working on his free throws instead of filming Blue Chips. We see him gain a few pounds every year and think, “He should have been working out instead of recording that miserable rap song.” We watch him get injured during the season and think, “Maybe his big toe wouldn’t hurt so badly if he had been playing basketball instead of having hot dog eating contests with Joey Chestnut.” Shaq has put together a career that makes him one of the best centers to ever walk the hardwood, but there has always been that lurking thought:
How good could Shaq have been if he hadn’t coasted through much of his career?
Maybe that’s not even a question worth answering. After all, the man has won four rings. He earned a single MVP trophy (but should have won at least one or two more), been named to 15 All-Star teams and eight All-NBA First Teams, and owns three Finals MVP trophies. He twice averaged more than 30 points and 15 rebounds in an entire postseason, holds career averages of 24.1 points and 11.0 rebounds, and still — at age 38 — commands the occasional double-team. Maybe it’s nothing more than nit-picking to believe he could have, should have, done more.
For the Celtics, the past doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Shaq takes the fifth. Fifth title, that is. All that matters is that Shaq does whatever he can to help the Celtics finish the 2011 season with a parade. Shaq says he will do anything Doc Rivers needs him to, claiming that he’s only been trouble in the past because he’s always been in charge. “The reason why younger in my career I acted a fool,” Shaq told the Boston Globe, “is because they made me the CEO. If I’m the CEO and I’m getting all the blame, we’re going to start doing things my way.”
Shaq’s no longer the CEO, nor is he even close. He’s just another one of Doc Rivers’ pawns, a role player who happens to be more well-known than perhaps any other athlete in Boston’s fabled history, who needs to set aside his ego and forget about his stardom if his drive for five is to be realized in a Boston Celtics uniform.
(Quotes in this story were taken from this piece in the Boston Globe. You should read it; it’s a good one.)