Shaquille O’Neal is routinely mentioned among the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Moses Malone and company as one of the greatest centers in NBA history. But O’Neal’s larger-than-life personality leads me to a bigger comparison.
I think O’Neal is the modern day Babe Ruth. Let me explain.
Like Ruth, O’Neal has put up Hall of Fame numbers for his career, winning several championships along the way. But neither Ruth nor O’Neal can ever be defined solely by numbers or rings. Their legacy is the thing of legend. They will be remembered for the OMG moments and the stories friends told friends. Babe did WHAT? Shaq did THAT?!
With the modern media and commercialization of sports, O’Neal’s exploits are almost all documented, so in that sense, Ruth may have a more mythical legacy. But both figures have left behind memories and moments that fans will speak of forever.
From Ruth’s called shot to O’Neal’s dunk that tore down the entire basketball hoop, there is no shortage of iconic memories from their careers. If you need more proof of Ruth’s legend, just watch The Sandlot. If you want proof of O’Neal’s legend, watch Kazaam and then marvel at the fact that he still went on to enjoy great professional and commercial success after making it. Legendary.
The similarities aren’t limited to the silver screen, though. Their body of work was made more impressive by the bodies they worked with. Ruth’s resembled your favorite beer-swilling, cigar-smoking uncle. Meanwhile O’Neal was a freak of nature. At 7’1” and more than 300 pounds of chiseled stone, he was simply awesome. There was no explanation why the pot-bellied Ruth was able to hit 714 home runs. Or why the behemoth O’Neal was able to move with the agility and grace of an NFL wide receiver. But they did it.
Another similarity is their likability. It’s almost impossible to find a baseball historian who can offer up an unkind word about Ruth. He was Gandhi in pinstripes (sorry Red Sox fans, your team sold him away). And O’Neal, always a media favorite for his quotability and humor, seems to have entered Ruthian territory. He can do no wrong despite burning bridges and throwing people under the bus after unhappy departures from Orlando, Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent, Miami.
Another measure of this legendary comparison is nicknames. You have to be somebody to earn a nickname. These guys have a slew of them. In addition to being dubbed “Babe,” Ruth was also known as the Great Bambino, the Sultan of Swat and he Colossus of Clout, to name a few. O’Neal has a number of monikers as well. The Diesel, Shaq Daddy, The Big Aristotle, The Big Cactus, and Most Dominant Ever are among the best of the bunch.
No matter how you slice it, O’Neal has entered Ruthian territory, and the best part is, he’s still going.
After winning a title in Miami in 2006, it appeared that O’Neal’s career was on a sharp slope downward. The ‘06-‘07 season in Miami was the worst of his career and Miami was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The following season, last year, O’Neal looked old. His play was ineffective, he was limited by injuries, and he missed the all-star game for the first time in his career. A midseason trade to Phoenix rejuvenated him a bit, but his team again lost in round one of the playoffs.
All signs pointed to the end of the O’Neal era. But he came back focused this season, and earned a spot as a reserve on the Western Conference all-star team. Credit the Phoenix training staff and O’Neal for putting in the time and effort to regain all-star form. And credit karma for the 2009 all-star showcase being held in Phoenix.
There, as a member of the home team Suns, Shaquille O’Neal stole the show. Again.
There were two-dozen all-stars in Phoenix on Sunday night. The average age of the other 23 active all-stars was 28 years young. Yet it was the soon-to-be 37-year-old that made the headlines.
From his pregame introduction with Jabbawockeez to his in-game give-and-go pass between Dwight Howard’s legs to his post-game MVP-trophy mock squabble with co-MVP Kobe Bryant, O’Neal made it crystal clear: this was his night. If his 15th all-star game proves to be his last, O’Neal made sure his performance would be remembered fondly.
With his superman tattoo and man-of-steel physique, O’Neal has always played the role of hero well. But by outshining all the stars in his 15th all-star game, O’Neal proved to me his status needs to be upgraded to that of a living legend.
After all, heroes get remembered but legends never die.