Pop Culture Could Hurt Shaq In The Long Run

For someone who so closely resembled a figure forged on Mount Olympus; Shaquille O’Neal was a ferocious competitor on the court, a fiery personality on the mic, all while remaining a lovable bear in-between.

Long before his titles in Los Angeles and the plethora of nicknames, O’Neal was a number 1 pick in-the-making down at LSU. Each time he threw down the rock, backboards would be on the verge of giving in. Doing it all, against double and triple-teams. And it may be tough to reminisce his Orlando Magic days, though Shaq has mentioned he wishes he stayed there his whole career. There were power struggles, the undermining of Coach Brian Hill, and other oddities that seemed to bother Shaq. But in memory, it will be the two big playoff exits that reign supreme: sweeps at the hands of Olajuwon’s Rockets and Jordan’s Bulls.

Eating muffins at press conferences, calling out the Sacramento “Queens”, forgetting who Kobe Bryant was. O’Neal would never cower from the spotlight in his career. In fact, the more lights the better. Quick witted and always a crowd pleaser, the media couldn’t wait to eat up what Shaq was serving next.

“Shaq, we’re on live.”
“I don’t give a shit.”

And yet, every word he spoke was meticulous. Looking back now, it seems so fitting that one of the sport’s biggest personalities wound up in America’s most flamboyant town.

At Los Angeles in 1996, we saw a team in a lull. The Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar days were on the edge of becoming what felt like a distant memory. It wasn’t an exciting time; the championship taste fans grew to acquire was fading. The Lakers eventually landed O’Neal and drafted a promising rookie guard in Kobe Bryant. They clearly acquired one big personality, and the magnitude of the other would soon show. Once referencing the rookie, Shaq blurted, “I’m not gonna be babysitting.” And so it began.

USA Today Sports

Seeing how these two would share a locker room would surely make for great theater. It would eventually become a widely known, public feud, that was somehow kept in check by new coach Phil Jackson. Three consecutive championships later, it seemed it could be case closed. Yet, the Shaq-Kobe feud always near the forefront was far from over. Neither player would give an inch. When time came, Shaq wouldn’t be re-signed and Kobe stayed. Bad blood brewed between the two for years to come, even getting worse before better.

While it’s a tough argument on who the better player was, it’s certain Shaq will always own the household name beyond the court.

Something that won’t be achieved by Bryant. Shaq’s uniqueness resided in his personal brand alongside his play. You didn’t need to know about basketball to know him. He offered something for everyone, everywhere.

But you have to wonder if Shaq’s mainstream fame could ultimately dilute his on court achievements in light of Kobe.

O’Neal was a perfect balance between tough competitor and approachable human. His mammoth size and power was too much for so many. The intentional foul was born out of failed efforts to stop him. The amount of laughs Shaq grabs on a daily basis in pop culture now will always pale in comparison to the amount of fear he instilled in opponents on the court. He was a menace. He mentally wore players down. Charles Barkley threw a basketball at his head. For all three championships in Los Angeles, Shaq was the Finals MVP. Think about that.

But almost unanimously when fans think of a ferocious will to win, they think of Kobe. Perhaps because easily unlikable stars can garner more attention, both positive and negative. His obsession with winning famously bordered on crazy. He wanted to be in total control. He wanted to win games himself. He wanted to be the best that ever played, ever. And people will always be quick to tie Kobe to that.

Buena Vista Productions/Everett Collection, Inc.

Shaq is a legend. He’s the best center to ever play the game. He’s beloved in pop culture, and everything he does or says is hilarious. Him yucking it up with the boys on TNT is always a pleasure to watch. He’s someone you want to be around. But it’s quite possible that Kobe will be more tied to greatness, because well, that is the only thing he can be tied to.

What’s better: being remembered for multiple reasons, or just one?

Outside of Staples center, statues of Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Oscar De La Hoya stand tall. In the near future, Shaq will get his own bronze poster, further immortalizing him as some would say. Though when fans look back in time, it might be hard to consider it being anything other than Kobe’s house in that decade.


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