Shaquille O'Neal

To some, Shaquille O’Neal’s extremely brief retirement announcement must have seemed far too small and unassuming for a man of his stature. Those people are missing the point. By making his announcement directly to his 3.8 million followers on Twitter, Shaq only strengthened his new position as the true man of the people among the pro sports superstars of this era.

It’s no secret that Shaq could have been one of the undisputed top five players in the history of the sport if he had fully applied himself to improving his skills and maintaining his conditioning throughout his career. As it stands, you can make a solid case that he is a top-10 player in NBA history, and that’s not too shabby by any assessment. But Shaq hasn’t been just about basketball for most of his adult life. We can all make jokes about the terrible movies he starred in and his questionable rap career — and let’s face it, we’ve all made those jokes — but Shaq chose a path of using his fame and fortune to have a well-rounded life that enabled him to live through a number of experiences that most of us can only dream of.

The downside to that life path is that many NBA fans will shake their heads in dismay at blowing the opportunity to win even more rings, to be in consideration as the most dominant big man in NBA history — most historians will likely rank him behind one or more legendary bigs including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon. The upside to the life he chose is that he brought joy (sometimes through unintentional comedy) to millions of people off the court who may not have even been NBA fans. In this sense, his retirement from the NBA represents a new beginning as much as the end of an era.

Shaq’s impact on the sport has been well-documented over the past two decades. In recent years, I feel like his embrace of social media and its ability to enable superstars like him to interact with fans in new, direct and instantaneous methods is no less significant. Shaq is actually the primary reason I chose to create a Twitter account in the first place.

Like many, I initially wrote off Twitter as a pointless trifle that wasn’t worth my time. In July 2008, I noticed that Shaq had over a million Twitter followers and it dawned on me that this probably wasn’t a fad. I created an account and it changed my life and how I do my job in ways I could have never imagined at the time. Now, only soccer superstar Kaka has more Twitter followers among athletes.

Shaq’s Twitter presence is just one method he has used to become a celebrity who transcends sports and connects with the public in surprising and endearing ways. As well as occasionally tweeting his location so that people who found him would receive free game tickets, he posed as a statue for over an hour in Boston’s Harvard Square last October so that fans could pose with him in photographs. Whether or not he was using these opportunities to “build his brand” for his post-NBA career, there’s no denying their effectiveness in helping his public image — and you’re even more cynical than I am if none of his stunts ever made you smile.

What does any of this have to do with Shaq’s NBA legacy? Not much, of course. But there’s nothing I could write about his accomplishments in this sport that hasn’t already been written about elsewhere. What I find interesting is how so many people are viewing this as an ending instead of an opportunity for Shaq to fully embrace a new role as an ambassador of the sport and to explore innovative new ways to connect with people.

We’ll likely never again see him competing in an NBA uniform, but he’ll be in the public view in various forms for many years to come. Some pro athletes fade into oblivion when they retire, but Shaq will almost certainly go in the exact opposite direction. More than ever, he’ll be “The Big Ubiquitous” — using all the benefits his wealth, celebrity and modern technology allow for him to be everywhere for everyone who wants to interact with or be entertained by him. In the long run, who can say whether or not his impact in that realm won’t ultimately surpass what he accomplished in the NBA?

Note: Just so I don’t completely ignore what Shaq accomplished on the court, here’s my favorite single moment from his NBA career. It took place on January 16, 2006 when he faced 18-year-old Laker rookie Andrew Bynum for the first time. If you remember this encounter from watching it live like I did or if you’ve watched it on YouTube since then, you probably already know what I’m talking about. For me, this moment shows that in spite of his wavering dedication to putting winning ahead of everything else, he was still very proud and did not take kindly to the young upstart showing him up in his old uniform. I can’t watch this clip without smiling, both because of Bynum’s exuberance and because of Shaq’s uncontrollable impulse to put the young buck in his place.

If you have a favorite Shaq moment you’d like to share, I look forward to reading about it in the comments.