After 19 years in the NBA, Shaquille O’Neal retires as one of the remarkably few Hall-of-Fame-level NBA players whose accomplishments off the court have been almost as impressive. Not that Shaq ever really found himself in the running for Oscars, Emmys or Newbery Medals — of his dozens of diverse ventures the last two decades, basketball was the only one you could ever really consider him to be outright dominant.
But as a sheer entertainer, someone whose presence was always welcome and valuable, practically regardless of what the medium was, Shaq was without peer among his generation of star athletes, At times, especially toward the end of his career, it seemed like he would use his basketball skills as an excuse to justify all his other dilettante-ish ambitions: Acting, rapping, conducting, philosophising, and so on.
So as we look back at the many fantastic on-court achievements of Shaquille O’Neal since his 1992 debut, we also need to take the time to reflect on the fantastic things he’s done off the court, and the myriad ways he has interacted with our popular culture, enriching it forever in the process. The list is many, but I’ve cut it down to the ten most essential — and let’s hope that even without his basketball career tethering his celebrity, Shaq continues to be a presence in the media and in our lives. (I’m not too worried.)
10. Shaq (Knows He Got) Skillz (1993)
Shaq had a long and illustrious rap career — well, longer and illustriouser than Chris Webber or Allen Iverson, anyway — but he only ever had one Top 40 hit, “(I Know I Got) Skillz,” featuring the immortal Def Jef, which hit No. 35 in 1993.
True to the song title, Shaq actually displays an impressive hip-hop acumen, coming off about halfway in between Das EFX and “Boom! Shake the Room”-era DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. “Everybody said I got fat, yep, but so did my wallet / Still ripping rhymes and dropping bombs like Ali, Mohammed.” And when lacking for a clever rhyme, O’Neal just lets loose with the Shaq Fu sound effects, which is also effective.
9. Shaq Shoots Free-Throws to Save Lives in Steel (1997).
Shaq’s ultimate film vanity project was 1997′s comic book superhero flick Steel, co-starring Richard Roundtree, Judd Nelson, that girl in the wheelchair, and a 16-year-old Ray J (!!). The memorable scenes are fast and furious — or at least I assume they were, I don’t actually remember many of them — but the movie’s most winking, indelible moment comes when Shaq gets trapped with young Ray J in a locked room. To save himself and his teenage compatriot, Shaq must get rid of a live grenade by tossing it through a small hole in a the steel mesh grating above their heads, necessitating a shooting motion rather similar to that of a free throw. Shaq gets it and saves the day, though I think it might take more than one try, which would actually be fairly consistent with his 52.7 percent career average.
8. Shaq vs. Hakeem for Taco Bell Supremacy (1995).
My expertise on this one is dwarfed by that of my good friend Victor Lee, so I asked him to contribute a few words on the subject:
American poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote: “For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”, that about sums it up for the great Shaq vs. Hakeem “Taco Bell: One on One Championship” in 1995 that never was. As I recall, in one of the most bizarre yet ambitious publicity stunts of my life time, Taco Bell managed to get both superstar centers, fresh off of a Finals matchup where Hakeem’s Rockets swept Shaq’s Magic, to agree to a one-on-one game at the Trump Taj Mahal for one million dollars to be broadcast live on Pay-Per-View. I think leading up to it there was an additional gimmick angle that Shaq preferred hard tacos while Hakeem liked soft tacos, which added to their initial beef (or since it’s Taco Bell, about 35 percent beef). I remember that there was a ton of advertising for this all through the summer.
Unfortunately, this epic showdown was quickly scuttled when Hakeem suffered a sudden back injury shortly before the event, thus closing the door on post-Finals one-on-one showdowns between star players. While there is no actual proof, I somehow suspect David Stern had a hand in this. For such an unusual and over hyped event, there is hardly any evidence on the internet of its existence over 15 years later. However, the double decker taco that the two centers eventually compromised on absent a showdown remains as their greatest legacy.”
7. Shaq Gives Paul Pierce a New Nickname (2001).
For a player who spent his entire career dubbing himself with new noms de hoops every few weeks, Shaq saved his best-ever nickname for fellow baller Paul Pierce. After Pierce scored 42 points on 13-19 shooting in a 112-107 Lakers victory over Boston, O’Neal pulled a Boston reporter aside in the locker room and issued the following words of wisdom: “My name is Shaquille O’Neal, and Paul Pierce is the fucking truth. Quote me on that, and don’t take nothing out.” (Most reporters did take part of it out, but the implication remained.)
For it’s mixture of succinctness, badassery and hard-to-explain-except-it-feels-right accuracy, “The Truth” gets my vote as the best NBA nickname of the 21st century, and stands as Shaq Daddy’s greatest off-the-court contribution to NBA culture.
6. Shaq vs. Ben Roethlisberger (2009).
Shaq may have burned a bridge or two with one of his old Phoenix teammates with “Shaq Vs.,” his reality TV show that saw the seven-foot, 700-pounder take on various athletes in handicapped competitions of their sports of expertise, and the show’s concept got old quickly. But Shaq’s most compelling competition was his first one, against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who shares Shaq’s generally gregarious but sneakily competitive and egotistic demeanor, resulting in some fabulous ball-busting battles of will between the two.
My favorite moment: Shaq beating Ben in an impromptu throwing competition by hitting the crossbar of the goal posts, and taking off on a victory lap around the field in celebration. (“I told you it ain’t gon’ be that easy, Ben!”)
5. Shaq Disses the Sacramento Kings to the Cheers Theme (2002).
In the early days of customizable ringtones, Shaq used his MIDI version of Gary Portnoy’s immortal theme to sitcom classic “Cheers” as a musical accompaniment for his character assassination of their 2002 Western Conference Finals opponent, the Sacramento Kings, primarily center Vlade Divac. Singing in his trademark haunting alto, O’Neal lays the facts bare for the one-time Laker: “You said that we wouldn’t win at your place / Guess what? Kobe dunked it in your face / You need to go where people know your naaaaaaaame….” Cold and brilliant, like a diamond, but not even the Big Aristotle’s highest-ranked freestyle dis on this list.
4. Shaq’s Heel Turn in Year of the Yao (2004, from 2002 events).
Had he not realized his potential as an NBA player, the most likely successful career path for Shaquille O’Neal was always as a WWE antagonist, and indeed, his appearance on Raw two years ago was a very tough cut from this list. Nowhere was Shaq’s potential for great cartoon villainy more apparent than in the documentary Year of the Yao, which focused on hyped Chinese big-man import Yao Ming’s first season in the NBA in 2002. Particular focus was paid to Yao’s first matchup against Shaq, then the League’s most dominant big man, after Shaq made some purposefully inflammatory (and very arguably racist) comments about Yao in advance of the matchup.
The clips, which feature Shaq acting somewhat unconscionably, are still absolutely hilarious due to the big man’s stunning willingness to play the heel, referring to Yao as “Wang Zu, or whatever your name is,” slow-clapping him for his 7-foot-6 height, and unforgettably warning him to “beware of this,” pointing to his elbow. You wouldn’t see that from Dwight Howard these days, I’ll tell you that much.
3. Shaq Wins the Eastern Conference All-Star Dance-Off (2007).
For one of the most hulking athletes in NBA history, Shaquille O’Neal was somehow also an absolutely sublime dancer, a skill he took no shortage of opportunities to demonstrate over the course of his career. Most memorably, there was the dance-off between he, Dwight Howard and LeBron James to the sounds of Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control,” during warm-ups as members of the Eastern Conference team at the 2007 All-Star Game.
LeBron and D-12 both made respectable efforts, but they were absolutely crushed by Shaq Diesel, who had the thing won from his first helicopter, and sealed the deal beyond a shadow of a doubt with his stellar booty-popping. (Shaq tried to relive the magic at the ’09 ASG, when he joined dance/serial killer troupe Jabbawockeez for their routine during player announcements, with fairly decent results.)
2. Shaq Fu (1994).
Beloved and reviled to this day as the absolute ultimate in awful mid-90s fighting games, “Shaq Fu” was an experience that no child of the 90s with a Genesis or NES will ever forget. Though the game deservedly caught an inordinate amount of heat for its poor controls (combination moves are impossible and button-mashing is pretty much the only way to go), nonsensical storyline (On his way to a charity game, Shaq stops in to some weird store where he is whisked away to another world to fight a succession of weird demon-aliens in pursuit of the lost boy Nezu) and terrible dialogue (“What’s up, cat woman? Can you tell me about the little boy, Nezu?” “My name is Kaori and I’m gonna do some serious damage to your body!”), the laziness, misplaced attitude and weird gaps in logic of “Shaq Fu” do make sense on some level for a Shaquille O’Neal-oriented video game.
Do athletes even get their own vanity video games any more? Losers.
1. Shaq’s Freestyle Rap About Kobe After the 2008 Finals.
This was the moment that perfectly summed up everything you loved, hated and feared about Shaquille O’Neal over the course of his 19-year NBA career. It was funny, creative and engaging, and it was also petty, jealous and exceedingly spiteful.
“You know who I be / Last week Kobe couldn’t do without me” rapped the then-Big Cactus in a freestyle club dis against his ex-teammate, just after the Lakers had dropped the 2008 final to the Boston Celtics. Shaq also takes shots at fellow centers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Patrick Ewing, rhymes some fabulous non-sequiturs (“I love ‘em, I don’t leave ‘em / I got a vasectomy, now I can’t breed ‘em.”) and of course, ties it all together with the sing-along chorus of the year: “Kobe, tell me how my ass tastes?” It’s great, it’s terrible, and it’s 110 percent Shaquille O’Neal. And I know almost all the words.
Sleep well, big man.