Shaquille O’Neal continuously imposed his dominance and brute strength on opponents throughout his lengthy playing career. However, his tenure in the big leagues wasn’t marred without a few controversies here and there. It effectuated his legacy to the game in the long run more so after the day he decided to hang his sneakers for good.
Basketball fans especially those who witnessed Shaquille O’Neal in his prime could only wonder his potential to be even greater had he committed more to the game, kept himself in better shape, and prolonged his peak performance as a cager. Not to mention his feud with the late Kobe Bryant that previously broke their promising tandem apart.
His legacy was even put into question as talking heads claimed he was only gifted with unfair physical tools that helped him assert his dominance without having any skillset at all. There are certainly many what-ifs to the career of Shaq and one can only ponder if he could’ve reached GOAT status if he stayed on the right track throughout his playing years.
His legendary career started when the Orlando Magic selected Shaq with the top overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft after a stellar stint with the LSU Tigers in the amateur ranks. He carried over his dominant style of play against grown men in the NBA and averaged 23.4 points on 56.2% shooting, 13.9 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game for the season. Shaquille O’Neal was eventually named as the 1992 Rookie of the Year and was the first rookie to be voted an All-Star starter since Michael Jordan in 1985.
However, his stellar individual play failed to carry his team, which owned a 41-41 record unto the playoff picture by virtue of a tie-breaker with the Indiana Pacers. On more than one occasion during the year, the media overheard Shaquille O’Neal saying that he wanted then-head coach Matty Guokas to be booted out of the position and instead promote then-assistant coach Brian Hill to be the main tactician for the Magic.
His wish was eventually granted as Hill was named as the head coach while Guokas was reassigned to another role in the team’s front office in Shaq’s second season in the league. Shaquille O’Neal improved his scoring average to 29.4 points (second in the league to David Robinson) while leading the NBA in field goal percentage at 60%. Shaq eventually teamed up with rookie guard Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway where the Magic finished with a record of 50-32. They reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history but was eventually swept by the Indiana Pacers in a first-round series.
Shaquille O’Neal and the Magic would eventually go on to reach the NBA Finals in the 1994-1995 season against the dominant Houston Rockets led by future Hall-of-Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler who swept the series in four games.
His final season in Orlando concluded when they were swept once again in the playoffs, this time by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. Shaquille O’Neal then became a free agent after the 1995-96 NBA season and was named to the United States Olympic basketball team where he was part of the gold medal-winning team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
It was a stretch filled with controversy as he became upset with the Orlando media which painted him in a bad light and implied that O’Neal was not a good role model for having a child with his longtime girlfriend with no immediate plans to marry. He then learned that Hardaway considered himself the leader of the Magic and did not want Shaquille O’Neal making more money than him.
He then decided to leave Magic City and take his talents to the Los Angeles Lakers where he was signed to a lucrative seven-year, $121 million contract. On December of 1996, he was involved in an on-court fight with the Bulls’ Dennis Rodman and was reported to be willing to be suspended for the altercation with the mercurial forward.
With the newly-formed tandem of him and rookie Kobe Bryant, expectations for the Lakers increased. However, they failed to mesh right from the get go. Bryant kept his teammates at a distance and answering non-basketball questions with one- or two-word responses. Shaquille O’Neal was wary of Bryant’s confidence, who as a rookie, boasted that he would lead the Lakers in scoring and be the best player in the league.
Lakers general manager Jerry West criticized Shaquille O’Neal’s leadership for hazing Bryant that season. The big man continued to chirp with Bryant and called him out for showboating because of his flashy offensive moves. Two years later in the lockout-shortened 50-game 1998-99 season, the Lakers saw a massive roster overhaul. It included a brief stint of Dennis Rodman as a player, the firing of head coach Delmer Harris, and the interim head coaching stint of former Lakers player Kurt Rambis.
During the season, the team would blame their problems on what they felt was Bryant’s selfish play. At one point, Shaquille O’Neal pointed at Bryant and told reporters in the locker room, “There’s the problem.” The guard was also on the rise as he outsold O’Neal’s jerseys in Southern California sporting goods stores which irked the former LSU standout. O’Neal also thought that Rambis favored Bryant more and held a blank stare when asked to patch things up with the younger player.
The 1999-2000 season was a pivotal one for the Lakers with the hiring of then-head coach Phil Jackson. Upon his arrival, he decided to revolve the offense around Shaquille O’Neal but demanded better leadership, physical conditioning, and defense from him. The season went without confrontation as Shaquille O’Neal felt pressured to be leader of the team and was admittedly upset with Bryant’s shot selection.
Shaquille O’Neal regularly expressed to management that he did not believe the team could win a championship with Bryant to which assistant coach Tex Winter observed that O’Neal influenced the entire team against Bryant. Despite the rift, the duo went on to win their first championship in a Game 6 victory against the Indiana Pacers.
In the 2000-2001 season, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant began feuding during their campaign once again. O’Neal came into training camp out of shape, which disappointed Jackson and Bryant, who worked hard over the offseason to improve his game.
Shaquille O’Neal also requested a trade after a blowout win against the Phoenix Suns in the middle of the season where Bryant scored 38 and O’Neal scored 18. Bryant would be criticized for forcing his offense and not involving his teammates enough. Even O’Neal’s stepfather was overheard yelling at Bryant to pass the ball during a game. The Lakers still managed to win the NBA championship against the Philadelphia Sixers with a 4-1 series outcome despite the differences between their top two players.
The 2001-2002 season was more peaceful after an injury-riddled season and the worldwide impact of the 9/11 incident. The Lakers went on to swept the New Jersey Nets and completed their three-peat. Not much of the Shaq and Kobe feud was made public in the 2002-2003 season when the Lakers were ultimately eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals.
In the following season, the Lakers brought in former All-Stars in Karl Malone and Gary Payton who were both recruited by O’Neal. He continued to ignore Bryant, who was battling legal issues and a knee injury, in favor of the newcomers at the helm. During the middle of the season, the two talked it out and put their issues behind them to put their focus on winning the team’s fourth-straight title. However, it didn’t came into fruition as Malone’s campaign was marred with a knee injury and the Purple and Gold lost to the Detroit Pistons in five games during the NBA Finals.
Their partnership was eventually coming to an end as there was growing uncertainty around Jackson’s now-expired contract, and Bryant’s impending free agency, which meant that either or both might not return to the Lakers the next season. Shaquille O’Neal later learned that the Lakers wanted to build around Bryant and soon demanded a trade. It was fulfilled as he was sent to the Miami Heat in exchange for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first-round draft pick.
A day after O’Neal was traded, Bryant re-signed with the Lakers for seven years and $136 million. Bryant said he enjoyed playing with both Jackson and O’Neal, and he said he did not influence the Lakers’ decisions regarding the two. Regardless, newspapers the next day still criticized Bryant for his alleged manipulation of the team and the reason between the booting of O’Neal.
Shaq eventually ended his career with the 2000 NBA Most Valuable Player award, 15 All-Star appearances, three All-Star Game MVPs, three Finals MVPs, and four NBA championships.
Both O’Neal and Bryant deserve more credit for managing to win three-straight championships despite their heated relationship. However, had they patched things up right from the start, the pair would have definitely snagged more championships and extended the stay of the former in the City of Angels. Being in better shape could have also helped O’Neal assert his dominance more and ultimately increased his longevity in the league.
If he had only stayed on the right track and eliminated his jealousy and big ego, Shaq would end up with an even greater legacy that would further cement his stature as arguably the greatest big man to have ever played the game. However, it will still be not enough to topple the immense legacy of the heralded GOAT in Michael Jordan who influenced the game to a greater degree way before O’Neal did.
After seeing how Shaq’s colorful career panned out, basketball fans knew that there was a greater potential that he failed to tap because of the controversies that lingered around his 19-year career. Despite not being able to maximize his playing days to its full extent, Shaq will remain as one of the most influential and dominant players to have ever walked the planet.