By Rich Levine
Its funny how life works sometimes.
For instance, lets take Shaquille ONeal. One of the greatest centers in NBA history. One of the most famous athletes in the entire world. A guy who, back in August, was willing to give it all up in the name of another ring.
Honestly, thats all he said he wanted.
He wasnt going to give up the fame entirely. When he was off the court, hed still be Shaq, the guy who lives life under a self-imposed microscope. Hed be the most charitable athlete in the city; the most accessible athlete in the city. Hed come to town and live a relatively normal life, do a lot of normal (and some not-so-normal) things. Everywhere he went hed be treated like a hero, like the larger-than-life figure that hes always been. Hed love it. And so would we.
But when it came to basketball, Shaq said he was going to change. He said he wanted to be different. After 17 years spent in the NBA spotlight, and always demanding (and for the most part deserving) that same hero-like treatment in the locker room that he received in the real world, Shaq came to Boston and said he was ready to step aside. He understood the situation. He was the old man. He was the complimentary piece. He wasnt the hero anymore. He wasn't even the sidekick.
He wasnt a necessity, just a super-sized luxury.
And this was OK. He made the transition look easy.
Shaq came to Celtics with the reputation of letting his ego get in the way of what was best for the team. But once he got here, it just wasnt like that. He was embracing team like he never had before. Wed heard that this wasnt the first time hed shown up somewhere and said all the right things, but after a while, the guy really started to feel genuine. It didnt matter what they asked of him.
Oh, you want me to play on the second team? All right, all right. I guess Im the worlds first Shaq-up center." (Queue 20 seconds of uncontrollable media laughter)
He didnt care about numbers, he said. He didnt care about the spotlight, he said. He only cared about winning.
And for the first few months, thats all he had to worry about.
Of course, there were a few injuries -- we always knew there'd be a few -- but, for the most part, Shaq was healthy, and so were the Cs. Happy and healthy, and due largely to ONeal. The starters gelled around him, and the chemistry was unstoppable. He brought Kevin Garnett to places hed never been while in Boston. KG was so miserable the season before, dealing with the effects of age and injury, but Shaq came in and turned back the clock. KG appeared happier than hed been at any time since things unraveled in Minnesota, and was playing his best ball since 2008.
The Shaq Experience probably hit its high note on November 26, the night Shaq dropped 25 point and 11 rebounds on the Nets.
This is a great team. The best team I've been on,"he said afterward. "They've got a lot of weapons on this team, so on any given night anybody can be the leading scorer. The team's very unselfish . . .
That same night, Kevin Garnett repaid the compliment:
Theres no ego with Shaq, its all about the team, he said. You hear different things about certain guys in our league and Shaq was no different from that, but Ive yet to see those things. I think its about how we approach Shaq, and how we deal with Diesel here.
All was good. Shaq really seemed to be a changed man. It helped that because of injuries to Jermaine ONeal and Kendrick Perkins, he still hadnt had to come off the bench; his pride hadnt entirely been threatened. It helped that Rondo was playing so well and the team was cruising. There were nights where Shaq was clearly hurting, but stepped up and gave the Celtics an impactful 20 minutes. He was really working.
But by Christmas, he started to wear down, physically and mentally.
There were games, like Christmas Day in Orlando, where Shaq took the court and made it clear he wasnt in for the long haul. Bob Delaney shares some of the blame on Christmas, but Shaqs 6 fouls-in-12-minutes performance was less inspiring than a Belichick press conference.
From there, it was inconsistent. Injuries mounted; effort, or least intensity, varied. He was still a presence in that locker room, but you were starting to see that old Shaq.
At one point, I was reminded of a conversation Id had back on Opening Night, when the Celtics and Heat kicked off the regular season. I was talking to a reporter from Miami as the teams went through layup lines. Shaq went up for a dunk and the guy turned to me.
Him: (half-laughing): So, you guys ready for Shaq?
Me: Yeah, so far so good. Lets just see if hes still in one piece by April.
Him: Aw, no. Hell be there in April. Take it from someone who watched him for 2 12 years. What you have to worry about is February and March, when he doesnt want to play.
On January 21, Shaq left a game against Utah after only six minutes and then missed the next three games with a leg injury. He came back a week later, and scored five points in 15 minutes against the Suns, then zero points in 12 minutes against the Lakers. On February 1, he scored three points in 16 minutes against Sacramento. Afterwards, he spoke with Yahoo!s Marc Spears.
Its hard not being in charge for me. It really is. But I got to accept it, ONeal said. This is a good team. Im not the only Hall-of-Famer hopeful here.
If I was on a bad team, Id be pissed right now. Two points? I would have expletive somebody up in the locker room.
He hasnt played since. And in that time, a lot has changed.
The Celtics have been through so much. For one reason or another, Shaq -- the once-essential part of that off-the-court attitude and off-the-charts chemistry -- hasnt been there. Maybe thats not entirely his fault, but that doesnt change the reality. He wasnt in Denver when the team went through the emotional hell of losing one of their brothers (not that it would have affected Shaq quite as much). He wasnt there as they welcomed the new guys and started building a new team, a new identity.
Teams arent built in the offseason. Maybe thats when everyone signs the contracts, but real teams are built over 82 games. As the Celtics went through some major team moments, Shaq wasnt there.
The details of why have been hazy. But from the way Docs been talking lately, and with the way the story keeps changing by the source, and by the second, heres the best guess on whats going on:
1. Shaq tried to make his comeback after the All-Star break, but still wasnt feeling great. He felt strong enough to play, but not strong enough to feel like he could play for any extended period of time. Maybe he could have gone for a few weeks, but eventually it was going to sneak back up on him.
2. The Celtics response: Dont rush back. If youre not 100 percent, just take a little bit more time. We know the trade of Perkins leaves a hole in our lineup, but we'd rather have a hole in the lineup now than in the playoffs. So just do what you need to do to get healthy, and well see you soon.
3. Soon turned into not so soon. The Celtics are short players. The Celtics are losing games. The Celtics are going through their worst stretch of the season and now theyre looking at Shaq and thinking: Really? We said take your time, but . . . REALLY?!
Which bring us to now. They know he can play. They know that if the playoffs started tomorrow, Shaq would find his way into the lineup.
But to the Celtics, even though its not the playoffs yet, this time of year feels almost as important in terms of finally putting this thing together. Everyone else is back. Delontes back. Jermaines back. Shaq would complete the triple. Shaq would finally give them the team (minus Krstic now) theyve been waiting for all season. Hes the last piece to the puzzle.
All of a sudden, the Celtics need Shaq. The Celtics are begging for Shaq. The fans are begging for Shaq. Now Shaqs the story.
Hes the number one question on everybodys mind. Hes no longer just one of the guys. Hes back to being Shaq.
And you know what the worst part about it is?
Shaq didnt want any of this!
Remember? He said he was too old for this. He said he was done playing the hero. He said he didnt want it to be about him.
But now he's all anybody wants to talk about.
Must be an awful time for the Big Guy.
If only there was a way to make it stop.