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Ferd's Words

Shaq’s playful retirement mirrored mirthful career

Ferd Lewis

The wide-eyed youngster of, maybe 7 or 8 years in age, warily contemplated the empty pair of Sasquatch-sized sneakers before him, not sure what to make of something so outrageous, as their owner looked on from afar.

“Would you like to try ’em on?” Shaquille O’Neal eventually inquired.

The youngster, dumbstruck in the sudden presence of the 7-foot, 1-inch O’Neal, froze.

So, O’Neal hoisted the youngster to eye level, smiled, and then gently deposited him into the vastness of the size 22 shoes.

It was O’Neal’s first day of training camp at Klum Gym as a 24-year old member of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996. But then, as always, he was mostly a big kid at heart.

Even now, 15 years later as he announced his retirement Wednesday from a nearly two-decade career in the NBA where he was the league’s oldest active player — when he was active — in 2010-11, O’Neal hasn’t strayed too far from that playfulness. His retirement announcement came via Twitter and linked to a 16-second video in which he said, “We did it; 19 years, baby. Thank you very much. That’s why I’m telling you first: I’m about to retire. Love you. Talk to you soon.”

Thus, barring second thoughts, it apparently ends the career of one of the premier centers in pro basketball and begins, for real, the debate over just where that place in history should be.

Somewhere after Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and probably just before Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson for a man who has four championship rings and 28,596 career points.

If it were decided on nicknames, O’Neal would have been a runaway No. 1. It seemed he had one for every city he played in — Shaq Fu, The Diesel, Big Aristotle, the Big Shamrock, among many others, if not one for each of his 19 seasons. ON Wednesday, still churning them out, he was the self-appointed, “emperor” of social media.

One of the most intimidating players ever to step on the court — except when he toed the free-throw line, of course — O’Neal’s presence could be dominating at either end of the floor. At least until his later years, when a series of maladies, most recently an injured Achilles’ in Boston, significantly reduced his effectiveness and playing time.

Fresh out of college, O’Neal made Orlando an instant contender. He then moved on to Los Angeles and, at the height of his thunderous game, helped revive the Lakers’ glory with three titles.

But for all that fierceness and raw power he performed with, there was always the smile. Mischievous or self-deprecating, he loved humor. “He was funny and approachable,” recalls UH arena manager Rich Sheriff, who came to be on a first-name basis with O’Neal through the years the Lakers practiced at the school. “He just had that fun-loving nature that came out in whatever he was doing.”

Like the time he attempted to enlist a group of reporters to help him find a moped for a ride through Waikiki. That Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who had just invested $120 million in his center, didn’t find the vision of his franchise cutting through rush-hour traffic so funny naturally made it uproarious to O’Neal.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@staradvertiser.com.

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