In an era where any player in the NBA can become an instant celebrity not necessarily because of the way they play the game, but because of how they present themselves through the various channels of social media, NBA fans have gotten to see a side of their favorite players that they previously never had access to before.
That access has allowed certain athletes to reach a level of celebrity that sometimes goes beyond what they do on the court. The most obvious modern day example of that in basketball is the Los Angeles Lakers’ Nick Young, or as he’s most commonly known, Swaggy P. Young isn’t considered to be in the upper echelon of players in the league, yet he’s one of the most followed NBA players on Twitter. He shares his style and his humor online and he even met his girlfriend, Australian rap star Iggy Azalea, thanks to using the hashtag #HotCrushWednesday to let the world know he had the hots for the blonde bombshell.
But even in a world where athletes can reveal themselves to their fans and share their sense of humor in 140 characters or less, there really is only one personality that stands above the rest of the NBA, and he doesn’t even play anymore. That somebody is none other than Shaquille O’Neal.
The man was not only perhaps the most dominant center of the modern era, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to three NBA titles in his prime and also winning three Finals MVP awards along the way, he was also one of the most vibrant and outgoing human beings that the league has ever witnessed.
Perhaps a generation younger than ours only knows O’Neal as a broadcaster, or maybe even just as a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings, but throughout his career as a player, it was obvious to the rest of us that he never shied away from the spotlight. Even while he was busy trying to win NBA titles, Shaq’s name could be found all around the spotlight in movies, video games, music videos and rap albums.
But unlike a lot of the athletes that draw attention to themselves today, Shaq always did it in a way that was extremely likable and relatable, which is why to this day he has so many fans and followers.
At the same time, however, it’s not as if Shaq never had his share of detractors. Before he owned the Sacramento Kings, Shaq once referred to them as the Queens. He was also heavily criticized by some for not getting along with teammate Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, and the rift between the two is partially what led to their separation and the end of the dynasty in Los Angeles.
He also left a bitter taste in the mouths of Orlando Magic fans when he first decided to don the purple and gold of the Lakers, just like Dwight Howard did a few years ago. Yet Shaq wasn’t nearly as hated and ridiculed for his departure as Howard was, and while part of that has to do with the fact he proved himself by leading the Lakers to championships, something Howard has yet to do with either the Magic, Lakers or Houston Rockets in his career, the reason Shaq gets a free pass for many of us is because he’s just so likeable.
The Big Aristotle has always had a playful demeanor about him, and even though we haven’t seen it on an NBA court for quite a while, when he fell on his butt during Wednesday’s NBA on TNT broadcast, we loved laughing with him and at him all at the same time, and a lot of us loved re-watching it again on Vine in slow motion … at least one of us:
It’s too bad his playing days are done, because while so many athletes are out there today trying to use social media to brand themselves, make a statement or prove just how popular they can be, Shaq is still one of the coolest guys around. So for those of us who loved watching him play, and enjoy watching him as a broadcaster now, seeing him hit the deck trying to beat Kenny Smith in a race to the big screen behind them was pure comedy gold.
The NBA isn’t short on superstars these days, but commissioner Adam Silver and the rest of the league should be happy to have an ambassador like Shaq still at the forefront and in the spotlight, even if it’s in a more limited role than he used to be. The man is larger than life in everything he does. All one has to do to find proof of that is search for his songs, movies, silly press conference quotes and childish behavior and see it for themselves. That is of course if you’re not too busy still laughing at the fact that the 7’1, 325-pound child-like giant got pranked by Ernie Johnson.