He’s a man with a million nicknames, but in the end you probably know him simply as Shaq. Shaquille O’Neal is one of the biggest athletes ever, and also one of the sporting world’s biggest personalities. The big men truly changed the NBA landscape, and he’s one of the best centers of all time. Sure, basketball has changed a lot since Shaq’s heyday, but he was the perfect player for his era. Here’s the story of O’Neal’s career, from his early basketball days through his stardom, acting career, and current role in the world of hoops.
O’Neal had a bit of an itinerant life as a child, owing to the military career of his stepfather. For high school, he found himself down in San Antonio. Given that Shaq would grow to over seven feet tall and would outmuscle massive NBA players, it shouldn’t surprise you that high school players couldn’t really compete with him. Shaq’s team went 68-1 in his two seasons there and won the state title when he was a senior. He also set the record for most rebounds in a season in 1989, which stands to this day.
When Shaq was a kid in West Germany, where his dad was stationed, he met LSU’s basketball coach Dale Brown. This led O’Neal to playing for Brown for the Tigers, a real coup for the school. Shaq was a dominant force in college, twice being named an All-American, the SEC Player of the Year, and winning multiple player of the year awards in 1991.
There was no question who would be the first pick in the 1992 NBA Draft. It was inevitable that the Orlando Magic would take O’Neal. They did not surprise anybody when they indeed made Shaq the first pick, and he was basically a star the second he joined the squad.
O’Neal hit the ground running, being named the NBA’s Player of the Week in his first week in the league, something nobody else had ever done. While the Magic didn’t make the playoffs, though they improved by 20 wins, Shaq won Rookie of the Year and was voted an All-Star starter, the first time a rookie had done that since Michael Jordan.
O’Neal improved in his second season, and now teamed with Penny Hardaway the Magic made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. However, it’s the 1994-95 season where Orlando really made its splash. Shaq averaged 29.3 points per game and finished second in the MVP voting. With Jordan still off playing baseball, the Magic made it to the NBA Finals, though they swept by the Houston Rockets.
The 1992 Summer Olympics were the year of the Dream Team, but the idea of pros in the Olympics was still new in 1996. That Olympics took place in Atlanta as well, so of course all eyes were on Team USA. A few members of the original Dream team, like Charles Barkley, were in the 1996 team, but others like Shaq had joined the team as well. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. team won the gold easily.
That summer when Shaq was winning gold he was also a free agent. Would he stay with the Magic, or would he aim for a bigger pond? Eventually, O’Neal would leave Orlando for Los Angeles, joining the Lakers. Did the access to Hollywood help? Probably. How about the contract of seven years and $121 million? That definitely helped. In the end, though, you can’t deny the allure of the Lakers franchise. Just as LeBron James.
Shaq was a force for the Lakers in his first few seasons there, of course. However, the team did not immediately become a juggernaut to be reckoned with. Even the addition of teenaged Kobe Bryant could take the team to the promised land. The Lakers made the playoffs in O’Neal’s first three seasons there, but didn’t make the NBA Finals once.
Looking to get over the hump, the Lakers turned to Phil Jackson, who had just led the Bulls to six titles, to be their new head coach. The impact was immediate. Helped by O’Neal winning MVP, the Lakers took him the title in 2000, giving Shaq his first ring.
The reputation of the 2000-01 Lakers is well known at this point. It seemed like they weren’t firing on all cylinders during the regular season. Shaq seemed to be playing himself into shape. When the playoffs rolled around, though, the Lakers, and Shaq, were primed to dominate. Shaq and the Lakers lost all of one game in the playoffs en route to winning a second title in a row.
Shaq had to have toe surgery in the offseason before the 2001-02 season, but he still had the same size and strength. Also, by this point Kobe Bryant could shoulder the load as well. While the Lakers’ series win over the Kings was controversial, in the end LA won its third title in a row, finally bringing the team a three-peat like Pat Riley promised once upon a time. For the third season in a row, O’Neal was named Finals MVP as well.
Shaq had to have toe surgery again that offseason, and the Lakers did not make the NBA Finals in 2003. For the next season, the team went all in on a title push, adding Karl Malone and Gary Payton into the mix. This aged super team did indeed make it to the NBA Finals, but they lost to a starless Detroit Pistons team in five games, leaving Malone to retire without a ring.
O’Neal’s career has been filled with controversy and feuds over the years, and there was plenty of that in Los Angeles. At times, Shaq had beefs with both Kobe and Jackson. With tensions high, O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and a first-round pick in the 2004 offseason.
Once again, Shaq found himself paired with a star guard in Miami, this time a young Dwyane Wade. In his first season there the Heat lost in the Eastern Conference Finals, but in 2006 the Heat made it to the Finals. Wade carried the offense, but Shaq posted a double-double to give Miami its first NBA title.
Shaq may have been massive and strong, but as he aged his body started to break down and he lost some of his athleticism. He got off to a slow start to the 2007-08 season, averaging career lows in points, rebounds, and blocks. Thirty-three games into the season, the Heat traded O’Neal to the Phoenix Suns, moving the team away from its “Seven Seconds or Less” offense.
Shaq only played one full season with the Suns, and he showed some of his old skill. O’Neal made the All-Star Game and even had a 40-point game. However, he could not carry the Suns like he had carried previous teams. The Suns did not make the playoffs that year, the first time an O’Neal team had missed the postseason since his rookie campaign in Orlando.
Thus began Shaq’s time as a journeyman looking for one more ring. The Cavaliers were the next team to take a shot on Shaq, hoping he could help LeBron James bring a title to Cleveland. His role was much smaller, and the Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round. LeBron would have to go to Miami to finally get his title.
Maybe O’Neal took a “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy after his one season in Cleveland. The Cavs were eliminated by the Celtics, so that offseason he joined the Celtics. Shaq missed a lot of time with injuries, was a tertiary part of the team, and watched as Boston lost in the second round to Shaq’s old team in Miami.
After a staggering 19 seasons in the NBA, and a ton of success, O’Neal decided not to try and grab a spot with another team after the 2010-11 season. Instead, Shaq announced on Twitter (which he was an early and successful adopter of) that he was retiring.
It was obvious that Shaq would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame the instant he was eligible. Indeed, after his five-year waiting period was over, O’Neal was inducted in the Hall in 2016 alongside Allen Iverson.
Through his playing career, O’Neal had other interests. We figured we’d get into them now. In 1993, Shaw released a rap album called Shaq Diesel, which went platinum. Overall, he released five albums in his music career, though he was never exactly critically acclaimed.
O’Neal had a small role in the film “Blue Chips,” as a basketball player, but as his star rose Hollywood decided to see if he could make it as an actor. He ended up starring in “Kazaam” as a rapping genie and as a superhero in “Steel.” Both were massive flops. Since then, Shaq has had some small acting roles, including in Adam Sandler comedies. We’ll also mention the video game “Shaq Fu” here as well.
Shaq always enjoyed talking with the media, so it’s not surprising he now works in the media. After his retirement he joined TNT’s studio show alongside Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. Is Shaq good at it? That’s up for debate, but he did bring stardom. You can also find Shaq in a lot of commercials, which has been true since he was a player. He’s basically become the face of Papa John’s recently.
Few NBA players have ever had Shaq’s size. Not just his height, but just his mass and muscularity. He was so strong, and when he was young so athletic. O’Neal used to break backboards so often they had to change the way they were reinforced. In his career he averaged 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks, and that’s with all those years at the end when he wasn’t the player he was in his prime. While he surprisingly only won one MVP, he was an All-Star 15 times and made the All-NBA first team eight times. There has never been a player quite like Shaq, and there probably never will be again.