Shaq and Mortality

This NBA season was the first essentially Shaq-free year in my lifetime. Yes, the big fella was technically still around, wasting away in the trainer's room in the belly of the TD Banknorth Garden, but for all intents and purposes Shaq retired last year.

That's why today's announcement was not a surprise in the least: any NBA fan saw how totally finished Shaq is and saw how little he could stay on the court and how little an impact he made and figured that was it. He had basically two good games this year, each launching a thousand "Diesel Has Something Left in the Tank!!" headlines, but that was about it. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Shaq gave it the old college try and then packed up it up while the Celtics went home.

Shaq has been an important player to me for my entire life - I think the first reasonable sports argument I ever made was that Shaq deserved the MVP award every year and the media simply did not want to vote for him because it would be boring. His free throw foibles are well documented, but dammit if Shaq wasn't a winner. Maybe he wasn't the most valuable, but no one could dominate like he could. He looked like a grown man playing in a middle school YMCA game. He was a physical freak in the truest sense of the term: he looked like a person of normal height who suddenly turned into Apache Chief: INYUK-CHUK!!

Watching him breakdown after seeing him at his peak was the second time I'd see a lifelong favorite athlete wither before my eyes. Last year brought the far more traumatic retirement of Ken Griffey Jr., which made me break out the N64 and fire up Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr, a relic from my childhood that I will never sell.

But Shaq was different than Griffey - Griffey's breakdown was slow and robbed him of so much time that by the time he retired, it was easy to forget he was still around. Seeing the Heat face the Mavericks in the Finals reminds one that when these teams faced off five years ago, Shaq was already seen as "on the decline" and STILL managed to deliver on his championship promise. The guy looked sure to hang around forever, despite the ballooning weight and the nagging injuries and the silly feuds and the TV shows and Twittering. When he signed with the Celtics and pretended he was still pissed off and chasing one more ring, it seemed so utterly hollow. Shaq was lying to us.

Watching a player retire when his career has spanned my entire life makes me feel incredibly old, and incredibly sad, and is further compounded by the fact that Blake Griffin is younger than me and more famous and rich than I will ever be. When I loved Shaq, I still daydreamed about the NBA and getting tall and dunking a basketball just once. Seeing him break down reminds me that the only way I will ever dunk a basketball is on my unborn son's kiddie hoop.

Shaq gets to retire at least somewhat gracefully, and will probably pop up in a million places on TV and in movies and in the news and online until we all get sick of him. But remember when Shaq could just decide it was time to score and do this?

Remember that when you see him at 400 pounds, wearing a suit that is clinging on for dear life sitting next to the similarly rotund Magic Johnson. Remember how Shaq was a force of nature, and not the Big Media Whore.

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