Greetings. It’s been too long.
When one thinks about sports, and particularly about American sports, with all of their emphases on contact and power, other aesthetic aspects can get lost in the shuffle. This loss is papered over by today’s legion of sports announcers, anchors, pundits, and thinkers, who focus on sports almost as if in a vacuum, comparing athletes only to other athletes. This is not really a problem, exactly. For example, Gus Johnson does not spend a lot of time that he doesn’t have anyway focusing on why Chris Paul’s crossover dribble is visually appealing, but he doesn’t have to. It’s not his job. No, the problem, I think, is that even those who could spend time writing about connections between sports and other human endeavor (I’m looking at you, Simmons, and you, Posnanski – again, fine columnists) simply do not. So, let’s consider one question as a way to get a small and very partial ball rolling. The question is this: why do I dislike Shaquille O’Neal so intensely?
Let’s start with a bit of partly fake history. O’Neal, aka Shaq, aka Fu-Schnickens, aka The Diesel (apologies to John Riggins), aka Steel, aka Shazam, is the seven-foot, 325-350 pound good-natured behoemoth created in the laboratories of the State University of Louisiana. Coming out of college and spending his early years with the Magic of Orlando, he was seen as something of a novelty – a large, as in wide, figure who possessed enough soft touch with a basketball to escape from a certain doom of playing left tackle and instead make it on NBA Inside Stuff, where he tried to kill Ahmad Rashad by tearing hoops out of backboards. Teamed with Penny Hardaway (occasionally replaced in the lineup by Chris Rock) and Nick Anderson, Shaq led his team to relative success in the Jordan-less Eastern Conference in 1993-94 and 94-95. At the time, I had lost most of my interest in basketball, but what little there was was centered on the Indiana Pacers, and I think it was here that the fertilization of my dislike of the man was born. Luckily for the Pacers, the NBA had not yet changed the rules for Shaq-deez, and the triumvirate of literal Dutchman Rik Smits and Daletonio Davis (two Davises in the same body) were able to contain him enough to let Reggie Miller bail them out constantly with 30 foot trifectas, at least in 93-94.
But then, in 1998, Jordan retired (for the second of three times). The NBA, which for twenty years had thrived on the star power of Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Jordan, suddenly found that its most attractive and appealing employee was David Robinson. As Robinson toiled in the literal desert, and not on a coast, the NBA was a little concerned until the Lakers traded for Fu-Schnicks and teamed him with Brandy’s prom date and man-child, Kobe “Beef” Bryant. The recent implosion of the New York Knickerbockers meant that all of the NBA’s star power suddenly centered in the familiar and fabled court where Jack Nicholson actually had more playing time than anyone good since 1992 (Jack’s numbers compare pretty favorably with his predecessor’s, Kurt Rambis, although Jack brought a little more to the table in the transition game). Enter Phil Jackson, Tex Winter, and the triangle offense, and the Lakers were set for lots of television time.
In order for the plan to work, though, Shaq’s limited skills more than 2 feet from the hole had to be toned down. Due to his hilarious inability to shoot free throws (try breaking the basket support from 15 feet, Tiny!), opponents had developed the “Hack-a-Shaq” tactic, where members 8-12 of any given team were launched in succession at the Deez throughout the course of a game, burning through their allotment of 30 personal fouls. In an effort to combat this effort to limit the celebrity of Shaq, the NBA simply stopped calling offensive fouls on him. Steel was finally free to hip-check, shove, and run over anyone who kept him more than arm’s length from the basket. In a further blow to grace, skill, and beauty (more on this in just a moment), the NBA painted an arc underneath the hoop within which NO CONTACT, DESPITE BEING INITIATED BY THE OFFENSIVE PLAYER, WAS AN OFFENSIVE FOUL, EVER.*
Enough with the history lesson, though.
What’s my point?
My point is that Shaquille O’Neal, encouraged by rules changes and getting beat on by reserves, never developed what I would call an aesthetically appealing game. (There is a school of philosophical thought that would say that his effectiveness and his earthy power in the paint are beautiful in their own right; I would suggest that these people read a dictionary and watch Hakeem Olajuwon** clips, in no particular order, perhaps even at the same time). For the sake of beginnings, let’s assume a rather structuralist binary in sports: “air” and “earth.”
One can think of most sports as being the ultimate example of human motion. At the highest levels, athletics represent the transcendence of the human ground-based condition, or at least the pinnacle of human energy. This is less apparent in certain sports, such as baseball and boxing, where the motion of the human body is more contained and compact. Aside from running and leaping, however, the motion of a ball in flight also offers a beautiful experience: a momentary escape from the constraints of the earth, a lovely and graceful arc. A Jim Thome home run and a Michael Jordan jump shot, a Tiger Woods three wood and a Thierry Henry curler: all offer a parabolic demonstration of flight.*** Without getting too carried away****, I would say that sports are like sex: both the final statement and final denial of the individual human physical being.
Back to Shaq Diesel: despite his obvious ability to score and rebound, nothing about his game manifests as anything but being a clumsy oaf. Whatever skill and ability there is in his footwork, and whatever soft touch he may have in the low post, is obliterated by his lack of hops (which he doesn’t need anyway) and the absolutely flat nature of his shots. When not merely a dunk, the line of his shots resembles more that of the bullet launched from a gun (i.e. no upward component) than that of a lofted arrow. His discomfort with anything graceful contorts his face into a grimace of worry whenever he’s at the free throw line. Compare any photo of Hakeem shooting a baseline J or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in mid-skyhook, eyes lifted hopefully towards the sky, ball just leaving their carefully poised hand, and the difference is clear. Shaq throws down, but without leaving the ground. Hakeem and Kareem combine hope and hard work, and skill. Shaq eliminates the need for hope and skill, and uses force. Effective, but inhuman, rather than the expression of human aspiration and effort*****.
I would posit that, at least in roundball, the most aesthetically appealing players have been those that combine Shazam’s raw earthbound power with tact and grace: Michael Jordan, Shawn Kemp (good lord, just watch this), LeBron James…
The duality obviously breaks down at some point, but as an answer to a question like “Why is Kevin Garnett more appealing than Big Baby Davis”, I figure it’s a start.
* This may be an exaggeration.
** aka The Dream, aka The Greatest Big Man Ever To Play The Game Except For Maybe Moses Malone or Bill Russell.
*** So does Mikhail Barishnykov dancing, but ballet is a special case; dance is, no doubt, the ur-sport, and also, ballet is French. I know, I know, Thierry Henry is French too. God. Relax.
**** (Clearly too carried away).
***** Literally: work, in physics, results in something being moved from one position to another. Shaq does not move either himself or the ball very far. He just drops it in a hole. Gravity does the work, and Brad Miller gets the personal foul.