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Does Anybody in NBA History Better Personify “Petulance” than Shaquille O’Neal?

Shaquille O'Neal loves the camera

Shaquille O’Neal Photos Credit: Icon SMI

“It’s sad that he says those things. We shared so much here, together, for three years, good and bad, 3 1/2 years. I just think it’s sad that he’s got to do that. He didn’t want to be here, he didn’t want to play for [this] kind of situation, 35 years old. He wanted to go to a contender and we sent him there. We sent him to Utopia and we’re left here with the carnage and I don’t know why he’s not happy. It’s really a shame that he would insult those people like that because they gave him care. They cared. They didn’t kiss his butt. They cared about him.” – Pat Riley, Miami Heat Head Coach

Over the course of his long, storied NBA career, Shaquille O’Neal has come to be known as The NBA’s Most Dominating Player. He’s won four NBA championships and was voted into 15 consecutive All-Star games. He’s been signed to recording contracts and landed numerous leading and supporting roles in Hollywood (fortunately for O’Neal I’m focusing on the quantity of those two endeavors, not the quality). He’s never experienced a shortage of major endorsement deals, while massive contracts in the NBA alone have made him a millionaire many, many times over. The media hangs on his every word and laughs at every tired one-liner or quip.

Almost anybody who’s even somewhat plugged into Western culture knows who Shaquille O’Neal is. He remains bigger than life and sometimes bigger than the game that made him famous. Nobody can take away or diminish the significant accomplishments he’s achieved.

But… why. Why. Why. Why.

Why does a man who’ll go down in history as one of the most influential and successful players in NBA history still, after all these years, never take the high road in the face of criticism? Why does he still rarely give credit to an opponent that bests him? Why is he still considered just a big, lovable goof? And why does he still get a free pass from the media and basketball fans alike despite his childish, boorish, and often inappropriate behavior?

Does Shaquille O’Neal really need to go on a tirade about Pat Riley and his former Miami Heat teammates?

Does Shaquille O’Neal really need to issue a harsh rebuke of Bill Walton because the man did what ESPN pays him to do?

What does Shaquille O’Neal stand to gain from engaging in one pissing match after another?

Nothing. This is just who Shaquille O’Neal is: a petulant, insecure brute incapable of self-control with a microphone in his face. He always has to be “on” and always has to have the last word in spats big and small, whether it’s with Kobe, or Vlade Divac, or Jerry Buss, or Pat Riley, or Bill Walton, or …

To hear the media tell it, Shaquille O’Neal is at all times a gregarious, easy-going ol’ funster who’s always quick to make us laugh and who can still work a room with the best of them. And maybe that’s true to a degree. But suppose it was, say, Ron Artest who issued all of these personal insults Shaq has publicly hurled at opponents and ex-associates alike. Suppose it was Artest who had displayed all the poor sportsmanship Shaq has shown in defeat, and Artest who was overly defensive whenever criticized. Ron Artest would be absolutely vilified and held up as an example of a bad role model, of a bad teammate, and a bad ambassador for the NBA. But Shaquille O’Neal has something Ron Artest doesn’t: a free pass.

Everybody wants to view him as this big goofy jokester, and he loves nothing more than to project himself that way. The reality of the situation, however, is that most of the time he comes off like an immature asshole whenever he opens his mouth and very few call him out for it.

Much more on Shaquille O’Neal’s petulant behavior after the break…

O’Neal’s recent dust-up with Pat Riley is not surprising; it simply continues a trend of burning bridges that has spanned most of the big man’s professional career. “I love playing for this coach and I love playing with these guys,” O’Neal told the Globe in reference to the Phoenix Suns. “We have professionals who know what to do. No one is asking me to play with Chris Quinn or Ricky Davis. I’m actually on a team again.” Yes, Shaq is on a team again and thank God he’s away from the Miami Heat, an organization that has been pretty classy to him and gave him another ring. Shaq’s backstabbing comments about his former franchise are pretty low even for him. **UPDATE** Told about Riley’s “it’s sad” remarks, O’Neal couldn’t help himself—again—saying that he didn’t “give a shit that Riley is disappointed. Sue me.”

Forget for a moment how all those (former) fans of his must feel today in Miami. Forget for a moment how his old best friend, Dwyane Wade, must feel today. (Betrayed and insulted come to mind.) Let’s not forget that from the moment O’Neal arrived in Miami, Pat Riley and the Heat bent over backwards to be as accommodating and understanding with him as humanly possible. They changed their style of play and built their roster around him. They made him the face of the franchise (not Wade). They put him in a position to win another championship. They dealt with all of his injuries, big and small, and dubiously long rehabs with kind tolerance. This season, Riles begged and pleaded with the media to push for O’Neal’s inclusion in the All-Star Game even though he most certainly did not deserve it. And, of course, in the end the Heat unburdened him of playing for a losing team by sending him to a contender.

Yet, still, over a month later after he was traded he’s still compelled to take cheap shots. But, hey, loyalty is important to Shaq. “I don’t take loyalty lightly. If you tell me you’re going to do something, I expect you to do it,” he once told the Los Angeles Times in reference to Lakers owner Jerry Buss. “And then when you change your mind without telling me, that means you’re disloyal so we can’t be down anymore.”

Cultural

When Yao Ming entered the league in 2002, Shaquille O’Neal was still at or near the top of his game and still the toast of Western Conference centers. With so much talk about Yao and the potential impact he would have on the league, Shaq simply couldn’t take it. What followed were a series of comments (I know most of you have heard them before, long ago, but bear with me) that re-raised a number of questions about O’Neal’s character. The following are direct quotes, and all were made in reference to or directly to Yao Ming shortly after O’Neal was named winner of the NAACP Young Leaders Award:

“I look forward to breaking down that motherfucker’s body,” said O’Neal. “He said my name three times, two in Chinese and one in American. You don’t ever call me out. I’m from LSU.” (Yao never “called” him out)

“Wang Zhu, whatever your name is, you want some of shaq-fu, you come get it. I’ll be waiting for you.” (Video)

“Tell Yao Ming, ‘ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.”‘

Of course, the uproar was temporary. “I said it jokingly, so this guy was just trying to stir something up that’s not there,” said O’Neal about criticism of his comments. “He’s just somebody who doesn’t have a sense of humor, like I do. I don’t have to have a response to that (the charges of racism) because the people who know me know I’m not.”

And, just like that, it became just another harmless O’Neal quip. And that was that… ergh, not exactly. After very few in the media reported on the “ching-chong,” um, “joke,” Fox Sports Radio’s Tony Bruno played the clip a few times and then… this.

The only reason anyone knows about Shaq’s latest taunt is because Fox Sports Radio’s Tony Bruno Morning Extravaganza played a recording of the taunt several times to its nationwide audience on Dec. 16 and 17. On the latter day, Bruno commented that Shaq’s comment was “not racist,” and then invited listeners and radio commentators to call in jokes making racist fun of Chinese. For hours, people cracked jokes, such as offering free bike parking to increase Chinese attendance at basketball games.

On Christmas Day, while calling the Celtics-Nets game for ABC, veteran sportscaster Brent Musburger lamented that “the hordes of China” might stuff the All-Star ballot box and vote Yao Ming in as the Western Conference’s starting center, rather than Shaquille O’Neal. Then, in “honor” of Yao’s first game in Miami, the Miami Heat on Dec. 16 passed out 8,000 fortune cookies to spectators. Yao found the promotion amusing but pointed out that fortune cookies have nothing to do with him.

Hilarious.

In 2004, current Phoenix Suns GM Steve Kerr had this to say about O’Neal on TNT: “I don’t know if Shaq has that killer instinct, but it’s probably a good thing he doesn’t, because there would be a lot of dead people lying around the floor.” TV commentators say a lot of things, and that doesn’t seem especially ill-intentioned on Kerr’s part. But, of course, O’Neal had to retort: “You have to know what killer instinct is to comment on it. (Kerr) has never had a killer instinct, he’s just been a lucky guy on the end of the bandwagon, several times. He doesn’t know what killer instinct is.”

Classy.

Remember when the Sacramento Kings were a major force in the Western Conference? And when the Lakers beat them in the playoffs despite Sactown’s home-court advantage? O’Neal was gracious in victory, as always.

And then there was the war of words with Walton, which we touched on once already. Here’s the video of Walton’s comments, and here’s O’Neal’s bitter response:

“I heard Mr. Walton’s comments, and I think Mr. Walton has broken the big man pecking order code, ordinance 2257. Which means his resume isn’t quite good enough to speak on what I have done. I’ve spoken to Bill Russell, I’ve had conversations with Wilt Chamberlain, haven’t spoken with Kareem. And I looked at what Mr. Walton had done and I looked at what Mr. Walton has said and one thing I hate is a hypocrite. So if I’m faking a injury, his whole injury-plagued career is a fake. Here’s a guy who only played one or two seasons injury-free, and now he’s talking about me being injured. And one thing I really hate is a hypocrite. If Bill was playing with me right now… you remember what happened to Greg Ostertag? You remember that, right? So, that’s the type of guy I am, so…

Right. Uh huh. We do know what type of guy you are, Mr. O’Neal.

There are many other instances of O’Neal’s ungraciousness in defeat (“It’s not what they did, it’s what we didn’t do” was his favorite line after Miami’s playoff losses to the Detroit Pistons) as well of his childish retorts to anyone and everyone who expresses even the slightest bit of criticism of him. As you may have noticed, I haven’t even touched upon the big Kobe Feud or his clash with assistant coach Tex Winters. But I think I’ve made my point.

Shaquille O’Neal is as physically gifted as any player to ever step foot on an NBA court. He revolutionized the center position, has carried the load on multiple NBA title-winning teams, and single-handedly made opposing coaches re-evaluate and re-jig their game plans whenever they were forced to deal with him. If he had ever bothered to learn how to shoot free throws, his on-court legacy would be practically free of tarnish, save for all those massive elbows he’s fond of throwing whenever the opposing defense frustrates him.

Like I said, nobody can take that away from him. But nobody should forget or take away his contemptible speech, his petty insults, or his indelicate jokes either.



Tags: Shaquille O’Neal, Pat Riley, Yao Ming

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