I remember a time when Shaquille O’Neal was the most-feared player in the NBA, a 325-pound locomotive, good for about 30 points, 20 rebounds and a wrecked backboard on a standard night. The only way to stop him was to foul him and hope his shooting from the line was off as usual. I grew up in Sacramento as a Kings fan and Shaq used to ruin my team’s shit every year. When Game Seven of the 2002 Western Conference Finals got to overtime, I knew my Kings would lose. One did not beat Shaq and Kobe in overtime. And my Kings didn’t.
These days, though, 37-year-old Shaq looks less the Diesel and more the Edsel. His decline has been several years coming, ever since the Lakers traded him to the Miami Heat following the 2004 season. He averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds for the Suns last season, decent numbers, but nothing close to his prime. Legends do not get traded but the Phoenix Suns gave Shaq and his $21 million contract away to the Cleveland Cavaliers this past week for spare parts.
My feeling has been that Shaq has mostly stuck around these past few years to collect his hefty paycheck. Watching him stumble around, I can’t help but think, conversely, of Joe DiMaggio and how he retired following the 1951 season. DiMaggio was also 37 at the time of his retirement and probably could have gone a few more years for the New York Yankees if he’d wanted to. Still, he stopped playing because he couldn’t be Joe DiMaggio anymore. After his decision, he told the Sporting News, “I feel like I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my club, my manager, and my teammates. I had a poor year, but even if I had hit .350, this would have been my last year. I was full of aches and pains and it had become a chore for me to play. When baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game.”
DiMaggio wasn’t the only player like this. Jackie Robinson followed suit five years later when the Brooklyn Dodgers star, also 37 at the time, chose to retire over accepting a trade to the New York Giants. Mickey Mantle quit after having a dream that he was wearing a uniform for the expansion Seattle Pilots. Mantle’s age at the time he announced his retirement? You guessed it, 37.
To be sure, there have been many athletes who have stuck around entirely too long. Willie Mays comes to mind as do Pete Rose and Steve Carlton. Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice and Joe Namath all played a few too many NFL seasons. Patrick Ewing and Gary Payton should have quit basketball sooner than they did. And Wayne Gretzky really wasn’t “The Great One” by the end of his hockey career.
Shaq’s hardly the first of his kind. I suppose they just don’t make them like Joe DiMaggio anymore.