Shaquille O’Neal may have retired in 2011, but the 44-year-old four-time world champion remains at the forefront of the NBA discussion.
O’Neal, who has become an integral part of TNT’s Emmy-winning NBA broadcast, spoke with The Huffington Post recently to discuss the Dwight Howard saga, Kobe Bryant’s legacy and how he thinks Stephen Curry would fare in his era.
What did you think of Dwight Howard’s interview the other day with the TNT crew? He seemed candid.
I thought it was very honest. This life that we live in, you have to perform to a certain level, or you’ll always be susceptible to criticism. Some people can take it well and some people can’t. When you call yourself a Superman or call yourself a great player, but then you don’t play like that, then of course everyone questions your character. I thought he handled himself well; I thought he was very eloquent in his speech. I think he’s got about four or five years left to go get [a championship], so good luck.
I kind of felt the same kind of pressure before [Los Angeles Lakers coach] Phil Jackson came. I was 28, 29… I was putting up numbers, but I wasn’t winning. So I kind of know the pressure that he’s under, and you’ll never get that monkey off of your back and you’ll never get validated as a great player or as a champion until you actually win a championship. He was one of the best centers in the game — I don’t know if his back injuries slowed him down, but he kind of fell off.
What has been the reaction to the ESPN “30 for 30” film on the Orlando Magic, specifically between you and [former teammate] Penny Hardaway? It must bring back plenty of good (and not-so-good) memories.
A lot of people liked it. There was a lot of stuff that people didn’t know was going on. It was very informative, very entertaining, and it brought back a lot of memories for us. People seem to forget that after the Bulls, me and Penny kind of brought it to the next exciting level. A lot of teams were at the same level — your hometown team in Seattle was at that level.
So we were just one of those teams that was trying to surpass the Bulls, and just trying to do what they were able to do. When I made them trade C-Webb [Chris Webber], I was thinking of the new version of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
So when you look back at that, you’re able to see yourself and you’re so young, it’s such a different time in your life. Would you have done things differently?
You know, I was always taught to be firm with your decision, be strong with your decision and live with your decision. I don’t think I would have done anything different. The only thing I might have done differently is when I asked for the 150 [million]. If they had said yes, then I probably would have stayed, but when they say “Oh he’s not worth it, we’re only going to give you 80,” that kind of stiffened the situation a little bit.
You have become quite the accomplished actor. How much do you enjoy it?
It’s fun. It’s just an opportunity to have a good time. As a kid it was my dream. I can remember watching “Superman” and thinking I would love to be in a movie someday. Every time I get called to be on a show, I find it fun and enlightening. It keeps people interested in my personality.
With that in mind, what is the hardest part for you about being on camera every day?
Nothing, really, because here it’s not like the other networks, where you have to look into a camera, put on the face and broadcaster’s voice. It allows us to be us. I think because of our experience and how we played and the championships that we won — plus the humor that we add to it — I think people really, really love our show. If I was a guy who didn’t play or a guy who didn’t win, my credibility would be questioned.
Yeah, people love it because you guys are being you — that’s why it’s different.
The word is that today’s NBA players are softer, that the Warriors wouldn’t win in the ’90s. But if you think back to those times, one of my biggest quibbles with that is that there weren’t many European players then. Now you have great European players. Is that safe to say?
There’s always going to be a fair and unfair criticism. That’s kind of how I rate players, because I always think that my era was better than any other era. Before I rate a player, I ask myself: “Could he have played when I played? When GP [Gary Payton] and The Rain Man [Shawn Kemp] were playing? Rik Smits and Reggie Miller?”
Because when I came in in ’92, even in the lower markets, every team had more than respectable players, and guys played hard and fouled you hard. A lot of arenas, like going into Utah for example, were never an easy win. Going to Denver was never an easy win. But now you look at these smaller-market teams now like — if you tell me a certain team is playing a certain team, I can tell you who’s going to win. The atmosphere is different and everything is different.
What’s the hardest part about evaluating guys now? Take Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and the Warriors, thinking about how they would fare in your era — considering the game has changed, the referees have obviously changed.
There’s always one certain thing that could alter the conversation, and that would be the rule changes. Because now, people say guys like Curry could have played in my days, but then they say, no no no, you have guys like Greg Anthony who were masters of hand-checking. [Or] Orlando Blackmon and John Starks, who when they put their hands on you, they were going to drag you where they wanted you to go.
So if you consider the rules, I think that can kind of alter the conversation. The way the rules are now, guys not being able to get touched, I think it gives them the freedom to do what a guy like Steph Curry is doing. I think what makes Steph Curry Steph Curry is the efficiency of his long-range shooting. You’ve seen a lot of guards who can put it between their legs, but you’ve never seen one as efficient behind that line.
You played against Reggie Miller, Ray Allen. Is Curry the best shooter ever? And is it because he can handle the ball and create as well as he does?
Well, this year he would be the best ever, but let’s see his next three years. I think you just have to be very consistent at what you’re doing, always got to hit the big game shot. He’s only been winning, what, four years? The last two years he’s definitely been the best shooter. Hopefully he can maintain that.
What about flipping it? How would you have played in this era?
Well, I would have averaged 40. I would have made a lot of guys quit. And a lot of guys would have probably said, “Oh, well, we’re just going to push me outside.” But what you don’t understand is if you’re banging against me for three or four quarters, you’re going to be tired. Shooters need their legs to shoot, and everybody knows that. So if you go try to bang up against me, you may hit some shots in the first or second quarter, but [in the] third or fourth quarter, especially in a seven-game series, you’re definitely going to be tired.
I don’t think it should be changed. They didn’t change it for me, and I overcame it and won four championships. It’s part of the game. To me, from a personal standpoint, if you have to use tactics to win, then I don’t respect you as a man. Because when I was coming up, Isaiah [Thomas] beat the Bulls, the Bulls beat Utah, we beat Indiana, we beat Philly. No tactics, just 5-on-5, wrestling, fighting, clawing, flagrant fouls — that’s how the game should be. So if you have to use an analytical tactic to win, you’ll never be a winner in my book.
When you think about the league right now, is it as healthy as it should be or could be?
I would like to see the smaller markets thrive a little more.
With Kobe retiring, where do you think he belongs in the pantheon of greatness, and not merely for shooting guards?
Guys before me and guys before us will always get the nod. I gotta go with Magic, I gotta go with Mike [Michael Jordan], and for me I always gotta go with Doctor J [Julius Erving]. And then after that you can start talking Kobe, Allen Iverson and all that. And that’s not a disrespect thing: Those guys who paved the way for us, you always got to put them first.
How about the best big man of all time, then?
I probably have to go with Bill Russell, because of the championships. Then Kareem, and then me.
I think that’s fair. I think a lot of Lakers fans might say there might be room for you at the top.
I’ll always let the people decide. I can remember when I was a youngster playing my first game. I was nervous, and my mother just said, “Make sure they remember your name when you’re done playing.” That was kind of very, very touching to me. As long as people say my name every now and then, I think I did my job.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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