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Shaq announces retirement

Shaquille O’Neal’s one season with the Celtics was more eventful off the court. Shaquille O’Neal’s one season with the Celtics was more eventful off the court. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 2, 2011

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The plan all along was that Boston would be Shaquille O’Neal’s last stop. He said he had a 730-day plan.

This is where he could chase down one last championship ring, the place where he’d take his victory lap after 19 years in the NBA.

It would also be the first stop on his post-career public relations campaign. He would not only be one of the biggest stars in sport, he would be the most accessible, whether he was in Harvard Square posing as a statue, or at Symphony Hall in a tuxedo and bow tie conducting the Boston Pops.

He was in Boston for all of seven months, he played 37 games during the regular season, he practically went missing for nearly two months, and somehow he was ubiquitous. He dressed in drag for Halloween. He was Shaq-a-Claus for Christmas. He went to New York to appear on “Late Night with David Letterman.’’ He went to the Harvard Medical School to be a guinea pig in a study for sleep apnea.

He was a walking reality show — not just a soundbite waiting to happen but a YouTube clip and a blog post.

So the announcement yesterday that he’d retired — not even 365 days into his plan — made perfect sense. It didn’t come in a written statement. It didn’t even come through the team. Celtics president Danny Ainge declined comment, only because O’Neal hadn’t actually called Ainge to let him know.

Instead, he sent out a tweet.

“I’m retiring,’’ it read.

He also added a link to a video with a message to fans.

“We did it,’’ he said. “Nineteen years, baby. I want to thank you very much, that’s why I’m telling you first: I’m about to retire. Love you. Talk to you soon.’’

And with that, O’Neal, 39, ended a career that will land him in the Hall of Fame. He will now be concerned less with his basketball résumé — the four titles, the 15 All-Star Game appearances, the three Finals MVPs, the 2000 NBA MVP, the 28,596 career points, the 13,099 career rebounds, the 2,732 career blocks — and work on the one that he hopes will make him the next athlete-turned-media darling.

He’s got some work history, not just from those early acting missteps in movies such as “Shaq Fu’’ and “Kazaam,’’ but in his recent network show “Shaq vs.’’ on which he tried to beat some of the world’s greatest athletes at their own games. When he was introduced to the media last summer, he told them he would be coming for their jobs when his playing days were over. Having taken a two-day sportscasting program at Syracuse University, he wasn’t even half-joking.

Still, he kept a close watch on where he stood among the game’s all-time greats. He knew how many points he needed to pass Wilt Chamberlain on the scoring list even when the chances of doing it were fading.

“He’s an incredible athlete. His sense of humor and expressiveness helped to grow our game,’’ commissioner David Stern said. “We will miss him greatly and hopefully we can find ways to keep involving him in the game.’’

O’Neal knew that by coming to Boston he was signaling that his days as franchise player — “my CEO days,’’ he called them — were done. Even though he played with gifted Penny Hardaway in Orlando, O’Neal said the Magic’s success and failure would be pinned on him. He guided the Magic to the Finals in 1995, but left two seasons later, signing a $121 million contract with the Lakers. There are still ripples from his bitter ending in Orlando now that their newer, younger All-Star center Dwight Howard could do the same thing.

“I’m not trying to run behind nobody like Shaq or be behind somebody else,’’ Howard told the Orlando Sentinel. “I want to start my own path and I want people to follow my path, and I want to start that here in Orlando.’’

Then again, O’Neal never did break-ups well.

He spent eight seasons in Los Angeles. With Kobe Bryant, he won three straight titles from 2000-02. But the duo split under friction and drama, to the extent that when the Celtics beat Bryant’s Lakers in the 2008 Finals, O’Neal made a video taunting Bryant in a rap. Two years later, after the Lakers beat the Celtics to give Bryant back-to-back titles, Bryant was asked what his fifth ring meant, and he responded, “That I have one more than Shaq.’’

In 2006, O’Neal won a title with Dwyane Wade in Miami. Among the many images splashed along the walls of American Airlines Arena is one of O’Neal, seated at his locker, holding hands with Pat Riley as if Riley were the Godfather. When O’Neal visited the arena in November, O’Neal said, ‘I built this.’’ But he no longer answers questions about Riley. And Wade keeps conversations about Shaq short. From there, he bounced from Phoenix to Cleveland, fighting off the “locker room presence’’ stage of his career.

With the Celtics, however, the only issues with O’Neal were on the court. They were 27-9 when O’Neal started. Their offense was so potent when he was on the floor that Ainge was willing to trade starting center Kendrick Perkins at the deadline in February even though O’Neal was hampered with an inflamed right Achilles’ tendon. Ainge assumed that O’Neal would return by April, but the injury never healed. O’Neal played six minutes against the Pistons April 3, but limped off the floor. The Celtics held out hope that O’Neal would return for the postseason, but after missing the first-round sweep of the Knicks, he played just two games (12 minutes) in the Celtics’ second-round loss to the Heat, unable to offer much.

“Shaq on and off the court was a real pleasure this year,’’ owner Wyc Grousbeck said. “We wish he could have done more on the court. So did he. He worked very, very hard.’’

The financial investment cost the Celtics little.

O’Neal signed for the veteran’s minimum, even though the Hawks wanted him. There were two problems. First, he said, the Hawks would have looked at him like a savior, which wouldn’t have allowed him to simply be a celebrity. Then there was O’Neal’s $10 million asking price, which Hawks general manager Rick Sund refused to bite on.

“If Rick would have offered that 10 I was talking about,’’ O’Neal said in Atlanta in November, “then I probably would have been here. Ten makes you change your mind.’’

The Celtics offered him the veteran’s minimum, but after spending seasons in Phoenix and Cleveland, what he got in visibility in Boston was priceless.

“Did I want $10 million?’’ Shaq told the New Orleans Times Picayune in September. “I’m always going to put the number high. I could have gotten $8 million from Atlanta and Detroit, but it wasn’t about that. It was about being somewhere and being seen and winning.’’

It was a case of marketing over money. For O’Neal, being one of the league’s greatest players was never enough. He had to also be one of its largest personalities.

Gary Washburn of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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