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Shaq and LeBron legacies linked

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  June 3, 2011 03:37 PM

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Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James have more in common than people think. (Yoon S. Byun, Globe file / Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images)

Shaquille O'Neal announced his retirement via Twitter and the social media tool Tout on Wednesday, but he formally -- or more accurately, traditionally -- announced it today in a meeting with the media at his Orlando-area home. The Big Sobriquet's sign-off has prompted discussion of Shaq's place in the history of the league and in the pantheon of all-time great centers.

The list is fungible, but Shaq is among my top five centers of all-time. The Big Three of NBA big men are non-negotiable -- Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- after that it's in the eye of the beholder among Moses Malone, Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson to round out the starting five.

The one historical knock on Shaq is that for a man his size he was not as utterly dominant a rebounder as you would have expected, failing to ever win a rebounding crown. He also had a penchant for defensive disinterest at times.

All this consideration of Shaq's place in hoops history also got me thinking about how many parallels there are between O'Neal and LeBron James, who with brute strength and dazzling athleticism is really the Shaq of shooting guards/small forwards. It is O'Neal, not Michael Jordan, that is a more relevant and apt comparison for King James.

Both O'Neal and James are physically freaks of nature whose sheer stature defined their games. Watching James bull past and bowl over opponents on the way to the rim doesn't remind you of Jordan. It brings to mind Shaq riding to the rim with hapless and helpless defenders draped all over him. Covering Shaq was a bruising task, and checking LeBron is a black-and-blue assignment as well; just ask Paul Pierce.

Both O'Neal and James were/are impossible to defend at times simply because of the way they're built. The sui generis physical prowess they're endowed with is their greatest gift, but it also works against them, as their ability to physically dominate opponents comes with outsized expectations and little sympathy.

Both left their original teams via free agency -- devastating the franchises they left behind -- to head to more glamorous destinations. In Shaq's case it was leaving Orlando for the Los Angeles Lakers. In LeBron's it was abandoning Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach.

Both changed their numbers when they made their career moves. Shaq couldn't wear 32 in Los Angeles because of Magic Johnson, donning No. 34 for the purple and gold. James, on record as saying Michael Jordan's No. 23 should be retired across the league, wore MJ's famous digits in Cleveland, but switched to No. 6 with the Heat.

Both made the NBA Finals early in their careers and were swept away. Shaq led the Orlando Magic to the Finals in 1995, his third season, and was broomed by the Houston Rockets. LeBron led the Cavaliers to the Finals in 2007, his fourth season, and was swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

Both endured heaps of criticism for not winning a championship. Shaq is famous for uttering the line: "I've won at every level, except college and pro." But the criticism of not winning a title stung him, as it does LeBron, who couldn't win in Cleveland last season with Shaq as part of his supporting cast. Remember Shaq pronouncing he had come to Ohio to get a "ring for the King" finally?

Shaq finally silenced his critics by winning a title in his eighth season. LeBron, currently playing in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, is in his ... eighth season.

Both are so famous that only one-name suffices like Madonna, Cher or Magic. They are Shaq and LeBron, surnames optional.

Shaq was an even better showman than he was a basketball player during his 19 seasons, which is saying something considering the esteemed company his name is now being mentioned in. He pulled down endorsements, movie roles and rap album contracts like he yanked down baskets and backboards. His comic book hero persona and oversized build, which went with an equally outsized personality, made him the Big Kid until the very end.

James, who has been quoted in the past discussing building a global brand and has a playful nature, is equally adept as a pitchman. Unlike a lot of NBA players his best acting does not come on the court. James is the best pro athlete actor this side of Peyton Manning. Love those State Farm Insurance commercials, 'Bron.

Perhaps that's why when asked about Shaq's retirement James mentioned Shaq's marketability as well as his basketball ability, according to an account from the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

"His 19 years in this league goes unprecedented, what he was able to do for this league, not only on the court, but off the court," said James. "I think he's probably one of the only big men to ever play this game to be able to market and to be able to be marketable off the court."

James has a true appreciation for that skill.

Shaq's brief and career-ending stint in a Celtics uniform will be merely a footnote in a fabulous career. Even a greatly diminished O'Neal was a force while healthy for the Celtics, even if his legacy here will be public appearances (Harvard Square and conducting the Boston Pops) and the Kendrick Perkins trade.

LeBron's legacy is still undecided, but it was bolstered by Miami eliminating the Celtics this spring. James -- along with an acutely bad Achilles' tendon injury -- turned Shaq into the Big Retiree.

Somehow it seems fitting that Shaq's final games would come against LeBron, maybe the closest thing to a basketball torchbearer that Shaq has.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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