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Shaq Won't Enter Springfield a Perfect Player but as the Player He Wanted to Be

Published by Bleacher Report on Thu, 08 Sep 2016

Because he was blessed with something we weren't, Shaquille O'Neal knew something we didn't.In body, he was basketball perfection.As O'Neal understood, such a blessing is a curse.Hopes, dreams, expectations and demands for him would never be reasonableand they never were. People never would and never will ever say he overachieved in his field.That's what O'Neal accepted to make enough peace with his potential to accomplish what he did. He was different from the typical nose-to-the-grindstone success story, and he was OK with that. In factIn mind, he was basketball imperfection.He could have used that mind to expand his game, take better care of his body, be a better teammate. He could have tried harder, obviously, to make a few more of the 6,466 (!) free throws he missed in NBA games.That stuff is grounds for criticism when we want our athletic heroes to be worthy of idolization and imitation. Yet in his own way, that was the right path for O'Neal to find the balance that every life coach or mountaintop guru preaches for us.O'Neal was one of the greatest players of all timebetter than almost everyone he's joining in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday. Not the best, but one of them because he concentrated on his strengths more than his weaknesses.The drawbacks of being a perfectionist are real. That may be a shrewd way to characterize yourself when you're asked about your flaws in a job interview. But the truth, many believe, is that being a perfectionist is linked with heightened anxiety and lowered self-esteem.O'Neal was not a perfectionist, and that worked for him. With that mentality came a type of freedom that few athletes enjoy.And he sure enjoyed his career on his terms.He had a nameplate above his Los Angeles Lakers locker at The Forum and Staples Center that read "IDGAF" rather than "O'NEAL." He wanted a reminder to be himself rather than what others wanted for him. (He would tell the kids it was an acronym for "I Dominate Games Forever" instead of the alternate truth: "I Don't Give a F--k.")He carved out an attainable definition of greatness that he could easily achieve: being the "most dominant" player rather than the "best." It was an ideal fit so he could feel good about himself even when he was not really trying his hardest.He believed in and would willingly explain that approach, which jibed with his idea of taking it slowly through the regular season and building gradually toward a playoff payoff. Of course, the way he explained it was with an R-rated undertone and a sparkle in his eye.He had a lot of fun off the court. The Lakers scheduled practice times with O'Neal's road-city party hangovers in mind. His bold declarations and creative wordplay were regular entertainment (when he wasn't glumly muttering "write what you see" after Kobe Bryant would hijack the offense).He would spice up any random moment in time by putting someone up against a wall and frisking him for his police training or by picking someone up in his arms or over his head or any other way he could imagine.(Weird confession: I actually felt more secure in Shaq's bear-hug in front of his locker as he hopped us up and down as if we were on some tandem pogo stick than when he had my face up against the wall and I was blind to what scheme he might be hatching behind me besides the expected faux-handcuffing. This was even though the Shaq pogo stick happened when he was wearing only underwear.)He set an unattainable bar for everyone else with his unique ability to "flip the switch" when he wanted to play better. The reasons he would get fired up might be that Michael Doleac looked at him the wrong way or Luc Longley had three rings or Dikembe Mutombo was whining about elbowsand the beast would be unleashed.It wasn't until Yao Ming had some success against himand got public recognition for itthat O'Neal tried half as hard as Yao did when they went head-to-head. O'Neal wasn't a natural born killer and didn't aspire to become one.As such, he lived his career with a freedom that killer competitors never find.O'Neal was never trapped by single-mindedness or imprisoned by the gym.He played to his strengths.The problem with that is no one's self-awareness is perfect. O'Neal valued his strengths as a rapper or entertainer more than his strengths as a rebounder or shot-blocker. It was only because Phil Jackson set specific goals for O'Neal to attain in those areas to go with his scoring thirst that O'Neal put it all together for his one NBA MVP award in 1999-2000.And it wasn't clear in the locker room moments after beating the Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals that year whether O'Neal was more excited about his first championship or that he could finally reveal to some of us his latest nickname for himself."The Big Deporter," O'Neal announced, beaming with pride.It was beyond clever: He had eliminated foreign-born centers Rik Smits, Arvydas Sabonis, Longley and Vlade Divac during the Lakers' playoff run.Around the same time, amid the champagne and streamers at Staples Center, Bryant was talking up his plan to go on to win 10 NBA titles.Each approach has its merits, for sure. But it's fair to say that one mindset worked for Bryant, while another worked for O'Neal.Of course, we imagine the incomparable greatness that would have been O'Neal if he had greater work ethic and determination. It might have made for the ultimate confluence of basketball forcesbeyond a powerhouse.An absolute machine.Except then he wouldn't have been a human being at all.Therein lies the deal-breaker for O'Neal, who wanted above all to bring joy and light into his life and that of others.Fellow Hall of Fame inductees Allen Iverson and Yao inspired in their ways too: Iverson with his pound-for-pound presence and Yao with his global imprint. They were true to themselves, but no one was more so than O'Neal.That is the crux of the "IDAGF" spirit.Being a perfectionist is for the uptight, overstressed people who aren't having as much fun as he is. Being a terrible free-throw shooter made him relatable to the world in exactly the way he wantedoutstanding in his field but not without a touch of human frailty.He embraced the Superman comparisonbut only because of the Kryptonite.As long as Superman wasn't perfect, Shaq didn't have to be either.Being super came easily enough.Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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