By Mike Monroe
Shaquille O’Neal exited laughing at his official retirement news conference on Friday, and it was his humor and zest for life that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he most admired about the center who earned four championship rings during 19 NBA seasons.
“I always felt he had more fun than any NBA player of all time,” said Popovich, a Spurs assistant coach when NBA scouts first took notice of a Cole junior named O’Neal who was dominating Texas high school games in 1988 and 1989. “He seemed to enjoy himself more than any player. He competed to win, but his intelligence and humor were always there. He enjoyed the spotlight; he used it, he played with it and I always got a large kick out of it.”
O’Neal’s official announcement came Friday at his Orlando-area home, where the humor Popovich admired again was on display.
Hours after the Knicks announced that Donnie Walsh was stepping down as their general manager, O’Neal interrupted his announcement to take a fake phone call from the Knicks.
“Yes?” he said into the phone. “For real? You want me to apply for the Knicks general manager job? I’ll fly up right after the press conference.”
It was just such irreverence for a game too many take too seriously that Popovich appreciated.
“His personality was infectious and I thought his sense of humor was wonderful for the league and the fans,” Popovich said.
The Spurs’ coach said O’Neal is “in the conversation” when basketball historians debate the greatest centers ever to play the game, and Popovich credited him with changing the notion of how the game’s biggest players should approach the game.
“How a big man should play or how he has to play historically wasn’t true any more after Shaq,” Popovich said. “He was really complete. People never gave him credit for that, but he was a force offensively and defensively and he was a very willing passer and he would play with that, too. If you doubled him he could kick it to other people and he got better at that as time went by. He never got credit for being that complete type of player at his position.
“He obviously ranks amongst the best. He’s in the same conversation with all the other greats we know about over the years. I don’t try to rank them. The conversation is what it’s about.”
The first time Popovich saw O’Neal in person, during O’Neal’s college career at LSU, he came away astounded.
“I thought he was a phenomenon,” he said. “I couldn’t believe somebody was that big and that mobile, that those two would go together. At the same time he had great coordination. To be as big as he was and have that just amazed me.”
Popovich recalled how difficult it was watching his battles with the Spurs’ great big men, David Robinson and Tim Duncan, without losing focus on the rest of the game.
“I always had to make sure I didn’t get lost in just that dynamic because it was so easy to just be mesmerized by those people playing against each other and you could lose sight of everything else going on out on the court,” he said. “Your eyes just gravitated to those guys as the game progressed. You had to discipline yourself to think bigger than those two, but the game always seemed to revolve around them.”