Shaq hangs up his cape

By Mike Monroe

The great center Shaquille O’Neal on Wednesday closed the book on a pro career that produced four NBA championships, one MVP Award, three Finals MVP Awards, 28,596 points, 13,099 rebounds, 2,732 blocked shots — and 5,317 missed free throws.

The 15-time All-Star has not yet officially informed the Boston Celtics, the last of six teams for which he played in 19 seasons, of his plans. But his announcement was enough for NBA commissioner David Stern to issue a statement expressing gratitude for all O’Neal had done for the sport.

A press conference is scheduled for Friday in Orlando.

An Achilles tendon injury that limited the 7-foot-1, 325-pound O’Neal to just 37 games this season led him to the conclusion it was time to hang up his size-22 sneakers.

“I’m going to miss the competition,” he said Wednesday on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” “I’m going to miss … the chase for the ring. I’m actually going to miss everything.”

One thing O’Neal won’t regret: having to go to the foul line, where he made only 52.7 percent of the 11,252 free throws he attempted during his career. His free-throw struggles once led to a memorable exchange with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich before, and during, the opening game of the 2008-09 season.

Angry that Popovich had employed the “Hack-A-Shaq” defensive tactic in the Spurs-Suns first round playoff series the previous season, O’Neal called Popovich’s liberal use of fouls “cowardly” and promised to make the coach “pay for it.”

Popovich’s response was sarcasm:

“He said that? Why, I’m going to put him in a head lock and give him a Dutch rub, right in the old head lock, and he’ll pay for it, right in the old head lock.”

Then Popovich promised to consider fouling O’Neal on the very first play that night.

“Life is short,” he said. “We might as well enjoy ourselves.”

A dedicated prankster, O’Neal always enjoyed himself. So when Popovich ordered guard Michael Finley to foul him the first time the Suns had the ball, O’Neal glared at the Spurs’ bench, then cracked up when he saw a grinning Popovich giving him a thumbs-up.

Regarded by most as one of the top five centers in basketball history, O’Neal burst onto the national basketball scene during his high school days in San Antonio. The stepson of a U.S. Army sergeant stationed in the Alamo City, he led Cole High School to the 1989 Texas 3A state championship.

He went on to play three years at LSU, leaving after his junior year to enter the NBA draft. The No. 1 overall selection, by the Orlando Magic, he was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1992-93 and led the Magic to the NBA Finals in his third season. He left Orlando to sign a free-agent contract with the Lakers in 1996.

In eight seasons in Los Angeles, O’Neal enjoyed his greatest success, winning three straight Finals MVP Awards as the Lakers won titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Amid widespread reports of disharmony between O’Neal and Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat after the Lakers fell to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals.

Popovich likened the change to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

O’Neal added a fourth championship ring to his collection when the Heat defeated the Mavericks for the 2006 title.

One of the most colorful players in league history, O’Neal dabbled in both entertainment and law enforcement. He released a rap album, “Shaq Diesel” that went platinum, and appeared in a feature film about college basketball, “Blue Chips.”

He was sworn in as a reserve police officer in Los Angeles, Miami and Maricopa County, Ariz.

He also was fond of giving himself nicknames, including Shaq Fu, The Diesel, Superman, Shaq Daddy, The Big Aristotle and The Big Cactus.

After he signed with the Boston Celtics for what would be his final season, he dubbed himself The Big Shamrock.

He has asked his fans to come up with a new name for his retired persona, expressing disappointment with the early leader: The Big 401K.

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