By TIM REYNOLDS
WINDERMERE, Fla. — Shaquille O’Neal changed from his gray T-shirt and sweat pants into a three-piece suit, then walked by some of the souvenirs he accrued during his NBA days for the final time as an active player.
Framed jerseys from the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Wayne Gretzky, Mark McGwire, Kirby Puckett, Steve Young and Jerry Rice. An NBA Finals MVP trophy. Bottles of wine with labels bearing the “S” logo that he borrowed from Superman and essentially made his own. Basketballs with the Miami Heat logos painted on them, one to commemorate his 25,000th point, the other for his 10,000th rebound. A photo of him, Bill Russell and John Wooden.
It took him 19 years to collect those memories.
On Friday, he vowed to start truly savoring them.
“It’s time for what’s next,” the Big Fella said.
The 39-year-old O’Neal made his retirement official, reiterating what he revealed in a video posted to Twitter two days earlier. Saying those words where he did brought a full-circle piece of closure to his career, since it all ended at his home in a suburb of Orlando, the city where his pro days began when the Magic made him the No. 1 pick in 1992.
“Never thought this day would come,” O’Neal said. “Father Time has finally caught up with Shaquille O’Neal.”
Speculation has been high for weeks that O’Neal’s playing days were over, and the widely expected became real on Wednesday. It took him 10 seconds to announce his plans in the online video, and as few athletes could do, those 10 seconds turned into a three-day story. Tributes have poured in and on Friday, O’Neal thanked just about everyone he could remember.
His parents, thanking his father for his discipline and his mother for sneaking him cake, milk and cookies when that discipline prevented the boy from getting his own. His brothers and sisters. His six children, who got an apology for his schedule demands and a promise that they would keep going to Toys “R” Us. His fans worldwide. The NBA and commissioner David Stern. The camaraderie in the locker room. The six teams he played with.
“And I’m really going to miss the free throws,” deadpanned O’Neal, a notoriously bad foul-shooter.
He insisted he will not return, nor will he coach anyone but his three sons. His career ends with 28,596 points, 13,099 rebounds, 15 All-Star selections, four championships and three NBA Finals MVP awards. He had a $1.4 million option to return to the Boston Celtics next season, but said he did not want to hold up the team’s plans several months if he needs Achilles’ surgery.
So he made the decision to retire, on his terms.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” O’Neal said.
The finale came in a fitting place. He bought the home in 1993, and it’s remained his base ever since — even after he left the Magic.
Family and close friends gathered in the massive kitchen while the gymnasium filled for a celebration that was tinged with a bit of sadness.
“This is a bittersweet day on behalf of the family,” said O’Neal’s mother, Lucille Harrison. “It’s been 19 years, but the 19 years have gone by so quick.”
Dale Brown, who coached O’Neal at LSU, sat on Shaq’s left. Brown told a slew of stories, including one when Shaq asked permission to eat peanuts from a hotel minibar, not even considering the liquor. Brown lauded how O’Neal was raised and his charitable work, much of which Shaq does not reveal publicly.
O’Neal was so moved by Hurricane Katrina that he arranged for tractor-trailers to bring supplies to storm-ravaged New Orleans and personally oversaw distribution efforts. And after that, Shaq considered signing with the New Orleans Hornets, thinking his mere presence in the city would help recovery efforts even more, but the deal simply fell through.
“He’s an unbelievable person,” Brown said. “He’ll stay that way.”
O’Neal’s immediate future is uncertain. He’ll likely work in television, but his health comes first. Injuries derailed him this season, and if his injured Achilles’ doesn’t improve soon, surgery may be unavoidable. He said he promised his family he would get his body right.
The ways he changed the game were countless, beginning with his unique combination of size, strength and athleticism. He was the first big man to become a marketing giant. He spent huge money — $650,000 one year in Miami — to play Shaq-a-Claus for underprivileged kids at Christmas.
Everything wasn’t always perfect. He clashed with teammates like Kobe Bryant, clashed with coaches like Stan Van Gundy. Nonetheless, those in the league still hold him in high esteem.
“A living legend,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said.
O’Neal said he leaves with some regrets, foremost among them not being able to reach 30,000 points. And while everyone knew what he would say Friday, he was anxious, something his mother gently chided him for afterward.
“I was nervous, Momma,” O’Neal said. “I’m sorry.”
Everyone laughed, as they did several times throughout the ceremony. He joked that the New York Knicks were calling, wanting him to interview for their general manager job. He cited his work in “award-winning movies, such as Kazaam.”
He turned serious at times, thanking coaches like Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers, and proudly saying that his doctorate will be completed by January at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla.
He’ll then be called Dr. O’Neal.
Good thing, because all his famous nicknames — Shaq-Fu, The Big Aristotle, Diesel and especially Superman — are now retired along with him, he said.
Henceforth, he’ll call himself The Big AARP, which that organization couldn’t have been happier to hear.
“If you’re like most of our members — half are still working, many more give back to their communities — you’re not done yet, either,” AARP CEO A. Barry Rand said in a statement. “There’s plenty left to do, enjoy, and figure out after ’retirement,’ so let us know if you want help figuring out what’s next.”
Shaq’s got a long time to figure that out.