MIAMI -- It's the fun and games I think of first with Shaq. It's the running up and down a hotel corridor in downtown Chicago at 100 mph, playfully chasing little kids in town for a wedding; or picking up a 250-pound reporter and carrying him like a little baby down the hallway of the old Orlando Arena; or getting out of his car at a stoplight in Los Angeles to hop in the car of some unsuspecting goober.
More than the dunks, blocked shots and terrorizing opponents, it's the rapping at Prince's nightclub in Minneapolis one night, the creating of nonsensical but completely clever nicknames, the understanding that sports is show biz and what his place is in that universe. That's what set Shaquille O'Neal apart from virtually every other basketball player -- make that athlete -- of his time.
In the period between Michael Jordan's retirement from the Chicago Bulls in 1998 and the ascension of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to the top of the heap a few years ago, Shaq was the most important basketball player in the world. And given the long transition the NBA was in post-Jordan, the league ought to be damn glad it had him. A great many of the big markets, including Chicago, New York, Philly, Washington and Houston, had teams that were flops. The Spurs, no matter how wonderfully skilled and unselfishly they played, put people to sleep. Shaq and his foolishness were there, fortunately, to save the day.
You want legacy? He won championships, four of them, and he had a helluva lot of fun. Oh yes, he annoyed people, too, particularly former teammates and coaches left behind, from Penny Hardaway to Kobe Bryant. But tell me you didn't chuckle a little when Shaq called Stan Van Gundy "The Master of Panic," or Chris Bosh the "Ru Paul of big men." Ungracious at times? Yes, absolutely. Difficult as a teammate at times? Yes, unquestionably. But Shaq was and is an American original, Goliath who loved being Goliath, a big man always completely comfortable in his skin.
What other 7-foot man said his goal was to work undercover for the FBI, or actually drove around with some sort of law enforcement badge?
Tim Duncan might have been as good at what he did as Shaq was, but who would you rather hang out with if you had a free Friday night?
Not only that, but Shaq was so damn dominant as a basketball player that his silliness didn't detract from his greatness. Let Dwight Howard figure that out.
You want more legacy? If we're talking old-fashioned centers, guys who played down in the hole and did dirty work and didn't take jumpers or step out of the paint ever in their lives or double as power forwards (McHale, Elvin Hayes, Duncan) -- I'm talking about guys who were always the biggest men on the court for their teams -- my working list is George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaq. That's it, with apologies to Willis Reed, Big Bob Lanier, Wes Unseld, Dave Cowens, Nate Thurmond, Robert Parish, Artis Gilmore, Brad Daughterty, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing, among others.
And if we have to pare that list down even further, because what we do now is rank greatness and create lists, it's Mikan, Russell, Wilt, Jabbar and Shaq who move to the head of the class. My man Tony Kornheiser and I like to use the Mount Rushmore model in making all-time comparisons, in separating the merely great from the greatest of all-time. Four heads, one quartet, greatest ever. Like, if we're doing R&B male singers, the Mount Rushmore is Marvin Gaye/James Brown/Stevie Wonder/Michael Jackson.
If we're talking big men, I'm stuck with a quintet. What, I'm going to throw Mikan off just because we live in a world governed by "SportsCenter," in which categories are offered such that something is a "record since 1980," as though the previous 50 years should just be banished? Mikan/Russell/Wilt/Kareem/Shaq. I can't eliminate anybody from that list. Somebody with greater insight into pivot play will have to take on that task. Shaq won four titles, Kareem six, Wilt averaged 50 and hit 100 once, Russell is the god of professional basketball, and Mikan started it all with five. Each was dominating.
All I know is Shaq belongs in that group.
Just the fact that Shaq survived all the comparisons with the iconic pivotmen before him speaks to his greatness. Please, spare me the talk about what he did in his sunset seasons with the Cavaliers and Celtics. It doesn't count in a discussion of his place in basketball history any more than Jordan playing those two seasons with the Wizards counts in any discussion about his place. Shaq's body of work runs from the time he stepped into the league until that second season in Phoenix (2009) when he was better then than every center in the league is now except Dwight Howard.
With Shaq, the bonus was charisma. Basketball, unlike professional football, is a sport in which star appeal does matter, in which individual personality affects the product both on and off the court, in which the greatest characters define and sell the sport. There are no helmets or pads; these men are virtually playing in their underwear, and everything about them is on display as it is with prize fighters. And even if you want to dwell on Shaq's flaws (that he gained too much weight as he got older, that his defense fell off after he left the Lakers, that he never got better at shooting free throws), give him credit also for taking a greater beating than any player of his day and doing so without ever retaliating. (Well, other than that one time he took a swing at Brad Miller.)
Shaq won't disappear. He can't, and not because he's so massive, but because of his personality. Like Charles Barkley, Shaq isn't going to recede into nothingness. Some TV set is waiting for him, whether we're talking reality or basketball. (Reality seems more his venue.) Bad enough for those of us of a certain age that basketball seems to have lost the old-fashioned pivot man, what with Yao Ming's status so uncertain. There are only a handful of men now who continue the lineage.
And with all due respect to the Magic's Howard, a likeable fellow with a big game, the league has nobody like Shaq. Kobe gave us some of what we missed when Jordan left, and LeBron gives us some of Magic's flair. But there's no facsimile of Shaq, no big, young, prodigiously talented youngster who rattles rims and flattens 7-footers with his rump backing into the basket. Nineteen years is a long, long time to do anything that requires that much physicality, and Shaq's time as a player of consequence has been done for a minute or two.
But shame on you if you didn't appreciate his dominance, or realize that somebody that big simply shouldn't have that kind of coordination, athleticism or sense of play. I wasn't always certain as to what impressed me more, Shaq taking a lob pass from Kobe Bryant out of the sky and slamming it home in the fourth quarter of a Game 7 against the Blazers en route to his first championship, or Shaq break-dancing, 300 pounds on the floor spinning like a gymnast.
The great thing about Shaquille O'Neal was if you just paid attention long enough, you wouldn't have to pick one over the other. He gave basketball and the sporting culture a combination of skills and sensibilities nobody has ever packaged as successfully.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.