Commentary

Shaq should keep playing, smiling

Retired players, including Clemens, should be free to play the game they love

Updated: September 8, 2012, 12:15 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

Do it, Shaq.

Play in Mexico, grab a little money, have a whole lot of laughs.

And forget the critics.

[+] EnlargeShaquille Oneal
Kevin Winter/Getty ImagesShaq's grin looks even better on a basketball court.

Of all the things that perplex me about some sports fans, the ridiculing of athletes who are trying to have some fun bothers me most. LeBron James gets criticized for wanting to play with his best friend. Kevin Durant gets criticized for being too friendly with LeBron. Dwight Howard smiles too much. It's as if athletes have to spend their lives with one of those angry birds stapled to their faces just to prove they really want to win.

But I like the fact D12 smiles and I'm cool with Shaq playing a little ball south of the border. He can be the Big Taco, Shaq Grande, Mucho Shaqo, whatever. He's been approached because he's still a big star, and stars like that -- even retired ones -- can't help but shine. Same for Roger Clemens, who has been goofing off on the mound with a small team in Texas called the Sugarland Skeeters.

It would be one thing if their goal was to mount a comeback to the bigs (and maybe Clemens does, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt) -- like the way Terrell Owens suited up for the Allen Wranglers of the Indoor Football League seeking a doorway back into the NFL. But what Shaq was approached to do is the equivalent of an aging singer doing a run of shows in Vegas. If Cher and Prince can do it for the money and the fans and the fun and their egos, why can't he?

There's no harm in athletes in our big three sports doing the same thing tennis greats such as John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg have been doing for years: travel the world, play exhibition matches, share laughs with the crowd, collect a check and enjoy life. If you thought playing big-time sports was great, that version of retirement must sound amazing.

If Shaq and Clemens were broke and desperate for cash, which reportedly is the case for Allen Iverson, then I could see fans feeling strange about the news. But at the end of the day, the E in ESPN first stood for entertainment. Players, especially retired ones, should be able to laugh and smile, living life where they are not constantly lamenting about what they used to be. Clemens has won seven Cy Young Awards, Shaq has four rings -- legacies like those are not destroyed simply by having some harmless fun.

True, sports is a serious business, but if we just pull back for a moment and compare it to "serious" things such as world hunger or disease, then we begin to see that it just ain't that freakin' serious. There's big money in sports. There's big money in movies, and concerts and Broadway. There's big money in entertainment, and the guys who understand that are typically the ones who can do something like play basketball in Mexico and have a lot of fun doing it.

Do we want our favorite athlete to do well? Absolutely. Do we like the intensity of our favorite player? Yep. But once a guy is done, he shouldn't have to avoid being seen playing his sport of choice at a lower level just so fans can keep a certain image of him in their heads. Clemens is 50 years old, Shaq is 40 … I think they're both still young enough to keep making new memories, if for no other reason than to have a little fun.

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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