ORLANDO -- He walked onto his self-made podium donning a three-piece suit and pink tie -- swearing he looked gorgeous, as always. He took more than a few moments to thank all those he's loved for so long, paying homage to a mother and father he loved most. And by the time Shaquille O'Neal had finished saying goodbye to an illustrious career spanning 19 years, punctuating his résumé with some of the most memorable moments in NBA history, the ease in his demeanor clearly exuded that of one comfortable with saying goodbye, cognizant of his place in history, buoyed by two resounding words to culminate his illustrious career:
"My Dad would always tell me, 'Who's Bill Russell? Who's Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]? Who's Wilt [Chamberlain],'" O'Neal explained, during and after a festive press conference inside his mansion to announce his retirement on Friday afternoon. "He always believed I would be mentioned in the same sentence with those guys someday. And my mom would just tell me, 'Make them remember your name. Make sure they remember you.' Now I hear my name mentioned with all of those guys. So I think I've done my job."
Of course, there will always be naysayers. Those who will look at four championships and say there should have been six or seven. That the self-proclaimed Diesel, the Big Aristotle, the Big Chamberneezy or Superman should have and could have achieved more if he had just been focused enough, long enough to do what he was paid so handsomely to do. But those would be one-dimensional individuals oblivious to the importance of versatility, foolishly choosing to pay rapt attention to numbers and nothing else, clueless to the varying definitions of greatness -- and why Shaquille O'Neal has undoubtedly placed himself on the proverbial Mount Rushmore of NBA big men with Russell, Kareem and Wilt.
If numbers and championships alone were enough to chronicle Shaq's career, few would've cared to say goodbye or chronicle his departure. Twenty-eight thousand career points, 15 All-Star Selections and a member of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History?
Yet, commissioner David Stern made sure to send out an immediate press release to express gratitude to Shaq's contributions to the game "on and off the court." Contemporaries such as Grant Hill did so as well. So did former teammates such as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. And all did so in celebratory fashion.
They did it because they know what the rest of us should know: that Shaquille O'Neal, this 7-foot-1 Goliath of a man, whose weight varied from 315 to 365 pounds -- depending on the season you pick -- was as gentle and fun-loving a giant as you'll ever find. He was a man with a colossal ego, no doubt, but one who never allowed his ego to usurp his compassion or generosity.
"Most people know Shaq the basketball player," said former LSU Coach, Dale Brown, who sat beside O'Neal at his retirement ceremony. "They don't know the man. How big of a heart he has. Most people only know what they see and just stop right there. In rare cases, they shouldn't stop there. This guy is one of those cases."
Brown, along with Stern and others, said as much because he knows of countless occasions in which O'Neal extended a helping hand to grant a dying kid's last wish, to help the homeless and displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He's aware of his countless Shaq-a Claus efforts in Los Angeles and beyond. They know that when "NBA … Cares!!!" is marketed across this globe, there are few souls comparable to that of the man who delivered three straight NBA championships (2000-2002) to the Los Angeles Lakers.
What many folks don't know about Shaq is how he dissuaded folks seeking retribution against Kobe Bryant following Shaq's trade to the Miami Heat from L.A. How it was Shaq who diminished the fury felt by those who believed his departure from the Lakers would mean he'd abandon their communities -- and blamed Kobe for it -- because it was Shaq who reassured them by revisiting those communities year after year after year, imploring them for years to "leave Kobe alone. It's all good."
Most folks don't know that after Ron Artest jumped into the stands at the Palace in Auburn Hills in November 2004 it was Shaq who reached out and insisted he get the psychological help he needed. Who paired him with individuals committed to providing that help. Who essentially helped Artest resurrect his career in such a way that ultimately provided Artest with an additional $30 million in salary, along with the opportunity to become the recent recipient of the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award just this past April, due to his commitment to children suffering from mental health issues.
"I've had a beautiful life, man," O'Neal said yesterday, hours after his press conference, visibly exhaling and reflecting on a career he finally was able to admit has succumb to Father Time. "I've had my down times. Times when I've lost. My divorce. The fact that I'd come home for years, accustomed to hearing my children scream 'Daddy,' and then suddenly you hear nothing but silence because the house is empty and they're not here anymore. It hurts like hell. Still!
"But then you walk out in the real world and see people with bigger problems than you. Folks who don't have the life I have. Some without the kind of loved ones, the support, I have. That just motivates me to make them smile, and I can't do that if I'm not smiling, laughing and appreciating life. And then when I'm able to make them smile and laugh, that makes me feel good inside. It makes life better, worth living. That's what I've tried to do for myself, the people I love, the NBA … everybody!"
So much for why he's the beloved big man, destined for his own statue outside the Staples Center one day.
Goodbye, Big Fella! We'll miss you.
Stephen A. Smith is host of the "Stephen A. Smith Show" on 710 ESPN Radio and a columnist for ESPNLA.com.