By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
“Am I allowed to put my arm around you when you’re on the bench?”
“Of course. I’m a statue.”
“Can I put my son in your lap?”
“Of course. I’m a statue.”
“Come down and sit on the bench with me and take a picture. No conversations, no nothing.”
The Big Deal
Shaq’s statue stunt kicked off an unprecedented year of Boston basketball. In a literal sense, O’Neal was the biggest free agent acquisition to wear the Kelly green (though 7-foot-2, 330 pound Thomas Hamilton – who saw action in 11 games for M.L. Carr back in the 90’s – might have an argument).
In terms of celebrity, The Big Shamrock was instantly the most recognizable athlete to ever play in the city.
Simultaneously the irresistible force and the immovable object, the 15-time All-Star and four-time NBA champion had a reputation as one of the most dominant players in league history.
And while, at 38, Shaq was the hoops equivalent of the milk bottle in the fridge that you checked before pouring its contents over your cereal, his presence bolstered a franchise for which a slightly-past-expiration-date Dominique Wilkins had been the biggest name to put pen to paper 16 summers prior.
Danny Ainge may have traded for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen over a five-week span in the summer of 2007, but no player of this wattage had ever chosen to come to Boston.
The Big Influencer
A tireless self-promoter early in his career, late-stage Shaq joined Twitter in the fall of 2008, becoming one of the first celebrities to utilize social media to enhance his public image. The move matched a career resurgence in Phoenix, where the big man collected 18 points and eight rebounds a night en route to his final All-Star selection.
When he wasn’t dancing with the winners of America’s Best Dance Crew at the league’s midseason showcase, Shaq was tweeting. Long before seemingly every single NBA player had an account and every rumor, transaction, and rumored transaction was thoroughly dissected by media on the platform, O’Neal would often tweet his whereabouts, looking to interact with fans.
By the summer of 2009, O’Neal was one of the very first accounts to eclipse one million followers.
“I wasn’t fully prepared for the amount of reach he still had with fans everywhere, despite being at the end of his career,” remembers Brian Robb of Boston Sports Journal.
He also learned via tweet of his trade to Cleveland, where he fell short of winning “a ring for the King,” broke down in the spring and bowed out in a second round upset at the hands of the Celtics.
Two years after O’Neal used Boston’s 2008 Finals win over the Lakers to taunt ex-teammate Kobe Bryant in a freestyle rap, his basketball little brother passed him in championship rings – one of them coming at the expense of the Celtics. The team saw an opening and scooped up the veteran on a two-year deal for the minimum.
The Big Debut
“We’re looking at Shaq as another piece of the puzzle,” said coach Doc Rivers, who’d watched his team get bullied on the glass in Game 7 the previous year.
“It made a lot of sense to provide some extra depth when Kendrick Perkins was out,” Robb reasons.
Dapper in a tuxedo jacket and bow tie at his introductory press conference, O’Neal was at once pragmatic and focused: “Do I have that same type of hunger? Yes. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t like wasting people’s time. I don’t like wasting my time.”
“It made logical sense for where the team was at,” says Celtics fan Brian Brickley. “The Big Three were 33, 34, and 35 years old. (It was) low cost, high risk, trying to extend that championship window.”
The big man wasted no time making himself at home in the Hub. On a Thursday afternoon in October, Shaq alerted followers he was headed to Harvard Square, and – as promised – plunked down on a bench for an hour. Hundreds of onlookers swarmed the hoops legend, posing for pictures as O’Neal calmly sat with hands clasped, occasionally moving to “The Thinker” pose, now and again cracking a smile.
It was entirely unique and completely in line for the most accessible superstar of the 21st century.
“The idea of the Shaq statue originated from watching TV one day,” Shaq told Chris Forsberg at the time. “I was watching the royal British guards. If you know anything about those guys, they have tremendous discipline. The other idea is, I always wanted to tell people I went to Harvard.”
Before the season was out, O’Neal would guest lecture at Harvard Law School, conduct the Boston Pops, and pop in to Cheers to sing the TV theme song with fellow bar patrons. “The Association” – the NBA’s version of “Hard Knocks” – passed on younger, sexier teams to profile Boston’s menagerie of grizzled vets.
“He was a good yin to Garnett’s yang,” Brickley adds. Indeed, the addition of O’Neal brought some public-facing levity to what was perceived to be an ultra-serious squad in KG’s image.
He also brought it on the court. Five minutes into the season opener against the newfangled Miami Heat, O’Neal thundered down the parquet floor on the heels of Rajon Rondo. Boston’s resident artist whisked his brush skyward, and Slaq slammed the resultant lob down through the rim.
Boston led by as many as 19 points in the third and beat the Heat, 88-80. Shaq tallied nine points and seven boards in the victory. The Celtics started the campaign 23-4, ripping off a 14-game winning streak headed into a Christmas Day matchup with Dwight Howard and the Magic.
The Big Finish
But that game would bring the first tweak to O’Neal’s Achilles – an injury that would lead to his retirement seven months later.
“The problem for the Celtics was having faith in his health as the season continued,” Robb laments. “That clearly made them feel a little bit better about pulling off the Perk trade, but Shaq’s Achilles issue never really got better – which left the C’s in a hole the rest of the way.”
“Shaq couldn’t stay healthy,” Brickley reflects. “The wheels fell off – which is the risk with an older team. Shaq started 36 games (and) the Celtics went 27-9. What could have been?”
For all the excitement and expectation of Shaq’s arrival, the Celtics wound up second round fodder during LeBron’s ascent to the first of eight consecutive Finals appearances. The hobbled giant logged just 12 minutes in the series.
O’Neal retired – appropriately – on Twitter. As he later told Kristine Leahy, “Shaq is not Shaq when I’m averaging seven, eight, nine points. That’s not Shaq. I could still entertain and do stuff to make people giggle, but that’s not Shaq.”
Ten years later, Shaq’s tenure in Boston is a fleeting memory for most hoops observers. He remains in the public eye as part of the Inside The NBA crew. Meanwhile, the game has changed significantly. O’Neal – and that Celtics team – seem downright prehistoric compared to today’s league.
But back in the fall of 2010, the addition of the legendary big man was hope that the Celtics would get more than just a day in the Harvard Square sun.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.