Shaq on every level (but college and the pros)

The Lakers dispatched the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the 2000 NBA Finals on today’s date, Mark Jackson hit a half-court shot just before the halftime buzzer, Doug Collins shouted a lot about stuff we already knew, the evening wrapped with NBC’s Peter Vecsey “surprising” co-analyst Isiah Thomas in breaking the message on-air that Thomas was set to be Indiana’s next head coach.

The night gave Shaquille O’Neal his first championship, his first professional title, self-slapping half the spit out of the mouth that had already credited Shaq with winning “on every level, except college and the pros.”

It’s an infamous remark, credited to the summer of 1996, stuck somewhere in the spaces where Shaq was left to explain his free agent slide from Orlando to Los Angeles, or detail his grab for Olympic gold in the Atlanta Games. All in a thirst for a lamp to call home.

The stuff was the perfect gobble for throats primed for a new point of presence. The world was ready to forward its first email.

The late 1990s were a desperate time for printer cartridges, trillions were sucked dry in an effort to supply the walls surrounding office cubicles and breakroom microwaves with the latest laugh about Jason Kidd turning a team around 360 degrees.

Dorm urinals got a stink out of Mariah Carey mourning the death of the King of Jordan incorrectly, or her instinct to preen in the face of images of impoverished children. Steven Wright jokes, some of which actually belonged to him, became ubiquitous.

Shaq, title-free until 2K, would spend the last half of the 1990s as a punchline simply because he couldn’t quite catch himself. So the quotation read.

“I’ve won on every level, except college and the pros.”

Something like that. I can’t find the quote anywhere.From Shaq’s autobiography, most recently reissued in 2014, Shaq Talks Back:

One of my other quotes was, “I’ve won on every level except college and the pros.”

That got me a lot of criticism. People made fun of me for not winning a championship. I know people won’t get this, but I was trying to tell them I’m a winner. Olympics, high school, youth programs, summer league. I win. I know what it takes to win. I’ve won before.

Anyway, now my new quote goes “I’ve won on every level except college.” I can say that now, right?

He went on:

Here’s my top five white players in the league: Jason “White Chocolate” Williams. John Stockton. Tom Gugliotta and, let’s see, I’ll go with Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzky (sic) and Minnesota’s Wally Szczerbiak.

The “top five” quote is inessential, I just enjoyed typing it out, but the first bit lends a whole lotta credibility to the big “I’ve won on every level” whiff.

Shaq was a big deal in 1996 and then he signed with the Lakers. He signed with them while he was performing in the primetime Olympics (on NBC), he signed with them while he was promoting the film ‘Kazaam,’ he dotted the Los Angeles line as he readied the release of his second rappin’ album. The guy was everywhere, and then a Laker.

O’Neal was only 24 yet his NBA resume was divergent, his Orlando Magic were far from bashful and yet each of the franchise’s increasingly promising seasons ended with a postseason sweep: Pacers, Rockets, Bulls. Shaq was a career 58 percent free throw shooter to that point, a mark that left him ineligible for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

By the time Shaq reported to Laker camp in autumn he’d been awarded placement on the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All Time list — ahead of a former Finals MVP, a former NBA MVP, routine All-Stars with three times as many NBA points as Shaq, and presumably a shitload of angry old Celtics.

Instead of crediting O’Neal for this, for the league’s Great Assumption, the fella was left to dangle.

What Shaquille O’Neal did say was this

“People get tired of hearing ‘money, money, money, money, money, money’ — I just want to go have fun, be young, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.”

… which is hilarious.

The first part of the line was sincere: O’Neal was on his 92nd cash-only question of the press conference, Orlando reporters were desperate to attach some level of Mickey Mouse martyrdom to Shaq’s free agent decision, they wanted to know if he woulda remained in Florida had the contract offers been the same.

The middle bit was genuine, too.

The 24-year old was about to enter into one of the press conference’s many triumphs of modern Laker ability, how Shaq couldn’t wait to sidle up to Elden Campbell, when O’Neal caught the similarity to the Pepsi slogan of the hour. He quickly added a Reebok plug as that sponsorship’s dying wish.

The “drink Pepsi” slurp was picked up and repeated without aid of context in heaps of magazine layouts to follow. Print elements noted Shaq’s growing smile (his biggest of the press conference) as the promotions piled on but few if any gave O’Neal credit for making himself part of the joke, credit for having fun (and drinking Pepsi, and wearing Reebok) with all of this.

That was bad enough, shit got worse right after.

Notable first-up Argus Hamilton got this one in his nationally-syndicated column ten days after Shaq’s press conference in Atlanta:

Shaquille O'Neal signed a $120 million deal with Los Angeles and said he's won at every level except college and the NBA. Just what the Lakers needed - someone with proven high school championship experience.

None of the other accounts of the day, sterner and sterner by the hour, mentioned anything near a remark along those lines. Remaining searches only reveal it re-confirmed on blog slideshows, through occasional sportswriter drips and an endless array of notable quotable lists. No primary sourcing.

Shaq didn’t say it during the press conference that was available at the time …

… and I ain’t finding any instance of a scribe writing that scratch down as O’Neal ambled down from the Atlanta podium and back into Lenny Wilkens’ Team USA practice.

There could be a magazine I missed, something huge and obvious, maybe a Leno appearance, I’ll cop to never listening to ‘You Can’t Stop the Reign’ all the way through — it’s Shaq, he coulda slipped.

That’s a big quote, though, from a big deal, but I can’t force it to use its firsthand.


(More to come.)