MOST ELITE ATHLETES hang on too long.
They keep fighting Father Time even though they are fully aware it is a battle they will ultimately lose.
But when they stay around, when they keep trying although everyone knows their best days have already been lapped, they become a shell of what they were, and we begin to forget how truly great they were.
I wonder if that's what happened to Shaquille O'Neal.
Yesterday, the "Big Ending" finally came as O'Neal announced his overdue retirement after 19 seasons in the NBA.
"We did it," the 39-year-old O'Neal said in a video on the new social media video messaging tool Tout. "Nineteen years baby."
I wish he would have done it 4 or 5 years ago.
I do not enjoy watching greatness fade, so Shaq's fall from the most dominating player of his era to broken-down journeyman was painful to see.
Shaq's last two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics had him playing in just 90 out of a possible 164 games.
He wasn't very good when he did manage to get on the court.
The Big Diesel's last truly productive season was 2008-09, when he averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in 75 games for the Phoenix Suns.
His last great season was 2005-06, when he averaged 20.0 points and 9.2 rebounds with the Miami Heat. He played just 50 games but helped Miami to the NBA title.
It's hard to say how much the last few seasons have tarnished Shaq's legacy of power.
But I do know that from 1992 to 2006, O'Neal was the most dominant basketball player I ever saw.
I don't say "best" because a guy named Jordan was still playing when Shaq started in 1992 and a kid named Kobe grew out of his shadow in Los Angeles.
But Shaq was without question the most dominant. For more than a decade, he tore through the NBA like a force of nature.
He was 7-1 and 350 pounds, with the agility and quickness of a small forward.
In an era when centers still played with their backs to the rim, O'Neal could not be stopped within 5 feet of the basket. I know that might not sound that impressive in a day when 6-11 and 7-foot guys drift outside to shoot three-pointers, but think of what it truly means to be able to do whatever you want inside the lane.
Shaq set an NBA record by leading the league in field goal percentage during 10 seasons.
O'Neal ranks second to Artis Gilmore with a career field goal percentage of .582, but he also took more than twice as many shots as the "A-Train."
That was O'Neal at his peak. He was power incarnate and nobody, including a host of Hall of Fame big men who tried, could do much to stop him.
His 13 seasons averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds are the most in NBA history.
There is only one other player I can reference who played with the power of O'Neal.
Still, my only memories of Wilt Chamberlain are of him at the end, when he was winding down with the Los Angeles Lakers. I never saw him play at his best.
People who saw Chamberlain in his prime have told me over and over that he was a more dominant player than O'Neal.
All I could ever say in response was that, "Wilt must have been one hell of a center then."
I can accept statements from those who tell me that Wilt, who finished with 31,419 points and 23,924 rebounds, still would have gotten his against Shaq.
But I draw the line when those same people claim that Shaq, who finished with 28,596 points and 13,099, wouldn't have got his against Wilt.
There was no one like Chamberlain during his era.
Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, New York Knicks center Walt Bellamy and San Francisco Warrior big man Nate Thurmond were Chamberlain's primary rivals. All were at least 2 inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than Chamberlain.
Shaq was just as big and at least 25 pounds heavier than Chamberlain with the same agility and power.
It's hard to compare eras, but Shaq would have done just fine in that era just as Chamberlain would have done just fine in the 1990s and early 2000s.
For those who question the quality of O'Neal's competition, I'll say that he played against three centers - Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson - who were voted among the NBA's 50 Greatest Players in 1996.
O'Neal's decline over the last few seasons was easy to see.
His last two seasons were spent trying to ride the coattails first of LeBron James in Cleveland and then the "Big Three" in Boston for a fifth NBA championship ring.
But while that might stain O'Neal's legacy a little, it doesn't diminish it. During his prime, everyone he went up against him called him "Shaq-Daddy."
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