The Shaquille O'Neal I will choose to remember, now that he has retired after a 19-year career in the National Basketball Association, is not the one who bounced around at the end chasing one more ring when all signs suggested he should call it a day.
The one I prefer is the one who in the 2001 Finals battled for five games against the 76ers' Dikembe Mutombo, talking trash at every turn. That was vintage Shaq. Dominant. Competitive. Funny. Entertaining. Unstoppable.
O'Neal will go down as one of the greatest centers in the history of the game. He was just so massive, with those enormous hands and size-22 feet and a personality to match. His career numbers are ridiculous: 1,207 games; 28,596 points; 13,099 rebounds; 13 seasons averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds; and a .582 career field-goal percentage, second only to Artis Gilmore in the history of the game.
But that series against the 76ers 10 years ago this month encapsulated all that was entertaining about Shaq. He was in his prime, playing for Phil Jackson and alongside Kobe Bryant, and there was no question then whose team the Lakers were. They were Shaq's team.
The Lakers were the defending champs who rolled into the Finals by sweeping Portland, then Sacramento, then San Antonio. The Sixers were the scrappy upstarts who won dogfights with Indianapolis, Toronto, and Milwaukee. Even with Allen Iverson and Mutombo, the Sixers were not supposed to be much of a match for the Lakers. The Sixers won Game 1 in Los Angeles behind a 48-point effort from Iverson that was even better than O'Neal's 44 points and 20 rebounds, and the series was on.
When the series moved to Philadelphia even at one game apiece, things heated up. In Game 3, O'Neal fouled out, with four of the fouls offensive, all drawn by Mutombo. Although the Lakers won, 96-91, O'Neal was furious afterward and called Mutombo out, saying: "I didn't think the best defensive player in the game would be flopping like he did."
For two days, while U2 played concerts at what was then the First Union Center, O'Neal and Mutombo jawed at each other. This was pre-Twitter. It was just Mutombo at the podium calling out O'Neal, and then O'Neal taking the podium to respond.
"How am I going to flop if I have so many stitches in my mouth?" Mutombo said, the stitches the result of an O'Neal elbow to the face. "That sounds so stupid by him coming and saying what he was saying, and I hope he didn't mean that. If he did, let's take that up on the court. I really don't give a damn. I don't give a damn about what the guy's saying about me."
Mutombo felt that he had been playing O'Neal straight up and more aggressively than Tim Duncan or David Robinson had in the Western Conference finals. And Mutombo also had endured O'Neal's tendency to dip his shoulder and drive through his defender, so he really didn't want to hear anything O'Neal had to say.
"I don't come into the news conference and complain about all the stitches and the blood and the stuff I've been swallowing every game," Mutombo said. "I don't complain about it. I just go play the game. What's the point of going up there and complaining about fouling out of the game?
"I think a lot of it has to do with the way he played the first three series. I think the first three series he played was like a walk in the cake."
Twenty minutes later, O'Neal responded. He was firm but fun.
"I don't have to repeat myself," he said. "I said what I said, and I meant what I said. So, hey, good. Challenge me. Treat me like a game of checkers and play me. But that's all I'm asking, just play me. Just play.
"But like I said, you know, I'm playing hard. I'm allowed to pivot. I'm allowed to play strong. I'm allowed to be powerful. That's what I've been doing my whole career, and I'm not going to change that now. So, you know, just play me. Treat me like Sega and play me."
Sega. That was hot then, like Xbox is now. But that was classic Shaq. He never took himself too seriously, but he wanted to win.
O'Neal got the best of Mutombo that series. In Game 4, he had 34 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 assists. He did not get to lead a Lakers fastbreak like he had in Game 3 and did not get to showcase what he liked to call his "Allen Iverson crossover," but he was just about automatic around the basket, where not even Mutombo could counter his strength.
The Lakers won the series in five, with O'Neal averaging a ridiculous 33 points, 15.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 3.4 blocks. Although the Sixers lost, 4-1, Larry Brown called the series "special" because of the banter between O'Neal and Mutombo. It was lively and fun and real.
And O'Neal was never better, even though he said he could show more skills if only for the constant double and triple teams he saw night after night.
"I can do a whole lot more," O'Neal said. "I promise you I can. It will be a shame I'll have to end my career and you people won't get to see my whole game."
The one O'Neal showed in his prime was pretty damn good.