Shaq was one of the first athletes to embrace social media to cultivate his image with fans and reporters
After a 19-year career that included playing for six different teams and winning four NBA championships, Shaquille O'Neal announced his retirement on Wednesday afternoon. Shaq, who struggled to overcome an Achilles injury in a brief stint with the Boston Celtics this season, leaves the game with 28,596 career points (fifth all-time), 13,099 rebounds (12th all-time) and one epically bad movie.
Shaq's greatness can now be debated ad nauseum (for my money, he's even with Hakeem Olajuwon and behind Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the list of greatest centers ever). More interesting is his longtime interactive relationship with fans and media alike, epitomized by his retirement announcement, which came via Tout, a self-described "real-time social video update service."
In many ways, O'Neal was the first superstar athlete to cultivate his off-the-field image through a steady dialogue with fans, journalists, and basically anyone who would listen. He was a master salesman, coming up with countless nicknames for himself (The Diesel, The Big Aristotle, and The Big Shamrock, to new a few) and others (he memorably dubbed Dwyane Wade "Flash"). Whether it was naming his Miami estate "Shaqapulco" or stirring up controversy with anti-Kobe Bryant raps in New York City clubs, Shaq made himself the story without losing any fans.
Shaq has taken full advantage of the rise in social media to further connect with his fans. His Twitter account has more than 3.8 million followers and comes with the motto: "VERY QUOTATIOUS, I PERFORM RANDOM ACTS OF SHAQNESS." Speaking after his retirement announcement on Wednesday, he said with a grin: "I am the emperor of the social media network." O'Neal social outreach helped him maintain a good public image, even after allegations of infidelity and a messy divorce from his wife in 2010.
He also has a friendly back-and-forth with members of the press, whom he has tweaked and needled for the better part of 20 years. Shaq's modus operandi with the media is twofold: He pretends he doesn't hear questions he doesn't want to answer, and he mumbles certain answers so quietly it's virtually impossible to get a usable quote. On the other hand, he's always jocular with journalists and has appeared alongside them in several memorable commercials.
My personal brush with Shaq came in 2007, when he was in his fourth season with the Miami Heat and I was an intern at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. After the Heat's home opener, a crowd of reporters and cameramen gathered around O'Neal's locker area, and since I was tasked with recording his quotes, I wedged myself into the empty locker space next to his. For nearly 10 minutes, I simultaneously stuck my tape recorder in his general direction and leaned back against the reporters pushing in behind me to make sure I wasn't catapulted onto Shaq's lap.
O'Neal did the whole interview with a smile and joked with several national sportswriters afterwards, all of whom hung on his every word. It was par for the course for an NBA great who was as engaging off the court as he was dominant on it.