Shaquille O'Neal: The Big Journeyman

It was a little over a year ago that I was so excited about Shaquille O'Neal, one of the best players in NBA history, joining my favorite team and teaming up with LeBron James in an attempt to bring a title to Cleveland. Oh, how things went so wrong.

Now Shaq is signing with the Celtics, taking a 93% paycut in the process, hoping for one last shot at getting that elusive 5th ring.

When Shaq signed with the Celtics, there was immediately speculation on what his new nickname would be, because that's what we do with Shaq. Some suggestions included The Big Shamrock, The Big Leprechaun, The Big Dig and other variations on "The Big [noun]". Well, I've got one for you:

The Big Journeyman.

Actually, let's take out the "big" and just say it like it is: Shaquille O'Neal, who once famously and accurately proclaimed himself the "M.D.E." (most dominant ever), is now a journeyman. Boston will be his sixth NBA stop, and third in the last three seasons.

It's not unheard of for this to happen, even among players of Shaq's caliber. For example, only 15 players in NBA history have scored at least 25,000 points (Shaq being one of them). Among those 15, only three have played for three different teams in a three year span. Alex English did it early in his career, before blossoming. Dominique Wilkins did it in a two-year span, when he was traded from the Hawks to the Clippers, then signed with the Celtics as a free agent. And Moses Malone did it at the end of his storied career. Shaq is probably most similar to Malone, a former MVP and champion who kept hanging on well past his prime, but actually provided solid numbers in limited action right up until his final season (his PER didn't dip below league average until '94-95, when he was 39 years old and played just 11 games for the Spurs).

The Celtics have their own experience with this, though from the other side. Celtics legend Robert Parish, who like O'Neal was among the NBA's 50 greatest players, ended his career with a two-year stint with the then-Charlotte Hornets, followed by a year playing as the third string center behind Luc Longley and Bill Wennington with the champion Chicago Bulls. And based on advanced metrics, O'Neal is actually declining faster than Parish, who was still an above-league average player in his Age 40 season.

I mentioned the 25,000-point club above, and Parish falls just outside of it (23,334 pts, 19th all-time). Also just outside the club are Patrick Ewing (24,815 pts, 16th all-time) and Allen Iverson (24,368 pts, 17th all-time), both of whom also had Shaq-like ends to their careers (assuming Iverson's career is actually over, which it appears to be). Ewing finished his career in Orlando wearing #6 and backing up a collection of centers including Steven Hunter, Pat Garrity and Andrew DeClercq, while Iverson bounced from the Nuggets to the Pistons to the Grizzlies to the 76ers in the span of 13 months.

It's interesting to note that for a period spanning the late '90s and early '00s, Shaq and Iverson were the two biggest stars in the NBA, meeting in the 2001 NBA Finals and battling for scoring titles, and now they're both in the washed-up twilight of their respective careers. God that makes me feel old.

Now, I'm not saying Shaq will be remembered long-term as a journeyman, not in the way that fellow No. 1 overall pick Joe Smith will be. But simply put, that's what he is right now (it's also worth noting that journeyman isn't entirely a bad label, because it does indicate that year after year there's at least one team out there that wants you -- hell, Allen Iverson would kill to tack on to his journeyman rep at this point). And as a journeyman, Shaq has lost another luxury afforded superstars: the ability to wear his preferred jersey number.

We went through all this last year when Shaq got traded to Cleveland, but a little refresher: back in high school and college, Shaq wore 33, started his NBA career wearing 32 in Orlando, was forced to switch to 34 in LA, then went back to 32 for his stops in Miami and Phoenix, before switching to 33 for the first time as a pro in Cleveland (though it turned out he could have simply waited six weeks for Joe Smith to officially leave the Cavs and kept 32). But 32 and 33 are both retired in Boston, and 34 belongs to Paul Pierce. 23 (the reverse of 32) is retired too, as are 31 and 35. So, according to the Celtics roster, Shaq will wear number 36. That's not the number of legends. That's the number of Shawnelle Scott, Etan Thomas, Royal Ivey and Igor Rakocevic (four of the 13 players in NBA history who've worn 36). Only one Hall of Famer has ever worn 36, and that was Dave Cowens in his ill-fated 1982-83 comeback with the Bucks. At least Shaq will be able to claim that he's the best Celtic ever to wear number 36. Of course, he's also the first.


  1. The only player I recognised that used to wear number 36 was Rasheed Wallace. He changed his number from 30 to 36 after winning his first and only NBA title with the Pistons in 2005 and then changed it back to #30 in 2008.

  2. Sorry, Sheed won NBA title in 2004 and changed his Jersey the following season...


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