Shaq: The Next Walton?

n “I’m sure that what he wants is to be able to end his career with dignity. And my hope is that it happens.”

When President Barack Obama spoke those words a couple of weeks ago, he was referring to New York Congressman Charles Rangel, whose decades of public service and political leadership are in danger of being sullied by allegations of ethical improprieties. The POTUS might as well have been talking about Shaquille O’Neal, who was also in dire need of a dignified way to end his own illustrious (but stumbling) career.

[+] EnlargeShaq
Steve Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesShaquille O’Neal could finish with a flourish in Boston.

Looks like he found it by signing last week with the Boston Celtics.

Doing so, for close to the league’s veteran minimum salary, gives O’Neal a chance to make us forget about his season and a half of disruption in Phoenix and his year of irrelevance in Cleveland.

It gives him a chance to make us forget that high-mileage giants are usually not a pretty sight, especially in a high-speed sport. Instead of being ominous and dominant, they are ponderous and often detrimental.

Two years ago with the Suns, Shaq was a gigantic peg with no hole in which to fit. His on-court presence hogged spaces normally occupied by Amare Stoudemire, and he wasn’t able to keep up with Phoenix’s “seven seconds or less” offense.

Last season with the Cavs, Shaq was a disaster. (Shaq-aster?) He wasn’t just 37 years old, he was old.

He missed 29 games to injury in the middle of the season, and when he returned, he was out of sync with his teammates and more looming cloud than leader. He averaged career lows in points (12.0), rebounds (6.7), blocks (1.2) and highlights. The drama, effort and adjustments required to integrate him into the lineup probably cost coach Mike Brown his job.

GM Danny Ferry’s, too.

Heck, it might even have cost Cleveland LeBron James (although I’m of the mind that he, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade had decided to “take their talents to South Beach” years ago).

Which cost owner Dan Gilbert his sanity.

It would have been a shame if that had been the last we saw of Shaq, the last back-to-the-basket behemoth. (He was all but already halfway to being the statue that surely will be erected in his honor one day … somewhere.)

But now he’s a Celtic.

That itself has already begun to freshen the faded, static image. Donning Celtics green can almost do that for a player (for previous success, see: Nate Robinson; for almost, see: Stephon Marbury).

[+] EnlargeShaq
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesShaquille O’Neal is no longer a dominant player, but he can fill a big space in the lane.

The green halo is even more effective when the team is a contender. Despite summer’s Southern Reconstruction in Miami, Boston remains pretty much the same team that, this past spring, was half a quarter away from another championship.

It’s the perfect place for Shaq-demption, an ideal opportunity for him to make an exit as grand as every entrance he has made in nearly two gregarious decades in the NBA.

It works because the Celts have as strong a leadership core as any team in sports. It starts with coach Doc Rivers and the respect that he has for his players and that he receives from them. It’s guarded and nurtured, however, by the teams’ stars: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and now Rajon Rondo.

They can absorb any new teammate, no matter how tainted his rep. And not only will the teammate not turn into a virus but he often becomes rehabilitated, shape-shifting (at least somewhat) to the “team” while still retaining some semblance of himself. (Will there ever be a better playoff postgame interview line than Glen “Big Baby” Davis describing himself and Robinson as “Shrek and Donkey”?)

Call them the AARP’s team, if you like (with Shaq and another veteran big named O’Neal, Jermaine, the 2010-11 Celts might have one of the oldest starting lineups ever). But Shaq will be playing primarily with his peers, not with kids who had his poster on their dorm walls.

Translation: He’ll be playing with guys he respects. No need to take a young star under his wing, as he did with young D-Wade and tried to do with LeBron. At long last, he’ll be just one of the (old) boys, and that should suit him fine.

That said, Shaq will still be these Celts’ biggest test. He’s no marginally talented player signed as a fill-in on the fringes, biding his time in a full-length warm-up. With starting center Kendrick Perkins recovering from a knee injury, likely until midseason, Shaq probably will be in the starting lineup on opening night. He won’t play 30-plus minutes every night, but as long as he’s able, he’ll come close.

He’s still slow and could muck up the Celts’ best-in-the-game “help” defense. And he hasn’t covered a pick-and-roll since, well, LeBron had his poster tacked to his wall. But on the other end of the court, Shaq can still make NBA defenders look like biddy-ballers and drop 20 on opponents on any night.

It would be easy to say that Shaq’ll blow it, that his ego has been too big for too long for him to subjugate himself to the Celtics’ whole at the twilight of his career.

But humility has a way of conquering even the biggest among us (see: Tiger). Shaq has never said it aloud, and his life’s-a-party vibe seems to say he’s as full-of-himself as always.

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Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesBill Walton finished his playing career with the Celtics, too.

But my sense is that, like Rangel, he would rather not go out like that. He must know this is not just an opportunity but the opportunity, the final one.

It’s reminiscent of the one latched onto once by another aging center in need of a boost. In 1985, Bill Walton teamed with another star-laden Celtics team — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were the Hall of Fame frontcourt — near the end of a career also filled with highs (a championship) and lows (horrendously bad feet).

Walton played out his final NBA minutes waving a towel and smiling like a kid on Christmas. He helped the Celtics win the 1985-86 title and returned to the Finals the next year as Boston lost to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Between 1974 and 1987, Walton played just two seasons with Boston, but today he considers himself a Celtic.

I’m already giddy over the opening night arrival of the Heat in Boston, though that contest pales next to the prospect of Shaq playing a role in a Celtics-Heat playoff series against his former wingman, D-Wade (or was it the other way around?)

Then, should the Celts somehow reach the Finals against the Kobe-led Lakers … OK, I’ll stop.

Win or lose, it should be one Shaq of a way to go.


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