Shaq’s HEAT Jersey Retirement, Bigger For The Franchise Than You Think

Commentary

Miami Heat v Golden State Warriors

I was asked to write a fluff piece about Shaquille O’Neal’s impact in Miami. How he elevated a franchise from a kind of successful expansion team to a premiere NBA franchise. But it’s difficult to talk about Shaq’s stint with the HEAT without bringing everything into perspective. Between the city in which he played, the state of the team and what was to come, it wasn’t all great and it ended pretty poorly (sorry Chris Quinn).

But like everything he did, Shaq was big in Miami—both in popularity and in body fat percentage. He came to town with a parade before any actual winning was done along with his massive water gun he sprayed fans with. He was known for coming into camp overweight, and by the end of his tenure, he was fed up with then-coach Pat Riley.

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There is a duality to his time in Miami that needs to be contextualized. Despite the baggage he brought, Shaq remains beloved. He helped bring the HEAT their first NBA championship in 2006 and brought a new following of fans to Miami. The balcony section in the AmericanAirlines Arena was built during Shaq’s arrival. He was a star that was bigger than the organization, and they fed off it.

Behind his and Dwyane Wade’s play, together they brought a championship to an expansion team that hadn’t even existed 20 years. They became recognized. They became something to be reckoned with. They had the aged-super star and the up-and-comer—both arguably top 25 players ever.

shaq-finals-2006That first championship was a prelude to greatness. It gave Miami a cache that they could carry into free-agency meetings with LeBron James and Chris Bosh. It was the ultimate resume builder, along with the imposing figure of the team president, Pat Riley. The four years of the Big 3 era probably don’t come to fruition without the reputation the franchise got by winning with Shaq.

While Shaq wasn’t the singular reason for the winning, and many would certainly argue that stance, he was absolutely a critical part of it. He wasn’t just a guy helping out like role players James Posey or Jason Williams. Shaq was a focal part of an offense that shredded opponents to the tune of a 108.7 offensive rating, which ranked seventh in the NBA. That number would rank fifth in today’s league.

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The case against him, however, is how poorly he left, taking out poor Quinn and what seemed at the time like a bridge burning with the callous Pat Riley. He was often out of shape, and the losing year at the end wore his patience thin. Shaq wasn’t perfect and he had his fair share of public hiccups, but he captured a city that’s not so easily captured.

By helping to bring a championship to Miami, a new generation of fans was ushered in. Kids whose local team gave them what the Miami Dolphins couldn’t, and didn’t betray them like the Miami Marlins. His arrival in Miami came at the perfect time, setting a foundation of fandom for the next generation.

Many in Miami are born of immigrant parents—from places where basketball isn’t a part of their sports culture. Soccer and baseball are passed down from our parents, not basketball. Loving basketball is something that generation learned on their own. It is theirs, and millennials in Miami have developed that relationship with the HEAT. Shaq helped build this.

To argue against Shaq’s jersey retirement tonight is to against the culture of banners this franchise strives for—a culture Shaq helped shape while bombastically and polarizing. Riley does things big, similar to how Shaq always did.

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