WINDERMERE, Fla. (AP) — Shaquille O’Neal walked up the stairs to the makeshift stage in his home gymnasium, pulled out a few index cards with some notes and said the words he never thought were coming.
O’Neal, 39, made his retirement official Friday, reiterating what he revealed in a video posted to Twitter two days earlier that his NBA playing days are over.
Saying those words made his pro career full-circle, since it all ended at his home in a suburb of Orlando, the city where his pro days began when the Magic made him the No. 1 pick in 1992.
“Never thought this day would come,” O’Neal said. “Father Time has finally caught up with Shaquille O’Neal.”
He insisted he will not return, either, nor will he coach anyone but his three sons.
His career ends with 28,596 points, 13,099 rebounds, 15 All-Star selections, four championships and three NBA finals MVP awards.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” O’Neal said.
For a finale, it was in a fitting place.
O’Neal made his retirement official in a suburb of Orlando, the city where his NBA career began when the Magic drafted him No. 1 overall in 1992. He bought the home in 1993, and it’s remained his base ever since — even after he left Orlando for Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston throughout the remainder of his NBA career.
Many hallways in the 29,000-square-foot complex are lined with jerseys, from Garnett to Gretzky, football players, NBA friends, NBA rivals, even baseball players. The doorways are enormous, as one would expect when the primary occupant of the home is over 7 feet tall.
Guests were ushered in across a red carpet laid out over his meticulous garage, which held luxury cars and motorcycles. Family and close friends gathered in the massive kitchen while the gymnasium filled for a celebration that was tinged for many with sadness nonetheless.
The “Last Center Left,” as Shaq once famously dubbed himself, has left the NBA.
“This is a bittersweet day on behalf of the family,” said O’Neal’s mother, Lucille Harrison. “It’s been 19 years, but the 19 years have gone by so quick.”
Many of the people closest to O’Neal were in attendance, including his college coach, LSU’s Dale Brown. He told a slew of Shaq stories, including the time when the then-high-schooler asked permission to eat the peanuts in a hotel minibar — while other prep players he was with at the time were swiping liquor.
Brown lauded the work O’Neal’s parents turned in, even chiding the college scandals of today by pointing out that when he went through the LSU recruiting process, there was no shady deals, no under-the-table anything.
“This just didn’t happen,” Brown said. “The other thing that’s very obvious to me is that this should be a beacon, a beacon light for all young people watching this.”
O’Neal thanked his parents, thanked his children for putting up “with Daddy’s schedule,” even thanked NBA Commissioner David Stern for what he’s done leading the league.
His immediate future is uncertain. He’ll likely work in television soon, but his health comes first. Injuries derailed him mightily this season with the Celtics, and if his injured Achilles’ doesn’t improve soon, surgery may be an option.
“I’ve got to get that right,” O’Neal said, “before I go into the next chapter.”
He changed the game with his combination of size, strength and athleticism, bringing down baskets with his powerful dunks. He thought nothing of spending huge sums of money — $650,000 one year in Miami — to play Shaq-a-Claus for underprivileged kids at Christmas.
And his quotes are the stuff of legend, ranging from his playful insistence to be called “The Big Aristotle” to saying at his Miami signing party that he was like “toilet paper and toothpaste … I’m proven to be good.”
There was another side of O’Neal as well, of course.
He clashed at times with Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson when they were together with the Los Angeles Lakers. When he left the Heat, the relationship between him and the team had eroded badly, almost forcing Miami’s hand into trading him to Phoenix.
But for the most part, those who played with him have great appreciation for him.
“A living legend,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said.
O’Neal said he leaves with some regrets, foremost among them not being able to reach 30,000 points, and blaming that on his inability to make free throws. When it comes to the NBA, that’s the only thing he won’t miss any more — those 15-footers that he struggled with his entire career.
Even at home, even with everyone in the room knowing what he was going to say, O’Neal confessed that he was anxious. His mother pointed that out as well.
“I was nervous, Momma,” O’Neal said. “I’m sorry.”
Everyone laughed, as they did several times throughout the ceremony. He joked that the New York Knicks were calling for an interview. He cited his work in “award-winning movies, such as Kazaam.”
He turned serious at times, too, thanking coaches like Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers, and proudly saying that his doctorate will be completed by January.
He’ll then be called Dr. O’Neal. Good thing, because all his famous nicknames — Shaq-Fu, The Big Aristotle, Diesel and especially Superman — are now retired along with him, he said.
Henceforth, he’ll call himself The Big AARP.
He was asked toward the end of the ceremony what advice he would give to players today.
“Be leaders,” O’Neal said, “and not followers.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)