Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Twilight Of Darkness And Dawn Of A New Day In The NBA

Just as one of the greatest ambassadors leaves the professional basketball scene in America, another decides the time is right to jump in.

After nineteen long and entertaining seasons, the bigger-than-life mammoth Shaquille O’Neal announced to the world that he would be hanging up his enormous, size 23 shoes and leaving the NBA. The seven foot, one inch, 325 pound center has been hampered by a variety of injuries in the past few seasons and apparently “Shaq Diesel” no longer has fuel in the tank to make a run for his twentieth season.

This gargantuan first rose to fame at LSU, where he was a two-time All-American and the NCAA player of the year in 1991. After the Orlando Magic made him the top pick in the 1992 draft, he developed into a superstar and took over the reins as the league’s most iconic star after Michael Jordan’s second retirement in 1996. A virtual mismatch against any opponent he faced, teams appeared to have instant success whenever they had him on their side, which is the reason he is a four-time NBA champion and two-time gold medalist in international competition.

Aside from statistics and accomplishments, the “big Aristotle” should be credited for a variety of changes in the league. While the method of fouling horrible free throw shooters intentionally was used prior to O’Neal entering the league, it wasn’t until he entered that the strategy of “hack-a-Shaq” became a phenomenon. Instead of allowing him to get easy points in the paint, teams would foul him instantly as he received the ball and forced him to earn the points at the line (which everyone knew was his kryptonite).

It’s truly amazing to look back on the type of impact the big man had on the league and the world. Not only was his size, strength, and athleticism a marvel to watch on the hardwood court, but also his persona and hunger to constantly command attention off the court as well.

O’Neal has created numerous monikers for himself throughout his career. While a few have already been named, others such as “Shaq Fu”, “Superman”, “The Big Shamrock” are just a handful of seemingly endless nicknames. Fans loved the various aliases he went under as well as his charisma, but he was at times a thorn in the side to his cohorts. He’s had notable feuds with the Sacramento Kings (usually referring to them as “Sacramento Queens”), Yao Ming, and Dwight Howard.

Yet, all of those pale in comparison to his problems with Kobe Bryant, whom he had difficulty getting along with towards the end of his Lakers’ tenure. Both would sling harsh words at one another off the court, with each one acting as if the other didn’t exist when they became opponents after their last season together in 2003. They were constantly matched up against one another during the Christmas Day games and would seldom pay any regards or attention to one another.

They would finally bury the hatchet years later and would be seen conversing and enjoying each other’s company in O’Neal’s final years.

Along with the feuds and nicknames, “The Big Conductor” was successful in other areas of the entertainment business. He has been a rapper and put out numerous albums, with his debut album reaching platinum status. He’s had his own fighting video game and starred on the covers of many NBA licensed basketball video games. He was a referee for a WWE event and even had a standoff with “The Big Show”, the biggest superstar wrestler on the program.

O’Neal has also been on various television shows and movies. The most notable of them all is the motion picture “Blue Chips”, in which he stars as Neon Boudeaux, a top basketball recruit who is tempted with bribes by a college program to enroll in their school. This movie highlighted the corruption behind college sports, which became an epiphany of what college sports is today given the high profile cases occurring with USC, Cam Newton, and Ohio State.

While the illustrious and colorful career of O’Neal is over on the court, the NBA will now add one of the most hyped players in recent memory.

When Spain faced off against USA for the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, the world was watched in awe as Bryant, Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade were able to knock off formidable opponents Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, and Juan Carlos Navarro.

Yet, it was a skinny, lanky, six foot, five inch, seventeen-year-old point guard who was enthralling viewers as he stood toe-to-toe with United States’ top greats.

Ricky Rubio would end up throwing his name into the 2009 NBA Draft and was selected by Minnesota with the fifth selection. Despite getting picked, the young Spaniard would opt to stay in Spain and play in the Euroleagues due to the cost of his buyout from his Spanish team and reluctance to play in a smaller market. Now, sources are stating that Rubio is finally ready to join the American big leagues and will be a part of the Timberwolves roster at the start of the 2011-12 NBA season.

What makes this now 20-year-old guard so fascinating is the hype that has built around him for years.

While many of the general public may not be totally aware of who he is and how highly touted he has been overseas, the excitement behind him is reminiscent of star in this country who was hailed as the “next big thing” in basketball: Lebron James. Although he is certainly not the specimen or as dominant as James was in high school, Rubio has been flaunted by many as the best prospect to come into the NBA from outside of the United States.

That includes greats and highly publicized players like Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Andrea Bargnani, Manu Ginobili, and Arvydas Sabonis.

His style of play and basketball abilities at a young age has drawn comparisons to that of former great “The Pistol” Pete Maravich. He is the type of player that likes to get up and down the court and totally control the tempo of the game. He has great vision and height for a point guard with the potential, if he can develop his body and hone his jump-shooting ability, to become one of the top floor generals in the NBA.

His chances of greatness were flashed vaguely and prematurely during that 2008 gold medal game in Beijing, China. Despite having pedestrian stats (six points, six rebounds, three assists), Rubio was able to exemplify his steadiness of running a professional team as a teen with no turnovers against all the highly talented men on the United States squad.

Although it is too early to determine if Rubio will truly live up to the propaganda that has hovered around him, he will have every chance to become a superstar as he enters the league at a relatively young age. The only roadblock that may stand before him: playing on the lowly Minnesota team that has not made the playoffs since 2004.

Sadness will undoubtedly fill the hearts of many fans and those affiliated closely to the NBA now that O’Neal will no longer step onto an NBA court. Luckily for the league, they will be able to start a new beginning with the fresh face of Rubio finally heading over from Spain to play against American professionals full time next season.

Aaron Eckhart once said as the character Harvey Dent in the 2008 film, “The Dark Knight”: “The night is darkest just before the dawn”.

The NBA may be sitting in total darkness with Shaq’s departure, but Rubio’s arrival may have given them a new sunrise on its horizon.

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