From our pal Charlie Pierce, check out this 1992 profile of Shaquille O'Neal:
The Big Man in the Middle endures as an archetype, largely because he was so much of what first made basketball unique. Wilt Chamberlain once pointed out that "nobody loves Goliath," as an excuse for his enduring unpopularity. He was wrong, of course, even scripturally: the Philistines loved Goliath. If O'Neal comes up a little short of Goliath's six-cubits-and-a-span, his talents and, more importantly, his personality may make him the living refutation of the Chamberlain theorem. He has a quick smile that instantly takes five years off his age. This is what the Magic and the NBA are counting on—a Goliath everyone can love.
For to be merely a player—even a great player—is no longer all there is in the NBA. The league creates stars now, a culture of celebrity that could not have been anticipated in the late '70's, when the NBA was in very real danger of collapsing altogether. There is an inexorable blurring of the line that separates entertainers and athletes. Most recently, Charles Barkley appeared in a cartoon brawl with Godzilla. This culture reached its apex at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, when the United States team, featuring Bird, Johnson, Jordan, Barkley and other NBA stars, careened across Europe like some strange, elongated outtakes from A Hard Day's Night.
That culture of celebrity has its benefits; for example, Jordan's carefully crafted public image largely insulated him from accusations of high stakes gambling leveled against him last season. But it's also a fragile culture, largely black and formed during a decade of racial reaction. It needs constant renewal. Bird and Johnson are both retired, and Jordan insists that he will not play much longer. To survive, the celebrity culture that fueled the NBA's rise needs new, young, charismatic players while it continues to finesse the problems of race and class that bedevil every other institution today.
As soon as he left college last spring, Shaquille O'Neal became the de facto leader of that next generation. No less an authority than Magic Johnson sees that. "He's got it all," says Johnson, who worked out with O'Neal in Los Angeles last spring. "He's got the smile, and the talent, and the charisma. And he's sure got the money, too."