In what was once a dead zone on the NBA calendar, LeBron James graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant led off Pardon the Interruption Aug. 4-5. Yes, the NBA now merits year-round discussion.
This was not mere accident or circumstance. This was the culmination of almost a quarter century of blending hip-hop, reality TV and international marketing into the NBA mix, three trends represented by Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson and Yao Ming. The trio helped take the NBA beyond the realm of basketball games and into the world of pop culture. Keyword: world.
All three players are internationally famous, as much on their own accord as from the groundwork laid by those who came before them. Shaq, Iverson and Yao became known for themselves as much as their game. The NBA emphasized stars in the eras of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, and they leveraged that platform into brands.
Shaq, Iverson and Yao went beyond branding; they helped make the league personality driven. They set the stage for the likes of LeBron and Stephen Curry. It's no longer just about how these guys play. It's about who they are and where they go.
Although Shaq's 1996 free agency didn't have the same buildup and crescendo as a live-televised "Decision," it was still big enough to overshadow the start of the Olympic Games in Atlanta and alter the NBA landscape. (And with three championships plus a fourth trip to the NBA Finals, Shaq's signing with the Los Angeles Lakers remains the most successful free-agency acquisition in sports history.)
And Shaq had all the movies, hip-hop albums and endorsements to go with it. He was the first basketball big man with a personality to match his jersey size. Before him, centers tended to run the gamut from aloof to arrogant. Then Shaq came along -- a gigantic goofball -- unafraid to let his guard down and make faces during interviews or break-dance on the court.
And whenever anyone questioned his ways or motives, he had a one-word response: "Marketing."
"For one, it was to prove to my college professor that big guys could sell," Shaq said. "And two, they was giving that money away, right and left. And three, it was an opportunity for me, young guy from the projects, medium-level juvenile delinquent to be on TV. It's a great feeling, to have your momma at the crib, seeing you on a commercial. Forget the game, but just seeing you in a commercial or a video ... that's why I did it."
During Thursday's Hall of Fame press conference alone, Shaq:
Said emcee Eddie Doucette, the longtime NBA play-by-play announcer, had a sexy voice.
Made a big show of helping Yao put on his huge Hall of Fame jacket.
Invited Morgan Platt, a 12-year-old girl visiting the Hall with her family, up to the stage with him. When he noticed her Michigan State sweatshirt he called over Spartans coach Tom Izzo, a fellow inductee, to pose for pictures.
Looked crushed when Sheryl Swoopes mentioned her fiancé, then he stood up and got in a boxing stance.