Russell Westbrook and Stephen A. Smith had a public back-and-forth about what it means to be a champion earlier this week and while mainly serving as a shiny thing to look at, content-wise, also revealed a deep truism about sports and the way they are processed. Once players achieve a level of success and fame, it becomes harder to find things to criticize so we fall back on the old trope of pointing to lack of championships, despite knowing full well that titles are special and unavailable for over 95 percent of players in any given league each year.
Shaquille O'Neal alluded to this phenomenon, which is certainly not new, during last night's NBA on TNT, saying all the greats have to go through something like this.
He's absolutely correct. And once you can't notice it, it makes the RINGZ argument and dings even less compelling because it feels like a habit to a certain point.
Knocking John Stockton or Karl Malone or Charles Barkley for not winning an NBA Finals is the work of an unserious person. And realizing how quickly the criticism can go away and existing narratives recede into the bushes like
If O'Neal and Dwyane Wade each had to go through this and ended up with seven championships between them, it sort of makes the argument silly in retrospect. There's never a grand accounting for getting it wrong about a player who did capture a championship that rivals the chest-thumping that continues as another year goes by and all but 15 guys in the NBA go another year without a ring.
O'Neal has taken his share of criticism, including on this website, in recent months. And while most of it stands, acknowledging that he has unique insight into what being one of the most popular people in the planet is important. He is at his best when he speaks from personal experience because no one else is Shaq and no one will ever be Shaq. This was a great example of him using the tools he's best suited to use to hammer home a point.