In today’s NBA, we’re all spoiled by some of the most athletic players of all time. The strength, speed, and size of today’s athletes are taking the game to the next level, from the super quick, lights out shooting of Stephan Curry to the brutish strength of LeBron to the sheer force and speed of Russell Westbrook.
If you’re under 21, the chances of you knowing a dominant big man in basketball are slim to none. Sure, Tim Duncan and Dirk were monsters, but they weren’t giants who destroyed anyone in their path.
And that’s totally okay, but you’re gonna learn.
Today, Shaquille O’Neal turns 44 years old. The Hall of Fame center gets his own bust in Springfield this summer, where he will cement his legacy as one of the greatest centers of all time–also one of the greatest players ever in the eyes of some.
At his zenith, there was no one as physically dominant as Shaq. Averaging up to 30 points and 14 rebounds a game, “The Big Aristotle” changed the way the game was played. His size 22 sneakers were impossible to fill and, truthfully, the void hasn’t been satisfied since he left the game in 2011.
On the subject of sneakers, let’s discuss what the options were for big men when Shaq came into the league in 1992. O’Neal himself wore British Knights in college, which were incredibly awkward and heavy to wear for 40 minutes. Leather, polyurethane, and rubber were the only materials being used on kicks in that era–they’ve since been retro’d and worn for lifestyle purposes now, but they had a real job to do back in the day.
During the early 1990s, Michael Jordan had a grip on the market, and Nike‘s only real challenger was Reebok (even before they had Iverson). So when “Superman,” the No. 1 pick in the 1992 NBA Draft, received an endorsement deal with Reebok, Shaq quickly became the face of the brand. Reebok not only gave Shaq a signature shoe, he got a distinct logo as well. A silhouette of a big man dunking, the logo became symbolic of O’Neal’s power and athleticism.
O’Neal was extremely talented on the court and captivating off of it. Even now, he has an admirable yet outspoken personality, someone who could make anyone open up and accept him. He also had the luxury of playing in the NBA at a time where it was expanding commercially and globally, thus sending his “stock” as a brand through the roof. Reebok harnessed this brand identity by creating the Shaq Attaq line of basketball sneakers. The black, white, and royal blue color scheme that was linked to his Orlando uniform was easy on the eyes, and were aesthetically pleasing for consumers in both casual and on-court functionality. (Just look at teammate Penny Hardaway‘s sneaker line to see how much people adored those colors.)
For many, including Shaq himself, the Shaqnosis was the pinnacle of the brand. It was designed by the same guy that made the Kamikaze II for another big man, Shawn Kemp, and the Court Victory II for tennis ace Michael Chang. The Shaqnosis was the sneaker that screamed “Shaquille O’Neal.”
“It took me like 30 minutes to name them,” O’Neal told Dime in 2013 about his two most iconic sneakers. “I was sitting there looking and I started getting dizzy, and I was thinking of the name. Shaqnosis, that was my favorite one.”
It would be the crux that changed Reebok’s future in the mid to late ’90s. In fact, the shoe would go on to influence the designs of other athletes like baseball Hall of Famer Frank Thomas’ Big Hurt and Nick Van Exel‘s Reebok Blast. It would also find its way into pop culture by way of Will Smith in episodes of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and on the big screen in “Men In Black”. Shaq would go on to lead the Magic to a franchise best 60-22 record and a trip to the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals.
Following his move to Los Angeles in the summer of 1996, Reebok created the Dunkmob for O’Neal. The Dunkmob was a tad on the bulky side–the model wouldn’t have as much commercial appeal as it’s predecessors–and as Reebok’s focus shifted to Allen Iverson and O’Neal’s design team began to part ways with the company, Shaq was soon to depart as well.
O’Neal went on to have his own line of intentionally affordable Dunkman shoes with Starter, and he played much of his prime in his own brand. Though he achieved incredible success on the court, it was a shoe made simply for Shaq and being that he was one of the world’s largest human beings, the offered little to the consumer both aesthetically and in performance. Starter would eventually be bought out by Nike and sales would decline.
By 2006, Li-Ning approach and locked Shaq into a deal with the Chinese brand at the tail end of his career. O’Neal would help build the brand into one that could sign future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade.
In 2011, O’Neal retired from basketball and has recently seen the reemergence of the Shaqnosis line with Reebok Originals as a full-on lifestyle sneaker. Needless to say, he’s broken the mold in the same fashion that he used to break backboards. His brand is as nearly big as the man himself, and he continues to flourish five years since he last touched a basketball professionally. Not bad for someone who wasn’t supposed to ever sell shoes.
“I remember in college, my marketing professor told me, ‘Big guys will never sell,'” O’Neal told Dime in 2013. “So I had to figure a way out to make people remember.”