On-court dominance isn’t the only thing we remember about basketball’s all-time greats.
Far from it.
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2016 class includes three NBA players—Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Yao Ming—whose cultural legacies might outpace their combined basketball accolades.
O’Neal and Iverson were each named NBA MVP, while Yao racked up five All-NBA selections in a six-year span. Physically, Yao and Shaq are two of the largest and most imposing men ever to step onto the hardwood. The diminutive Iverson was so ferocious in his play that we might as well call him the “pound-for-pound GOAT.”
Coming on the heels of Michael Jordan’s stardom, each had a gregarious personality and tremendous commercial appeal with the NBA, fans and advertisers. Their combined influence helped push the NBA beyond the realm of basketball and into the world of hip-hop and Hollywood. Together, they extended the league’s reach across the Pacific Ocean and made basketball perhaps the most popular sport in the world’s largest nation.
Together, they helped carry the NBA on their shoulders, embracing all the pressures and criticisms that came with superstar status. They bridged the gap between the Jordan era and what we now know as the modern NBA, unquestionably for the better.
Shaq’s Limitless Character
The headliner of this year’s class, O’Neal, is a four-time NBA champion, a three-time Finals MVP and a regular-season MVP. With a physically imposing and overwhelming style, it was impossible not to feel Shaq’s presence on the court—or off it.
He quickly ascended the NBA’s advertising hierarchy out of Louisiana State University. With the exception of Michael Jordan, no other NBA athlete had such an off-court advertising presence in the 1990s. When Shaq’s Orlando Magic met Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the New York Times compared the two dominant NBA commercial forces: “The Madison Avenue numbers for Jordan and O’Neal aren’t bad either. According to Newsweek’s May 1 edition, Jordan makes $30 million in endorsements annually compared with O’Neal’s $12 million.”
Sure, everyone still wanted to “be like Mike.” But companies saw an unparalleled marketing figure in O’Neal. Sensing an opportunity to compete with nemesis Nike, shoemaker Reebok signed Shaq to a signature deal and even gave him a distinctive logo to combat the Jordan Jumpman.
O’Neal’s footprint went well beyond the realm of shoes. He helped fuse the links between hip-hop and the NBA with his 1993 rap album Shaq Diesel. Despite lukewarm reviews, the project had the production of hip-hop legends Erick Sermon and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, ascending to platinum status. One-upping Jordan (who appeared in Michael Jackson’s video for “Jam”), O’Neal actually rapped on Jackson’s song “2 Bad” on the HIStory album released in 1995.
But O’Neal’s music career slowly atrophied from these high-water marks: His 1994 sophomore album, Shaq Fu: Da Return, did receive gold status, but two subsequent studio albums performed much worse in sales and reviews.
Shaq’s acting career began thrillingly with Blue Chips. The film itself received mixed reviews, but the Washington Post noted: “If it wasn’t for some exciting roundball action, Shaquille O’Neal’s hulking-dunking presence and a wonderfully guttural performance from coach Nick Nolte, you’d slither off the bench asleep.”
The film did score $23 million at the box office compared to its $20 million budget, but Shaq’s movie career also began to flounder with such escapades as 1996’s Kazaam ($20 million budget, $19 million box office) and 1997’s woeful Steel ($16 million budget, $1.7 million box office). O’Neal hasn’t gotten a leading film role since but has stayed busy with numerous cameos. Of course, he remains a regular presence on TV via commercials and his gig with Inside the NBA on TNT.
MJ aside, during the 1990s and 2000s, there may not have been a more visible basketball figure than Shaquille O’Neal. His continuing commercial appeal five years after he’s retired and nearly 25 years after his NBA debut testifies to that.
Allen Iverson vs. the Establishment
Iverson may not have matched O’Neal’s omnipresent commercial appeal, but he certainly struck a deeper chord in American basketball’s cultural soul.
The diminutive and brash combo guard played the game in a fearless manner. The moment that perhaps put him on the national radar more than any other?
The sweeping crossover he pulled on Jordan early in his career.
From that moment, the brash Iverson would go on to lead the NBA in scoring four times, take home the MVP award in 2001, lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals that same season and shoot the most free throws of any player during the 2000s. That free-throw stat is jarring considering Iverson was 6 feet tall and a scrawny 165 pounds when soaking wet. To drive into defenses every night and take that punishment is remarkable, and it helped Iverson secure seven All-NBA selections during his career.
Iverson literally and figuratively followed O’Neal’s footsteps. He too got a shoe deal with Reebok and dabbled in rap, albeit short-lived. Iverson’s controversial single “40 Bars” pre-empted the release of his album due to its “violent, misogynistic lyrics and homophobic slurs,” per Sporting News. “After harsh criticism from several advocacy groups and then-NBA commissioner David Stern, Iverson cleaned up the language on the track, but the full-length album never made its way to stores.”
That 2000 controversy was the latest salvo in a decade-long NBA culture war reaching fever pitch whenever Iverson made headlines. By 2000, his visage appeared to be an affront to a white, corporate world that has never been all that amenable to a swashbuckling, young black man.
Iverson’s tattoos were famously criticized and airbrushed out of an official NBA magazine. Lisa Olson of the New York Daily News summed up the incident:
The only thing the folks who run Hoop magazine (an official NBA publication) did in its December holiday issue was obliterate the diamond earrings in Iverson’s ears, remove his gaudy necklace, erase his undershirt and eliminate the still-fresh tattoo on his neck. His right arm was digitally raised so no tattoos were visible, while the markings on his other arm were covered by headline type.
His oversized T-shirts and baggy jeans initially drew ire and then an NBA dress code. Iverson chafed at the rule—”Just because you put a guy in a tuxedo, it doesn’t mean he’s a good guy,” he quipped in October 2005—but ultimately abided by it.
Iverson’s infamous 2002 “practice” rant seemed to confirm his disrespectful, nonchalant attitude. Never mind he was grappling with the recent death of a friend when the press conference took place. Iverson nonetheless stridently defended how hard he played in games: “When you come to the arena, and you see me play, you see me play, don’t you? You’ve seen me give everything I’ve got, right?”
To Iverson’s point, he’s the only player to average over 40 minutes per game in a career since 1974. And the only others to do it prior to 1974 were fellow all-timers Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson. All of these players also clashed in various ways with racist stereotypes of black athletes.
But what made Iverson a pariah and symbol of “everything wrong” with the post-Jordan NBA for some made him endearing for others. For men and women who confidently dressed like Iverson, the 76ers star was a symbol of justified defiance in the face of undeserved ridicule and sharp questioning of their character.
Iverson was more complex than either side was probably willing to acknowledge at the time. His baggy clothing didn’t pose an existential threat to the NBA, but he also engaged in genuinely troubling behavior, including arguments at and bans from casinos as well as alleged abusive behavior toward his wife that led to unlawful gun possession and trespassing charges.
A man more complex than Iverson will likely never set foot in the NBA again.
Yao Ming’s Gift to the World
Much like Iverson, questions surrounding Yao Ming had more to do with symbolism than the man himself. At 7’6″ tall and Chinese, Yao dealt with perhaps well-meaning receptions from NBA fans, yet they were often littered with odd racial stereotypes.
One example: The Miami Heat handed out fortune cookies at his first game there. You might note the cheap reference, or you might note fortune cookies are an American creation, not a Chinese cultural import.
The early 2000s were a time of anxiety between China and America. Incidents like the United States spy plane crash in 2001, or the rancorous debate on China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, or America’s rising trade deficit with the communist nation, fueled a cauldron of geopolitical flames.
The most odious and persistent NBA complaint surrounding Yao regarded his eight All-Star selections, all as a starter as voted by the fans. To Yao’s credit, he averaged 19 points and nine rebounds per game during his career. Only seven other centers have done that since 1980.
Still, Yao’s selections were often jokingly chalked up to a flood of Chinese votes available from a country of over 1 billion people. But George Vecsey debunked the “voter fraud” notion in his New York Times piece way back in 2003: “The Chinese vote has not overwhelmed the trend. About 15 percent of all traffic to the [NBA] website comes from Asia, and 11 to 12 percent of the ballots come back in Chinese. Yao leads Shaq in Asian voting, but he also leads them in North America by roughly the same proportion.”
If anything, Yao helped open the Chinese market to the NBA and its raft of advertising partners, not the other way around.
One season after his rookie debut, the NBA announced its first-ever exhibition games in China, to be held in October that same year, 2004. Naturally, Yao’s Houston Rockets were featured, but so were the NBA’s marketing partners: Anheuser-Busch, Kodak, the Coca-Cola Company, Reebok and the Walt Disney Company, parent company of NBA broadcast partners ABC and ESPN.
By January 2008, the NBA had formed NBA China to streamline its operations there. As associated companies filed to the new market alongside the NBA, fellow NBA players waded into Chinese waters in Yao’s wake.
In 2006, the New York Times noted Tracy McGrady and Iverson already outpaced Yao in Chinese jersey sales. The Wall Street Journal on July 16, 2009, noted with curiosity that Kobe Bryant “was greeted with a rapturous reception and mobbed everywhere he went [during the 2008 Beijing Olympics]. He appears in commercials and on billboards, has a popular website and had a reality show on Chinese television. He sells more NBA jerseys there than Yao Ming.”
Even sub-NBA-caliber players have benefited from Yao’s influence. The flow of American pro ballers to China has dramatically increased since Yao’s NBA debut. The Chinese Basketball Association from its founding in 1995 to 2003 had 19 American players. From 2004 through 2016, the CBA has seen over 90.
Meanwhile, the NBA had two Chinese players before Yao’s debut and has had two since.
Thus, paradoxically, it seems the 7’6″ Yao Ming has become somewhat an afterthought in the international commercialism he precipitated. That’s oddly fitting, though, since his dominant run of NBA play itself is obscured in popular consciousness.
Among NBA centers since 2003, none (with a minimum 400 games played) had a higher win shares per 48 minutes than Yao—and only Shaq had a higher player efficiency rating, per Basketball-Reference.
The unfortunate series of leg injuries that prematurely ended Yao’s career certainly factors into how his dominating peak is not as widely remembered as it should be. Still, there is a place in the Hall of Fame for players who never accrued gaudy career totals. Maurice Stokes and Gus Johnson are examples of Hall of Fame players who had injuries undermine their careers but were recognized as having been so important to the sport that the injuries did not matter. Yao should be held in that same regard.
Indeed, Shaq and Iverson join Yao as players who are generally viewed as having somewhat unfulfilled careers. O’Neal’s nagging injuries, lackadaisical attitude toward offseason training and feud with Kobe Bryant perhaps left a title or two on the table. Iverson’s pride and inability to accept a diminished role as a bench-scoring spark plug late in his career ruined opportunities in Detroit and Memphis.
Despite these flaws, the Hall of Fame trio leaves an important and lasting influence on the NBA. Each can proudly claim to not only be one of the best NBA players ever, but one of its most culturally consequential.
Courtesy: Bleacher Report