Let’s talk candidly about the last son of Krypton. Let’s talk about the life and legacy of the timeless brand from the launch of its unprecedented 1930s comic book series to its resuscitated film trilogy in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Or maybe let’s talk about the death of Kal-El that followed shortly after, not at the hands of Dan Jurgen’s Doomsday, but in the eyes of the public who simply had no more use for a holier than thou hero lacking the conflict and drama of his contemporary peers.
Consider that as the 1980s dragged on and gave way to the early 1990s, the only true threat to the Superman mythology was the fact that Superman really had no threats at all, at least none that could be taken seriously.
The world is about to explode? No problem. Lois Lane is dead? Be right back. A villain with the strength of a 1,000 men? Chump change.
Superman was stale. An American classic, sure, but stale.
Clark Kent, the once relished character, celebrated for his physical and moral superiority, had officially been stripped of relevance because a new generation couldn’t relate. They didn’t even want to.
In 1992, NBA commissioner David Stern announced the selection of Shaquille O’Neal with the first pick of the league’s entry draft. The world watched as O’Neal lumbered across the stage with the fluidity and charisma of a much smaller man to shake his comically shorter boss’ hand, he accepted his Orlando Magic cap and smiled for the cameras.
We didn’t know it then, but we’d eventually find out those two characteristics – his agility and personality – would make him one of the most recognizable figures on Earth for the next two decades.
His ability to make families laugh while simultaneously flaunting some of the most dominant displays of basketball the sport has ever seen made him a marketing gold mine.
O’Neal never single-handedly revived the Superman series, just as he didn’t technically breath life into the hip-hop industry, but he played no small role in introducing (or in reintroducing) either of them to the mainstream public.
Though his allegiance to Superman spanned his entire career, there’s no denying the fact that O’Neal’s association with the Man of Steel was at its most visible during the early 1990s when he toiled away fruitlessly in Florida, an abundantly gifted 22-year-old rapping for kicks, stamping his hand print on Pizza Hut basketballs and subconsciously crafting the persona we know today.
When the real story begins, though, is in 2001, where the rise and fall of our hero follows a strikingly similar timeline to that of a Superman-based television series that ran simultaneously; Smallville.
On Oct. 16, 2001, the pilot episode of Smallville aired on what was then still the WB, just weeks before 29-year-old O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers set out to win their third consecutive NBA title.
Coming off repeat championships and a 28.7/12.7 stat line in 2000-2001, it’s safe to say that O’Neal was in his prime the day the modernized retelling of Clark Kent’s youth debuted in front of a national audience.
Though the producers would surely deny it, it’s hard to argue against the premiere season being Smallville’s most memorable, especially considering that it wasn’t long before the global audience slimmed by nearly 75 percent while the novelty of a fully-grown Tom Welling playing teenage Clark wore off.
Over the course of the next two seasons, Smallville’s momentum slowed while casual observers changed channels. It wasn’t long before the show’s comic-driven niche audience was all that remained.
A similar degradation was occurring in Los Angeles with O’Neal and the Lakers the whole time.
Though they would go on to complete their threepeat in 2002, O’Neal earning his third NBA Finals MVP along the way, it became increasingly more difficult for the L.A. Dynasty to stay ahead of their opponents in the West – particularly Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.
In 2003, just before Smallville was bumped out of its time slot for the first time (it would happen three more times over the years), the Lakers were ousted by the Spurs in the second round of the postseason. The O’Neal-Kobe Bryant pairing was officially deemed insufficient and the franchise went back to the drawing board.
Over the course of the 2003-04 season, O’Neal’s final one with the club, the story took a turn for the bizarre. Any credibility the dynasty had established quickly evaporating with a series of awkward transactions, rumors and allegations.
The Lakers, like Smallville at the time, had officially jumped the shark.
Between the desperate signings of ringless veterans Karl Malone and Gary Payton, Bryant’s 2003 arrest for alleged sexual, a refueling of the on-and-off-again Bryant-O’Neal feud and their eventual collapse in five games to the happy-to-be-there Detroit Pistons, the Lakers were done for.
At around this same time, the Smallville canon took its own break from all logic and reason to follow Clark’s love interest, 17-year-old Lana Lang, as she embarked upon a new relationship with a man whom she met while living alone in Paris, whose mother – hellbent on reuniting a triumvirate of stones which, when combined, formed the Fortress of Solitude – was the descendant of a duchess who’d had beef with a witch from the 1600s*.
Changes were necessary. O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat that summer.
*Bonus commentary: If it’s any consolation, amidst Lang’s traipsing around Japan looking for Stones of Power, the producers of the show did manage to throw DC Comics fans a bone with the cameo debut of Bart Allen a.k.a. the Flash a.k.a the cutesie nickname O’Neal gave to his spankin’ new partner in crime, Dwyane Wade.
As Shaquille O’Neal adjusted to life in South Beach – and while we adjusted to seeing him in a new jersey – Smallville underwent a similarly unnerving transformation. We watched as the character of Clark Kent graduated high school – the writers of the series awkwardly experimenting with enrolling him at college before having him drop out altogether – just as we watched O’Neal form a new buddy-buddy duo with Wade.
Though both O’Neal and Smallville saw certain positives come out of their new situations – O’Neal a fourth championship, Smallville the escalation of Lex Luthor’s villainy – it was hard to ignore the resounding vibe that nobody really knew what was going to happen next.
Though O’Neal stayed in Miami until partway through the 2007-08 campaign, his impact dropped considerably to the point where he averaged just 14.2 points per game before a midseason deal sent him packing for Phoenix.
Compared to his legendary prime, O’Neal had slowed significantly, wasn’t taking care of himself the way he should and was unlikely to contribute to a contending team unless something changed fast.
Simultaneously, while O’Neal’s star dimmed, Smallville sat stagnantly, producers unwilling to plunge into the inevitable next chapter in the story; the beginning of the end.
At the end of season seven, Smallville said farewell to Michael Rosenbaum, the actor who had played Lex Luthor since the beginning of the series. It was a devastating, yet seemingly necessary move for the show and the actor, despite the fact that the character was perhaps the only true redeeming component that critics of the series could appreciate.
As season eight of Smallville neared and O’Neal prepared for his first and only full season in a Suns uniform, fans were naturally skeptical. It was almost a given that O’Neal had officially stopped taking his ability to contribute seriously, as if content playing out the final years of his career as an embarrassing shell of his former self. The outlook for a Lex-less Superman television show wasn’t much brighter.
Both, however, showed resurgences that nobody quite expected. O’Neal, thanks to an uncharacteristically effective offseason workout regimen, stepped in as one of Phoenix’s most reliable options, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in just 30 minutes per night.
Smallville, backed by a brand new writing team, showed much-needed signs of life as well, including but not limited to; Clark’s acknowledgement of his civic obligations as a superhero; the burgeoning love story of Clark and Lois Lane; and the modern-day implementation of the aforementioned Doomsday into a live-action series.
Unfortunately, at season’s end, the Suns would fall two games out of the playoffs in the Western Conference and Smallville – after climaxing at the midseason Chloe Sullivan-Jimmy Olson wedding finale – went back to stalling any legitimate plot development in order to prolong the series.
The final two years of both Smallville and O’Neal’s career meandered by under the radar, only ever registering on the public conscious radar when it was announced that they were finished.
It’s here where the similarities between the two veer apart, departing from the eyes of the masses in their own unique directions.
From the moment it was announced that season 10 would be the last for Smallville, hype built over how the producers would wrap up their story. By the time the two-hour grand finale was ready to air, it was hard for even the most embittered skeptic to ignore any semblance of nostalgia.
Though a far cry from the eight million-plus viewers who saw the series debut in 2001, over three million watched the final episode of Smallville on May 13, 2011, not to mention all the tech-savvy comic aficionados who streamed and torrented the episode online.
We didn’t know it back then, but four days prior on May 9, O’Neal played his last game as a pro, a basketless four-minute affair in which he picked up a pair of fouls and nothing else.
Weeks later, seemingly out of nowhere, O’Neal announced, via Twitter that he was finished playing in the NBA.
Though he did it in his own quirky way, through an online video site – Tout.com – that few had even heard of, it was almost the exact opposite of what we would have expected for the finale of the biggest personality basketball has ever seen.
Now, with no set plans for the immediate future, the Shaquille O’Neal brand – like the Superman mythology – balances in a particularly interesting state of uncertainty.
With a newer, darker series of Superman films perpetually “in the works” (think Superman Returns, but the opposite… or Batman Begins, but super), there’s at least promise of more to come.
In contrast, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another personality as large or as compelling as O’Neal’s. At least until the CW announces plans to make a television show detailing his Shaq’s life as a teenager.