The Success of Failure

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December 18, 2013 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

On the night of June 30, 1993, there was one thought going through my father’s head, and it was how the hell could Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley compete against the frontcourt tandem of Shaq and Chris Webber?  Fortunately enough for the Eastern conference this question never had to have been answered as a few moments later Webber was traded to the Warriors for Penny Hardaway.[1]  All normative ponderings aside, they could have formed the greatest power forward/center combination in the history of the NBA, and it would have been fucking amazing!

Since the inception of the NBA draft lottery in 1985, only once has it happened that a team received the 1st overall pick in consecutive drafts.  That team is the Orlando Magic in 1992 and 1993 wherein they drafted Shaquille O’ Neal and Chris Webber respectively.  Instead of wrecking havoc upon the NBA with the best frontcourt duo, the Magic thought it more prudent to trade for a young and dynamic point guard.  But for a few moments it looked like the Magic would be the team of the future spearheaded by a ferocious frontcourt composed of two players who couldn’t have been any more different from each other, but more similar than anything would initially think.

Phil Jackson once said of Shaq “the NBA’s MVP trophy should be named after him when he retires”.[2]  These were the kinds of lofty expectations thrust onto his shoulders, and at first glance it would appear that he satisfied the conditions of success.  He did win an MVP award, four championships, three Finals MVPs, two scoring titles, and was an all-star for about 852 times.  I really need not go into much detail, because anyone who was there saw that for a good four year span of time, Shaq was literally the best player in the league, but despite this, everyone knew that he wasn’t giving his all.  But, you can’t help but want more out of his career, and it’s because we all know that he was capable of so much more.  Some of this is because of persistent injuries no doubt, but that hasn’t stopped us from speculating about other athletes such as Mickey Mantle, Ralph Sampson, and even Len Bias.

There’s also the constant accusations that Shaq was lazy, out of shape, and didn’t seem to put enough effort in on a consistent basis.  If all of these things are true (which they are), then it proves the point that for Shaquille O’ Neal the difference between being great and being transcendent was merely one of choice.  He could have been magnificent, a modern day Wilt Chamberlain, but he chose to be great instead, another Ewing or Olajuwon if you will.

Now, this choice wasn’t one of consciousness where he actively decided to limit his own prowess.  The rationale, most likely, is “Why should I put in100% and be considered one of the greatest of all time, when I can put in 90%, but still be considered one of the best of my era?”.  He was already dominating, but didn’t see the reason or the need to reach his full potential, if he was already achieving satisfying results without tapping into his fullest amount of potential.  This is the problem with being content; Shaq was content with where he was as a player, and the results that he saw no need to push himself to reach his full potential.  He had the build, the God given skill, and the resources to dominate the game like Kareem, Russell, and Chamberlain did, but he was plagued by the devil of contentedness.  He had everything he wanted, there was no need for more even though it was clearly possible for him to achieve more (championships, MVP awards, maybe a defensive player of the year award).  His greatest, or potential greatness, is marginalized by this attitude which affected is productivity.

For Shaq, it was never about laziness or boredom, it was all about motivation.  Prior to winning those championships in L.A., he was in tip top form, it was only after the three-peat that he started to let himself go.  Every Finals series, he step up to the plate in a big way by either dropping 40 points, picking up 20 rebounds, or almost putting together a quadruple double.  When the stakes mattered, he rose to the occasion, but after a while, there’s just no more new territory to conquer.  What it comes down to, is that even though we all know (Shaq included) that despite his vast accomplishments, his career fell short in terms of what he could have done.  But for Shaq, he can look back at this, realize that it’s all true, but still feel content because he achieved, on 90% what most other ball players couldn’t achieve at 100%.  His accomplishments uphold the fact that even though he didn’t reach his true potential, he didn’t have to, and because of that Shaq doesn’t lose an ounce of sleep.  He knows he could have been better, but he didn’t need to be any better than he already was.

I fall into the distinct school of thought that if someone can achieve something, than they should achieve it.[3]  If you could, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t.  When I refer to someone as having “Shaq’d” something, I mean it in the context that they failed to achieve their true potential, that they failed to achieve something that was completely within their grasp.  Personally speaking, I “Shaq’d” college.  I should have done better because I was fully capable of doing such.  I should have graduated with highest honors, because it was most definitely within the realm of possibility, but because I didn’t want to be bothered with three particular classes during my freshman year, I had to settle for generic “honors”.  It was during graduation that this revelation dawned on me, that I should have been better, because I could have been better; there was no reason not to be as studious as I was able to have been.  I chose to limit myself because I was content to get a B without studying for anything at all, when studying could have yielded an A instead.  Because of my own decisions, my contentedness became my shackles that I yet to free myself from.

Shaq wanted the limelight, he loved the attention, and wanted his character to be as big as his game.[4]  He wanted everyone to see how great he was, and he wanted everyone to know how little effort it took him to be that great.  Chris Webber was the exact opposite.  He just wanted to play ball; that was it.  He didn’t want the media, or the glitz, or the platform that his skills could have provided.[5]  Part of this has to do with the NCAA championship game in 1993, where his poor decision making arguably cost Michigan the title.  He saw the downside of failing on the brightest stage, and no doubt did it traumatize him.  That’s why he looked pissed off all the time afterwards, it still weighed down on him.  From that young age of 20, Webber knew that despite his skills, there would be some things that would lay just beyond his reach.  He saw the negative attention that his skills could bring unto him for that one game, and because of being bombarded with such massive amounts of criticism, he cut himself off from his real potential so as to prevent himself from being thrust onto a platform that could potentially lead to him being hounded and ridiculed as had happened to him before, back in college.

The fact that he played for the Sacramento Kings, while Shaq was at his peak in L.A. speaks volumes about these two as players and as people.  Shaq wanted the limelight, and wanted to succeed in the league’s biggest market with its most historic franchise.  He wanted to be the biggest fish in the biggest ocean imaginable.  Webber by contrast played for the Sacramento Kings, a team with little to no history or success for that matter.  But, once he came aboard, in tandem with other (less skilled players) like Vlade Divac and Mike Bibby, Webber was able to transform the Kings into real contenders for a championship.  Webber wanted to be a big fish, but in a lake instead.  He was the best player on one of the best teams, but he wasn’t the superstar that Shaq was.  In the playoffs, especially when their two teams met, it always seemed like Shaq shifted into another gear and played up to the stakes, where Webber seemed to shrink, if only a little bit, when the pressure was put on him.  As a result, Shaq’s career playoff stats are not only better than Webbers, their better than Shaq’s regular season stats, while the opposite holds true for Webber.  Shaq wanted to be great no matter what; Chris Webber wanted to be great so long as there was no negative repercussion to failure.

One of Webber’s biggest criticisms was that he always seemed to pass up the big game shot, choosing to make the extra pass to Peja Stojakovic or Mike Bibby.[6]  What this tells us is that for someone who clearly was the best player on the team, what stopped him from being that kind of player who could make the big shot, was a fear of failure.  In hindsight, what it looks like though, is a fear of success.  In a macro sense, he was afraid to succeed, because he didn’t know how to do it without failing.

His passing skills and his ball handling capabilities, on top of his already exceptional rebounding and scoring prowess should have allowed him to do to the power forward position, what Magic Johnson did for the point guard spot, or what Lebron James is currently doing to the small forward role.  He should have transcended the position of power forward, and their role on the court, but he didn’t because he prevented himself from achieving his full greatness for fear that an overt failure to achieve would leave him with a feeling similar to the ones he had after losing the NCAA championship game in 1993.  And so his became a concealed failure, one where he didn’t even try to achieve his full potential.  He knows he could have been better, and unlike Shaq, he knows he should have been better.

Five all star appearances, five all NBA team recipient, rookie of the year, and a rebounding title are all accomplishments of a borderline hall of fame career, but knowing what he know about Webber, and seeing how he played the game, it’s plain to realize that was capable of so much more, and as such he should have been so much more.  Webber knows this too, that’s why he speaks of his playing career in a very humbled, and implicitly regretful tone; it’s the reason why he doesn’t speak to any members of the fab five anymore, and it’s the reason why he didn’t want to be included on the 2001-02 Sacramento Kings legend team in NBA 2K13.  These are all constant reminders of a great career, that knows could have, and should have been better.

Wasted potential has always been my story.  It’s been the clichéd story that I gravitate to the most, it’s the difference between the real and the ideal.  The loss or waste of potential is such a human concept because it introduces a limit, one that is mostly caused by the self, as if we are putting impositions on ourselves.  In the case of Shaquille O’ Neal and Chris Webber, this was absolutely the truth.  Shaq didn’t see the need to reach his full potential and Webber was afraid of what would happen if he did.  There’s something strangely familiar about this pattern; maybe it’s something human, or maybe it’s just me.

[1] This raises the question as to why the Magic didn’t just draft Hardaway 1st overall.

[2] This is odd considering that Jackson coached Michael Jordan for ten years.

[3] Obviously this pertains to good things only.  I don’t want to advocate for a chaotic belief that might indubitably makes right.

[4] Make no mistake about it, the two are inextricably linked.

[5] But he did date Tyra Banks.

[6] You could understand why people had major gripes with this.

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