What Journalists Can Learn From Shaq

Two weeks ago, Slam Magazine named Shaquille O’Neal the fourth greatest basketball player in NBA history. Now, argue all you want about whether or not Shaq is better than some other names on that list — like Oscar Robertson (no. 5 on the list), Magic Johnson (no. 6) or Juwan Howard (weirdly, not ranked). I’m not here to argue his place in history.

But here’s what I find remarkable: unlike most of the players on that list, when I think of Shaq, I don’t think of basketball first.

Sure, Jordan’s synonymous with all sorts of YouTubeable highlights. Dr. J cues up an image of a man finishing a reverse layup from behind the basket. Say John Havlicek’s name, and immediately, four words come to mind: “Stole the ball.

Then there’s Shaq. I’ll remember him not for his four NBA titles but for what he did — and said — off the court.

That’s why he’s the subject of this week’s “What Journalists Can Learn From…”

1. Control your brand name.
Shaq’s a perfect example of how to — and how to not — build your brand. He’s cultivated this larger-than-life image by being wildly quotable and media friendly. ESPN’s run a Top 10 of Shaq’s most famous quotes — my favorite: “We’re not worried about the Sacramento Queens” — on more than a handful of occasions. His “MTV Cribs” episode is awesome. His arrival in Miami a few years back was brilliant. But then there’s the flip side: his movie career was a flop, and his notorious Kobe Bryant-themed rap landed on the web. Building a brand means giving people unique content, and Shaq’s certainly as quotable as any in pro sports. But he’s also been prone to poor decision making in public.

2. If you tweet, tweet well.
Shaq’s closing in on 1.5 million followers, and it’s because his Twitter feed is among the most innovative anywhere. He engages users in ridiculous contests — today, he asked followers to send in their best “Yo Momma” joke — and retweets regularly.

3. Evolve. Shaq — the basketball player — in 2009 is not the same as the Shaq of even a few seasons ago. But after his recent trade to Cleveland, many pegged the Cavs as a title contender. Shaq’s slower, and certainly not the dominant force that he was earlier this decade. But he’s evolved into something else. He’s a role player who’s said publicly that he doesn’t mind coming off the bench, and there aren’t many stars who are willing to sacrifice their own stats for the team. He’s finding his niche as he ages and staying relevant. I’ve said it before: if you have essential skills to offer, you can always find an audience that needs your services.