There is a big red barn along the side of highway 101 in my hometown; right on the northern gateway of the city before you start heading into the wetter, woolier parts of Northern California. It is unique because it is a round barn, one of the few left in this region, and along the entire West Coast. I have since learned (through simple internet searching) that it is one of the finest-preserved round barns left in the entire country; a relic from Fountain Grove, a long-dead utopian colony that called Santa Rosa home for the latter part of the 19th century, and whose big, round, red barn, which used to store equipment for its winery, is the only evidence left of their existence. When I was young, though, that history was unknown, and it’s uniqueness didn’t matter. As far as I was concerned, that barn was sent from the sky and perched on that gently sloping hill just for me. I would obsess over this old round barn; an object as random as any, which is what made it so amazing to my young mind. In this large red round barn, perched on a hill where hulking mansions and streamlined office buildings were starting to surface, there was something to love just because it was there, just because it was big, and just because it was older than me.
One day, after what felt like years of driving past the barn without stopping (it was probably only months), my father and I went up to investigate the building. It was January or February in a typically perfect California winter, with an insistent breeze cutting through a low, muted sunlight. My father being who he is, I wore my winter coat (or the California equivalent), despite the fact that it was probably in the mid 50s and hours before the sunset. I remember wet grass sticking to my velcro sneakers, and my hand embedded in my fathers as we walked together to the barn. Upon arrival, I was rendered speechless. The round barn was immeasurably big. Redness filled my sight, clogged my peripheral vision. Big from a distance could not compare to big up close. Big up close was not as fun, not as whimsical. The unique shape of the structure couldn’t be ascertained from that position. The paint looked faded, and the wood looked weathered and old. At that moment, on that hill, next to that barn, now tangible, I thought there could be nothing more large; nothing more unknowable or unpredictable than that old round barn. Something was odd about a big object that sat still; aging and atrophying while mansions rose like goosebumps around its century-old frame.
It was through this barn that I learned about my fascination with seeing big things age. The round barn was joined by other big things, like the abandoned factory on the biggest cross street to my house, sitting empty and gated off to the public, or the giant concrete fire department training tower for a few miles away, which never seemed to be in use. I’d look at these big objects do nothing as the world changed around them. I’d wonder about their conceptions, purposes and heydays; I’d wonder if they were ever celebrated and cherished. And as I got older, that childhood fixation on these objects evolved, and never really went away. I still train my eyes on large monolithic factories in the distance, wondering if they’re running, and what they produce. I am drawn to abandoned infrastructures, like overpasses, bridges and buildings, crumbling in the sun and eventually reclaimed by nature. It is strangely enthralling to see these things fall apart despite their grand sizes. There is something morbidly perverse about watching things that are too big to fail learn that they are not too big to age and decay over time. That something big cannot find a new purpose after the old purpose becomes obsolete is a fascinating peculiarity about us. We are impressed by size. But we aren’t comfortable with it forever.
Shaquille O’Neal, he of many names, of many purposes, but a single size — big — has become a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings. Now, he isn’t the first player to have an ownership stake in a team. He arguably isn’t even the greatest player to have an ownership stake in an NBA team (though neither Michael nor Magic would be in the Hall of Fame for NBA owners, though the Dodgers thing is working out well for the latter). And yes, we can even argue he isn’t the biggest profile to become an owner. MJ possesses the only logo that can compete with The Logo and Magic Johnson is goddamned Magic Johnson, for goodness’ sake. Shaq probably doesn’t have that type of clout in most minds, especially those who came of age in the 1980s. Shaq is hardly a trailblazer in this arena; following the footsteps of great players who came before him, and arguably did their jobs on-the-court better than he ever did.
But to a person fascinated with big, Shaq was big; the biggest I ever saw. So much of Shaquille O’Neal was informed by his mass and might, and an ability to overpower any other very large human being (or human beings, in many cases) standing in his way time after time again. On the court, this manifested itself in incredible ways. He was incredibly nimble and sure-footed on his 7 foot 1 inch frame, able to emulate the finesse moves of other great centers of his era, like Hakeem’s Dream Shake and Ewing’s modified skyhook. He developed a deadly drop-step spin move that often looked graceful and elegant; a product of finesse and care. But when Shaq was actually Shaq, he was big. As an Orlando Magic, big was huge galloping strides and backboard-breaking slam dunks that hearkened back to Daryl Dawkins, another baron of big. As a Los Angeles Laker, and to a lesser extent, a Miami Heat, big was backing down hapless defenders from multiple angles, throwing down furious two-handed slams, and catching iconic alley-oops. His moves would roar through the television, loud and boisterous, incomprehensible due to their unique size. Shaq rebounded big. Shaq blocked big. It was a usurping bigness; enormous by every metric.
Yet Shaq was also big in other ways. In a different era of NBA stars, Shaq was portrayed as a gentle giant; ferocious towards opposing players but loving and gentle towards his fans, and in particular, his young fans. From the very start, Shaq wanted to be seen in every way possible, by every age group imaginable. Shaq was a dominating force on the television, on the big screen, and molded into cheap plastic. Shaq was as much an all-world center as he was Kazaam, a lovable genie, Steel, a giant comic book superhero, or Shaq Fu, a terrible, nearly unplayable video game character. He also played the role of Shaq Diesel, who once skillfully changed the year “1993″ in one of his songs to “199-Shaq”, and whose music seems retroactively amazing due to a general nostalgia for West Coast rap from the 1990s. He could as easily emcee a kids’ awards show and star in a music video with Aaron Carter as he could lead a team deep into the playoffs; he could simultaneously play the role of athlete, movie star, comic book hero and cartoon character at once. He was a different sort of big; one that does not exist any longer. Can you imagine LeBron James making a full-length movie where he dons a steel suit, or wears a genie hat in order to grant some kids some unlikely wishes? Can you imagine Kevin Durant portraying himself a kung-fu master so skilled that they have to change the name of the martial art form from Kung-Fu to Kevin-Fu? These marketing techniques seem vestigial; indicative of a bygone era where a big body, and a huge personality, are enough to become globally iconic.
Perhaps Shaq’s decline was sad because, even as he widened and became mostly a part time NBA player, he remained big. True, there was a magical season in Phoenix, where a sneakily rejuvenated (and seemingly motivated) Shaq rediscovered the wonder and awe that came with his enormous body and oversized talent. But generally it didn’t last. The last few years in Miami were rough. The stint as a Cav to “win a ring for the King” seemed doomed from the start, as Shaq arrived chunky and prone to injury, and left without making any sort of impressionable mark on the Miami-bound star. These shortcomings seemed to dull the enormous mystique of the most dominating center — on and off the court — of all time. In 2008, as Shaq was slowly falling apart in Miami, failing to suit up for games and trading barbs with Pat Riley, PhDribble aptly wrote in FreeDarko that dream seemed dead. “For more than a generation, he has outmuscled and outwitted his center(al) competition. But we’ve reached a truly sad chapter in our superhero’s saga,” lamented PhDribble. “Shaq is suffering. There’s no surprise ‘rise from the ashes’ waiting for us in next week’s edition. He will never fight Dr. Dwight, Gode, or The Riek (whoever that is.) For this time, it’s the real death of Superman. “ The Onion seemed to agree (though in far less dramatic fashion) and joked with its typical degree of brutal truth and honesty that Shaq was out for the longterm with “a pulled pork sandwich”. But even as his playing career turned stale, his other avenues never seemed to dry up in the slightest. While he was ostensibly rehabbing an injury in preparation for a deep playoff run in Cleveland, he was also producing Shaq Vs., a huge, gaudy sideshow filled with gigantic spills, thrills and chills. While he was presumably slimming down, and getting himself into fighting shape for a last stand in Boston, he was directing the Boston Pops, his oversized tuxedo and faux-seriousness making his fans chuckle. And when he finally hung up his kicks after the conclusion of the 2011 season, he never stopped moving. He was added to the TNT crew, and before long, finished up his doctoral research at Barry University. Now he was Dr. Big, specialist of size and stature, and a practitioner whose residency seems to be never-ending.
Shaq over time has become a layered monolith; a man whose personal and professional portfolio has grown nearly to the size of, well, himself. He has repurposed time and time again; using his enormous physical and promotional stature to bogart his way into our minds, and onto our various screens where we process information and spend money. Shaq has never seemed lost. He has never seemed like an Iron Giant, uncomfortable with his enormous size, and the power he wields. He has never appeared as a large, round red barn on a hill; impressive simply because of its stature, but clunky and mysterious from too close of a distance. Quite the opposite, Shaq has made it a point to repurpose himself to remain relevant with casual and hardcore NBA fans as long as he stands towering before us, looking down upon the vast sea of opportunity he has created. And all the while, he has refused to take himself seriously, even when the masses have pined for a meaningful scowl rather than a wide smile. If he didn’t rely so heavily on toilet humor to market himself, would we call him Dr. O’Neal? If he wasn’t so comically large — still — would we see his endless reinventions on television as major breakthroughs in the field of post-playing careers, and not another strange caboose car tacked on to a long, winding circus train? After a career of making us laugh, yelp in amazement, and roll our eyes, all of these Shaq-ventures seem commonplace. We fail to realize how truly compelling endless reimagination is; the ability to find new purpose anywhere and any given time.
Big is difficult to repurpose. Large stadiums that used to house multi-billion dollar teams sit like lesser Roman coliseums until they are destroyed; the spectacle of demolition as gaudy as the structure itself. Enormous factories whose purposes were more necessary in different times lay prone in decaying cities, gilded halls of production stripped of all meaning by the inexorable march of time, and enterprising looters searching for copper wiring. Large trees that cannot be used to adorn a front yard or center divide are often removed when developers come in, ready to make medium-sized cookie cutter homes for medium-sized families with medium-sized aspirations. Every day, in every way, we see the conundrum of repurposing big; allowing enormity to accrue new meaning, and become relevant to us all. But this has never been a problem for Shaq. Shaq has repurposed time and time again. In his mind, big always has new purpose. And without a doubt, that mindset, and that tried-and-true bigness, will be good for the Sacramento Kings, a team that seems small, but whose glory days, at least in our minds, were as large as the Big Minority Owner himself.
The round red barn perched on Fountain Grove hill is now essentially a billboard. It’s appearance hasn’t really changed, save for a few fresh layers of paint, and sharper black edges around the text emblazoned on the front of the structure. I drive by it a few times a week; no longer a passenger in the car with my father, but instead a fully-indoctrinated barely-adult, guiding my own car along highway 101 to my job in the northern counties. And though I always stare at the barn, sneaking glances as I zoom by, hurrying to a life I’ll be living for the next 60 or 70 years, it’s meaning is much different. Fountaingrove now refers to a ritzy but aging gated neighborhood, perched on the same hill as the barn itself. In these hills, a greying, wealthy community looks down upon the lesser masses in their depreciated homes, trying to make ends meet. Some of these landed individuals still work, while others find time to play golf in tightly manicured golf courses. Many of them die in gilded retirement homes on the hill, tucked away behind the barn, among old oak trees adorned in verdant green moss and wispy lichen. It is not what I ever imagined the red, round barn would become for me; a gateway to the past, but a marker of a present that did not turn out exactly how I planned.
Who knows what Shaq will become. But for him, big will always be driven. Big will always have purpose. And, thankfully, big will always be here to stay.