Even the best of the best have moments where they are intimidated by another person. For Michael Jordan, that intimidating factor came in the shape of Shaquille O’Neal.
“When I came back from baseball, I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone this, I’m playing against Shaq,” Jordan told The Ringer’s Jackie MacMullan on her “Icons Club” basketball podcast. “Shaq’s the biggest player I’ve ever seen, in terms of physicality. He was this big, massive guy when I came back from baseball, so I was somewhat intimidated,” Jordan added.
A sign of weakness
However, as he has done throughout his legendary career, Jordan realized a massive weakness in O’Neal’s game. No, it wasn’t the fact that O’Neal couldn’t make free throws or jumpers, but it was his friendly attitude that made big man less scary for Jordan.
“I didn’t really know how to play against him. Do I go right at him? Do I stop and pull up? Blah blah blah. So I went right at him and he just knocked me straight to the floor, and then he reached down to pick me up.”
Michael Jordan, Icons Club
In fairness to O’Neal, many players make an effort to pick up their opponents when they hit the ground. But this isn’t how Jordan operates, as he mentioned that old-school basketball didn’t work this way during his time.
When Jordan smelled blood
When Jordan returned to the hardwood in 1995 after his brief retirement, the six-time champion had to get through O’Neal and the Orlando Magic to reestablish the Chicago Bulls dynasty. Jordan and the Bulls fell short against the Magic in 1995 but eventually exacted revenge the following year, sweeping them in the playoffs.
Jordan remembered that he knew O’Neal was a nice guy, which helped remove the intimidation factor the big man had on him.
“I said, ‘Naw, he didn’t mean it, he’s a nice guy.’ If he’d’ve left me, stepped over me, a la the old school, I would’ve been somewhat intimidated,” Jordan said. “But his heart is too good. He’s not that type of guy. It took away some of the intimidation factor.”
O’Neal probably has a few regrets in his life, and maybe he should add being too friendly to Jordan to the list. What if the Diesel never had this rare moment with Jordan? Would the greatest player of all time still be intimidated by O’Neal? Who knows, but it’s not surprising that Jordan found ways to study his opponent’s weaknesses.