Shaquille O'Neal is definitely on the list of the most dominant big men in the history of the NBA, and some would argue he should be on the very top of that list. The other name that often gets thrown into this conversation is none other than the legendary Wilt Chamberlain, with whom Shaq had a somewhat complicated relationship early on in his career, especially after he became a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Shaq's father wanted him to respect the legends of the game
When you are a young prodigy coming into the NBA, despite all the talent you might possess, guidance and advice are the main things you are looking for, and that is what Shaq expected from Wilt when they met early on in his career. According to Shaq, that moment never really happened, although his significant respect for Wilt was instilled in him by his dad, who wanted to teach Shaq about the game legends. In his book Shaq Talks Back, he details what happened in a restaurant in Los Angeles when he was sitting close to Wilt, but there was never any interaction between them, and Shaq felt the tension in the room.
"When I was coming up, and my father was teaching me, he always used to say, "I want you to be strong and powerful like Wilt, play defense like Russell, and develop a skyhook like Kareem." Those are his guys. I never knew Wilt. One time we were in the same restaurant, sitting almost next to each other, and he didn't say anything to me. This was about a year before he died."
Shaq expected Wilt would make a move and approach him because it's not a common thing to have two of the most dominant players in NBA history being in the same room at the same time. But, looking back at it, Shaq understands he could have made an effort to approach Wilt simply because he probably expected it since he was older.
"I'm sitting with my back turned, and he didn't say anything. He didn't look at me. It was kind of weird. Two of the top centers—one from the past one from the present—don't say anything to each other? There was a little tension. You could feel it. Maybe he thought, "I'm Wilt, and Shaq should come to me and pay his respects."
Too much pride was the problem
Having too much pride is a big problem that can lead to toxic situations with other people that you later realize you could have easily avoided. That is pretty much what happened between Wilt and Shaq, and even Shaq admitted he made a mistake that day because he didn't put his pride on the side and just went to Wilt's table and simply greeted him. Shaq knew Wilt was a character that did things his own way, and Shaq was similar, which is why there was some tension between them ever since Shaq came into the NBA.
"I think that's what he thought. It was almost like a big-man pride battle.To this day, I regret that I never talked to him. He was with a lady, and a friend of mine once told me that the right way to handle it would have been to go up to her, as a way of breaking the ice and introduce myself. Maybe so. It's interesting, though. I've heard how when Kareem was coming up, Wilt wouldn't give him proper respect, that the papers would print articles with Wilt bad-mouthing Kareem all the time. And maybe that's why Kareem is always killing me."
Bill Russell was the only one that reached out
Throughout his NBA career, Shaq never established much connection with other legendary centers, and there was even a sense of jealousy from the older players towards a then young and talented Shaq. According to Shaq, the only one who put out at least an effort was Bill Russell, while Wilt and Kareem mostly seemed unfriendly towards Shaq.
"Of those three guys, I'm more of a Bill Russell man. He did a photo shoot with me once, spent all day with me, gave me some hints. Wilt never said anything to me. Kareem never said anything to me".
This story proves two things. First, there was apparent animosity or at least jealousy to a certain degree from the older legendary centers towards Shaq when he started dominating the NBA. Even though most of the senior NBA players are usually interested in mentoring the young players, it seems there was a clash or somewhat an uninterest for that to happen in Shaq's case with either Kareem or Wilt. Secondly, all those guys were alpha guys during their times, and a sense of pride comes with carrying all those accomplishments.
Just like Shaq said, pride was probably the primary reason why Wilt and he never talked to each other despite being at the same restaurant at the same time. Shaq learned from that experience and especially now understands that you need to respect and acknowledge the OGs of the game because they paved the way for all the younger generation of players. Shaq eventually did the same thing, establishing a legacy that is one of the most remarkable in the history of the NBA.