-- SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- If you want to know the impact of this year's Basketball Hall of Fame headliners, don't check the record books or even the NBA jersey sales in China. Simply think back to the first week of August.
In what was once a dead zone on the NBA calendar, LeBron James graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant led off Pardon the Interruption Aug. 4-5. Yes, the NBA now merits year-round discussion.
This was not mere accident or circumstance. This was the culmination of almost a quarter century of blending hip-hop, reality TV and international marketing into the NBA mix, three trends represented by Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson and Yao Ming. The trio helped take the NBA beyond the realm of basketball games and into the world of pop culture. Keyword: world.
All three players are internationally famous, as much on their own accord as from the groundwork laid by those who came before them. Shaq, Iverson and Yao became known for themselves as much as their game. The NBA emphasized stars in the eras of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, and they leveraged that platform into brands.
Shaq, Iverson and Yao went beyond branding; they helped make the league personality driven. They set the stage for the likes of LeBron and Stephen Curry. It's no longer just about how these guys play. It's about who they are and where they go.
Although Shaq's 1996 free agency didn't have the same buildup and crescendo as a live-televised "Decision," it was still big enough to overshadow the start of the Olympic Games in Atlanta and alter the NBA landscape. (And with three championships plus a fourth trip to the NBA Finals, Shaq's signing with the Los Angeles Lakers remains the most successful free-agency acquisition in sports history.)
And Shaq had all the movies, hip-hop albums and endorsements to go with it. He was the first basketball big man with a personality to match his jersey size. Before him, centers tended to run the gamut from aloof to arrogant. Then Shaq came along -- a gigantic goofball -- unafraid to let his guard down and make faces during interviews or break-dance on the court.
And whenever anyone questioned his ways or motives, he had a one-word response: "Marketing."
"For one, it was to prove to my college professor that big guys could sell," Shaq said. "And two, they was giving that money away, right and left. And three, it was an opportunity for me, young guy from the projects, medium-level juvenile delinquent to be on TV. It's a great feeling, to have your momma at the crib, seeing you on a commercial. Forget the game, but just seeing you in a commercial or a video ... that's why I did it."
During Thursday's Hall of Fame press conference alone, Shaq:
"I'm not sure there's a better ambassador," Izzo said later. "He's about everything. When you look at his police work, when you look at his basketball work, when you look at how he handles people ... I just love being around him."
Technically, Yao might be a better candidate for the title of ambassador. He did handle the pressure of being the first overall No. 1 NBA pick to come directly from a foreign country with grace. And he helped make China a profitable and productive place for everyone from Kobe Bryant to Stephon Marbury.
Yao had funny comments throughout his playing career, including his epic podium walk-off line to Ron Artest: "See you in the club." But he put the thoughtful side on display in the public portions of Thursday's activities. Yao gazed up through the atrium at the pictures of the game's greats near the top of the sphere-shaped Hall of Fame and said that for once, "I feel so small." It was a nice touch, and a good way to summarize what the moment meant to him.
But soon after, he couldn't help himself when Shaq was grumbling about the start to an ESPN roundtable discussion being held up because Iverson was running behind.
"He must have been at practice," Yao said.
Ahh, A.I. His fans will be happy to know he's still very much the Allen Iverson we remember, running behind and dressed informally, in shredded jeans and a Yankees cap. His willingness to embrace the role of antihero made him heroic to so many. He was proudly, even defiantly, hip-hop at a time when the genre was still entering the mainstream and sports culture on the heels of the Fab Five. We will miss him at the mic as much as we miss him on the court.
Even Doucette referred to Iverson as "a man who has changed the cultural aspects of basketball through the years."
I asked Iverson where that comfort with being himself came from. He thought for a long time. Then he gave an answer that was so good, so completely Iverson-esque, that we'll just close this column by running it in full. And when you're done, just remember that the NBA got to the place it is today in part because Iverson long ago reached this place within himself:
"I always looked at it, and I always felt like ... why isn't it cool being you? What's wrong with being you, with your flaws, with your mistakes, with the way you look, with your financial status, the way you talk? What's wrong with that? God gave you all of those things. That's how He wanted it to be. So why are you ashamed of it?
"Now, when it comes to basketball, yes, I wanted to be like Mike. Yes. Didn't everybody that played basketball, after he arrived? Everybody wanted to be like Mike. But I didn't want to be him, I didn't want to talk like him, I didn't want to dress like him. I felt that it was cool being who my mom loved, who [my coach] loved, who my sister loved, who my girl loved, who my children love. Like, that's cool to me. Now as a basketball player, I would rather be Michael Jordan status when it comes to basketball. I would trade that part in -- you know what it means. If I could have my choice, yeah, I would want to be Michael Jordan, basketball-wise.
"But it was never no problem with me being who I am and being the person that I am. Like, I love my daughters and my sons being who they are and feeling good and comfortable about who they are. I love my kids loving the fact that their daddy is their daddy. Now, they're at that age now where hey can read the newspaper, and they can read old articles and go to YouTube and look at old things that happened in my life. And I'm not ashamed. I'm not going to apologize for it. Those are mistakes that I made in my life, just like the mistakes that they're going to make in theirs. I won't judge 'em. I'll always love them for who they are.
"I was always just cool with who I am. Why not? That's disrespect to my mom and my dad, the people that raised me, for me to have a problem with me, trying to be somebody else that I'm not. I'm cool with the person they raised. I'm cool with that."