Everyone remembers their first love. I know I remember mine. He was 7 feet tall, weighed 325 pounds, and used to tear down basketball backboards. When Shaquille O'Neal announced that he was retiring this week, the highlights from the first half of his career that were shown on television brought back memories of when I first began watching the game of basketball. I remember first donning my Orlando-blue Shaq jersey around the age of seven and thinking that I was the coolest kid on the planet. His personality, smile, and playfulness attracted me as a boy much like Dwight Howard surely does for kids in 2011. By the time Shaq hit the West coast in 1996 and signed with the Lakers, I was all in. To me, Shaq could do no wrong. Much like someone in love, I found myself defending Shaq's flaws. "He doesn't need to hit free throws when he's beasting like that!" I would proclaim at the school lunch table. Convincing people of Shaq and the Lakers greatness seemed to become an everyday instinct much like shouting from the proverbial mountain top that you've officially found the love of your life. And it was easy. My favorite player was dominant, and our team was ripping championships out of the hands of Reggie Miller, Allen Iverson, and Jason Kidd while hanging the banners to prove it. But somewhere along the line I grew fonder of the Lakers team than I did just one player. This shift became more pronounced when the Shaq and Kobe Lakers from 1996-2004 'broke up.' And like all bad breakups, I had to pick a side. Shaq moved all the way across the country to Miami while my Fan-hood remained in Southern California with the Lakers. From there, I looked at Shaq with a new lens. From once defending his missteps, I found myself criticizing them. "Shaq's not what he once was....Shaq's chasing championships by teaming up with the best players...Shaq's a loser because he rapped about Kobe while drunk in a nightclub...Shaq's an attention whore." I barely noticed it at the time, but over the years and five teams later, my once passionate love for Shaq turned to hate. It wasn't until this past postseason when I saw him struggle to get up and down the court and get benched after just three minutes in game 4 of the Celtics/Heat series did those old feelings for Shaq show themselves in the form of sympathy. I honestly felt bad for the big fella. To see him in that state made me wish he had hung it up a few years ago and never clung to hope in Phoenix, Cleveland, or Boston. I could have gone without seeing the league's MVP from over a decade ago rocking a Celtics jersey while missing more games and dunks than ever before. We should have just been left with the memories of Shaquille showering in purple and gold confetti, collecting finals MVP trophies, and making centers in the 1990's and early 2000's look like stuffed animals under a Nerf hoop. But now that his career is said and done, I can let myself again embrace my old hero. And the proof of that came when I heard some Bozo the Clown caller claiming on local sports talk radio that Shaq wasn't a top 5 center of all-time. I found myself immediately dialing my phone to call in and defend him. I couldn't help it. Maybe one of these nights I'll try squeezing into that #32 Orlando jersey (youth medium) for nostalgia purposes and try to pass it off as a joke. Or maybe I'll play with the Lakers in NBA Live 2001 on the first PlayStation and tap L2 and the triangle button to throw it in the post. Realistically I'll probably just end up giving much props to Shaq for being one of the most dominant and entertaining players of my lifetime. And when I say much props, you know I mean much love.